Pin It

Blue light, air pollution, and UV rays: can anti-pollution products help?

‘Anti-pollutant’ is the latest buzzword in skincare, we explore what it means and whether products in this expanding category can actually help protect your skin

According to the World Health Organisation, nine out of 10 people breathe air containing high levels of air pollutants, including gases like carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, lead, particulate matter, and sulfur oxides, and this can dramatically impact the skin. How? Air pollutants produce free radicals (molecules that damage our DNA) in the air which attach to the skin’s surface, leaving the skin vulnerable, explains cosmetic dermatologist Dr Michele Green. As the level of free radical exposure increases, it breaks down the skin’s protective barrier, diminishing in the skin’s protective layer, and resulting in damage or oxidative stress, the imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants. According to Dr Joshua Zeichner , director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City: “There is mounting data showing that pollution contributes to premature ageing, including the development of lines and wrinkles.”

Danuta Mieloch, aesthetician and founder of Rescue Spa says that the first thing our skin is exposed to is air. “It acts as a protective layer for the entire body and it is our largest organ so it is the first organ to receive messages from the outside.” She says that when we are travelling in dry air, for example, it may make you feel parched, while if you’re somewhere cold and start to feel chilly, it’s due to the skin’s sensory function. Since exposure to pollution negatively impacts the skin it can show up in many ways from inflammation to acne.

Already, major brands have released products claiming to protect skin against pollutants in the air including Kiehl’s (the brand briefly sold an anti-pollution mask but it’s no longer available) and Drunk Elephant (their D-Bronzi™ Anti-Pollution Sunshine Drops are highly rated) using antioxidant ingredients, similar to how sunscreen protects your skin from UV rays. Or products such as cleansers attempt to remove the pollutants from your skin after you’ve been exposed.

However, high-end brands are really leading the way including Clarins’ anti-pollution cleansing cream and sunscreen and Chanel, which has multiple products targeting these issues. Thus, these products usually have a high price point. Other products and brands to look out for in this space include Dr Barbara Sturm’s anti-pollution drops and Oskia’s City Life products which are marketed as advanced anti-pollution skin nutrition. Other products not tailored specifically to anti-pollution will also separately tackle the effects, such as anti-acne creams.

It’s no wonder Hago has noticed an uptick in products that attempt to protect the skin and combat the impact of air pollution. “I first noticed this trend happening a few years ago, mostly coming from Asia and targeting heavily polluted cities, but as more people move to big cities the trend is becoming more global.” We are now seeing that around 90 per cent of the world’s population live in places where air pollution levels exceed limits set by the World Health Organisation. With rising pollution rates and growing conversations about climate rising, it’s no wonder we’re entering the era of anti-pollution skincare.

But air pollution isn’t limited to environmental causes. In fact, our blue light electronics and air conditioners can impact our skin and not just the surface but internally. “Quality of skincare is affected by both indoor and outdoor (air) pollution,” says Melissa Hago, VP, creative director of beauty at trend forecaster Fashion Snoops. According to her, these machines along with outdoor pollution are aggressors that can cause the loss of collagen, dark spots, and hyperpigmentation. 

“Antioxidants neutralise free radical damage caused by pollution while hydrating ingredients help maintain a healthy skin barrier. Mineral UV blockers both block ultraviolet light and form a protective seal to help physically block pollution from reaching the skin” – Dr Joshua Zeichner, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology

“Man-made air pollutants can also damage things like collagen, which is needed to keep skin looking healthy, resulting in premature ageing,” adds Charlotte Isaacs, head of make-up at The London School of Make-Up. This includes power plants, factories, and automobiles. According to her, pollutants can produce dryness, redness, dark spots, and some chemicals can even lead to cancer. Bad news for those living and working in areas with high pollution like city centres where smog and polluted air contain dangerous particles from heavy metals, tar, and gases. 

“The products on the market that are designed to protect the skin against the environment contain a combination of antioxidants, moisturising ingredients, and mineral UV blockers,” says Dr Zeichner. “Antioxidants neutralise free radical damage caused by pollution while hydrating ingredients help maintain a healthy skin barrier. Mineral UV blockers both block ultraviolet light and form a protective seal to help physically block pollution from reaching the skin.”

Yet Green says that “anti-pollutant” – as it pertains to over-the-counter-creams – is a loosely-used term that has little real scientific data to support the claims. Green explains that this category of skincare products is regulated by the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) and the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA) as they are not considered a drug. “If a cosmetic also falls into the drug category the manufacturer must submit an NDA (New Drug Application) with a complete ingredient list and studies to support any claims made.” Under FDA guidelines, a drug is considered a product that cures, treats, alleviates or prevents disease or affects the human body. “The FDA, at times, does issue warning letters to manufacturers whose products make such claims to cure etc or are misbranded without filing the necessary paperwork.”

While a 2014 study found that prolonged exposure to air pollution does have negative impacts on the skin and one from 2016 discovered that it can also contribute to the development of dark spots in Caucasian women, Green says that in order for a product to be considered an actual anti-pollutant, it has to undergo its own scientific testing and have tailored research to support the claims.

Still, there are certain ingredients in these products that have been researched and proven to fight free radical damage, like antioxidants which are essential to overall skin health. Ingredients like Vitamin C (boosts collagen and protects against sun damage), Vitamin A (can reverse the ageing processes through cell turnover), and Vitamin E (promotes skin healing) are all common ingredients. Others include CoQ-10, Resveratrol, Niacinamide, Polyphenols, Flavonoids, Glutathione, which all have skin health benefits. “These products aim, for the large part, to fight free radicals and block against common environmental damage like UVA/UVB rays, blue light, and smog,” says Hago.

Mieloch adds that she noticed anti-pollution products also started to gain traction when blue light exposure became more prominent as people are spending more time on their phones and computers. “The damage of the blue light is a real thing,” she says. “Even when we work from home, we are surrounded by radiation from our computers and phones.” As pollution rises in the cities and exposure to radiation and blue light from devices increases, Mieloch believes the trend of protecting your skin is here to stay. With awareness of the impact of pollution, Isaacs thinks more consumers will continue to look to protect their skin from pollutants. This will likely lead to more mainstream brands creating targeted anti-pollution products at a more affordable price for the mass market.

“Just using anti-pollution products is not enough, you really have to do your own research and have good skincare habits to begin with. As long as you are properly cleansing and restoring moisture to your skin, you are essentially protecting the skin” – Danuta Mieloch, aesthetician and founder of Rescue Spa

Hago sees this trend expanding to other categories beyond skincare. “We are starting to see make-up and haircare brands addressing pollution problems too. For example, Sachajuan’s anti-pollution shampoo and conditioner create a barrier against pollution build up on the scalp and hair. “There was a time when nobody focused on sun protection and now we cannot stress enough how important it is to wear SPF daily to protect the skin from the sun,” says Mieloch. According to her, simply following a good skincare regimen helps to protect your skin from environmental stressors and it doesn’t even necessarily have to be with products marketed towards anti-pollution. 

“Just using anti-pollution products is not enough, you really have to do your own research and have good skincare habits to begin with,” she says.“As long as you are properly cleansing and restoring moisture to your skin you are essentially protecting the skin.” Mieloch reiterates.  “It’s important to remember that the skin is a living organ that requires nutrition. I always think of our skin in terms of whatever the body needs, your skin needs. The skin can act as a direct reflection of your needs, whether it is hydration, protein, fat, etc. internally or topically.” Much like a well-balanced diet, Mieloch says one should keep their skincare approach comprehensive by layering different products to address all of the skins needs.