That last one might seem a little odd or gimmicky, but as it happens, anti-pollution skin care has become a growing trend in the beauty industry. Brands like Kiehl’s and Drunk Elephant have released products that claim to protect skin against pollutants in the air.
Air pollution’s effects on our health have been studied for a long time. In terms of skin care, there is research that suggests pollution can lead to things like inflammation and premature aging, so the increasing popularity of anti-pollution beauty and skin care products isn’t a coincidence.
“Our skin impacts what we are [absorbing] into our body. We have to protect ourselves from the outer world,” Natalya Rachkova, an aesthetician and the co-founder of The Better Skin Co., told HuffPost. We already know what we’re supposed to eat and that we should exercise and drink water, she said, “but we also have to protect ourselves from our outer environment.”
We spoke to dermatologists to find out more about anti-pollution skin care, including what it really is and how it works to protect us.
Before we dive into what anti-pollution skin care is, it’s important to look at how pollution actually affects the skin.
According to Dr. Anne Chapas, a dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology in New York, air pollution contains a combination of tiny particles called particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide and chemicals like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
“The exact mechanism of how they cause skin aging is not clear, but it could include causing more oxidative damage, increasing skin inflammation, changing the skin microflora or activation of acyl hydrocarbon receptor pathways,” she said. “Whatever the mechanism, the result seems to be increased wrinkles and pigmentation.”
All those tiny particles can also penetrate and clog our pores, Dr. Devika Icecreamwala, a dermatologist based in Berkeley, California, told HuffPost. As a result, “We’re noticing how pollution [is] causing the skin to look really dull, uneven and even discolored,” she said.
Icecreamwala also said that prolonged exposure to pollutants in the air can contribute to a breakdown of collagen.
That’s where “anti-pollution skin care” comes in.
Anti-pollution skin care, then, is meant to “counteract the particulates in the air that lead to damaged skin,” Chapas said.
As Icecreamwala put it, the point of using anti-pollution skin care products is to “remove those tiny micro-particles from the pores so it’s not really clogging them anymore and also protect the skin from the pollution that can penetrate the deeper layers, because that pollution can actually break down collagen.”
The goal is to make a sort of barrier between your skin and pollutants in the air, she said.
How can we actually fight pollution with skin care products?
According to both Icecreamwala and Chapas, antioxidants, particularly vitamin C, play a big part in protecting our skin from the effects of pollution in the air. They both suggested incorporating a vitamin C serum into your daily skin care routine and recommended the same product: Skinceuticals C E Ferulic. (It’s pricey at $180, but even our own editor swears by it. If you’re looking for some other recommendations, we’ve got plenty.)
Chapas said that vitamin C and other antioxidants help block the formation of free radicals (unstable atoms that can damage cells and potentially lead to premature aging) and “pigment pathways.”
“Melanin blockers, such as niacinamide, are also helpful,” she said, adding, “It’s important to have an intact skin barrier by using moisturizers with ceramides and not over-treating the skin with retinol or acids.”
Along with topical products, Icecreamwala said that it’s important to include vitamin C and other antioxidants into our diets, as they’re “going to protect our skin and bodies from inflammation.” She also said she’s a fan of exfoliating agents, like salicylic and lactic acid, for taking off “the grime from the skin and [unclogging] the pores.”
Are certain people more prone to the effects of pollution on skin?
“The closer you live to the pollution, the more it affects you,” Chapas said, noting that, in her experience, “city dwellers seem to have more pollution-related skin damage than country dwellers.”
Icecreamwala agreed, noting that commuters ― especially those who walk to and from work or find themselves on hot, grimy subway platforms like those in New York ― might notice the effects of pollution on their skin more so than individuals who live in more suburban or rural communities.
Can we reverse any of the effects caused by pollution?
Prevention is really the first step to combating the effects of pollution, but Icecreamwala noted that using antioxidants, for example, can encourage the regeneration of collagen once it’s broken down. It should be noted that no product or ingredient is magic, however.
In Chapas’ opinion, laser treatments ”offer a faster and more effective way to combat skin pigmentation and damage, [and] give the skin a healthier and younger appearance.”
And, of course, you should always be wearing sunscreen, which helps prevent additional damage caused by the sun’s UVA and UVB rays. According to Icecreamwala, protecting your skin with sunscreen ― she prefers mineral sunscreens ― helps keep collagen from degrading as well.