The threat of pollution is very real for our environment, but what about for our skin? Take a gander through any beauty department, and you’re likely to encounter the standard skin care products boasting SPF and anti-aging benefits. But you might also run across a few claiming to protect your skin against the effects of pollution.
Now, if there’s one thing we’ve learned about the beauty biz, it’s to thoroughly do your homework when it comes to product claims or trendy ingredients. Many times, brands use buzzy terms or concerns to score a few extra bucks. And while we’d never question the seriousness of pollution in any other setting, we had to know if the ozone-harming effect could also possibly be harming our skin barrier, too.
To get to the bottom of this, we chatted with two derms to see what they have to say about the reality of pollution and its effects on your skin.
Should you be worried about air pollution?
Quick answer: yes. “There is now mounting evidence that shows that ground level ozone, along with environmental and urban pollution, can cause damage,” explains Dr. Rachel Nazarian, FAAD, of Mount Sinai Dept. of Dermatology and Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York.
Just as we should worry about sun protection, we should, in fact, be concerned about pollution in many forms—smog, chemical byproducts, particles, smoke, and more. “It’s not only sunlight that can cause cumulative damage to skin; studies have shown that microscopic amounts of pollutants and smoke from urban settings, including construction sites, cars, and industrial emissions can age skin prematurely,” she adds.
And although anyone can see the unwanted results of pollution, experts caution that those in urban settings are more likely to suffer from its effects. “A pivotal study done in dermatology compared those living in rural environments to those in urban environments, and showed significantly more skin damage in those living in polluted urban environments,” Dr. Nazarian says.
What does air pollution lead to?
So, what does this mean to you? Well, basically it means all that grime and gunk in the air can cause free radicals to damage parts of your skin such as collagen and elastin—aka the building blocks of youthful, resilient skin. It’s when those break down that the signs of aging can occur.
Other physical signs of aging that can be triggered by pollution are fine lines, wrinkles, crepe-y skin, and even hyperpigmentation and dark spots, says Dr. Joshua Zeichner, Director of Cosmetic and Clinical Research, Department of Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.
But it’s not just aging skin that can be an unwelcome result of pollution. Dr. Zeichner says that pollution damage might also be associated with acne breakouts and an increase in oil production, as free radicals deep within the skin promote inflammation.
And sadly, that’s not all. According to Dr. Nazarian, in addition to increased inflammation and DNA mutation (which can cause signs of aging), free radical damage can initiate the pathway to skin cancer. And some cities, such as Tokyo, London, and New York, are also linking pollution to deeper health problems, such as lung and heart disease, she adds.
So yeah, pollution care is no joking matter.
If you feel like the pollution craze popped up out of nowhere, you're not alone. However, Dr. Zeichner says that the negative results of it have always been a concern for the pros.
“As dermatologists, we’ve all noticed the anecdotal evidence with our patients, but we didn’t have substantial clinical research until recently,” Dr. Nazarian explains. She says now that long-term studies on the matter have been completed, the findings support the theory that cumulative free-radical damage from pollution can cause skin aging and cellular damage. So although pollution protection might seem like a trendy topic to plaster on products, it’s actually one that derms have been aware of for years!
How can you prevent it?
Thankfully, just as UV rays can be guarded against, pollution can as well. There are a number of products that boast pollution-guarding ingredients. And oftentimes, they’re packaged with UV-blocking products so you can fight two skincare saboteurs with one mega-product.
When strolling through the beauty aisle, there are a few things you can look for when hunting for a pollution blocker. Dr. Nazarian explains some products form a thin polymeric film or “shield” against the external environment to physically protect the skin.
Other pollution-fighting products use a cocktail of antioxidants and free radical-neutralizing ingredients to combat the damage from pollution. When it comes to specific ingredients, Dr. Zeichner says to look for antioxidants like vitamin C and vitamin E, while Dr. Nazarian adds that grape seed extract and turmeric are other viable ingredient contenders.
What do the derms recommend?
Ready to shop? Products such as Sente’s Pollution Shield SPF 46 sunscreen and La Prairie’s White Caviar Illuminating Pearl Infusion both contain physical barriers against small particle pollution and antioxidants to help battle free radicals, Dr. Nazarian says.
Dr. Zeichner recommends a cleansing device (like your Clarisonic!) to keep skin protected. “There's data showing that sonic cleansing devices are more effective than watching your face by hand in removing particulate matter from pollution,” he says.
Both our experts note that washing your skin is more important than you know. Rinsing off any remaining particles that could be lingering on your skin, clinging to sweat, oils, and makeup throughout the day and while you sleep, is crucial for skin health. As with SPF, your face isn’t the only thing susceptible to harm. All of your skin should be cleansed properly and guarded against pollutants.
“After washing, make sure to apply moisturizer to help repair the skin barrier,” Dr. Zeichner says. He likes Vaseline Intensive Care Advanced Repair Lotion with triple purified petrolatum to help form a protective seal over the surface of the skin.
So although we can’t stay indoors and avoid sunlight and pollution day in and out (the adventures of life call!), it’s comforting to know that we can fight the good fight, one product at a time.