If you’ve gone over the fine print on some of your favorite beauty products recently, you may have noted “anti-pollution” as one of several touted benefits.
Or maybe you’ve started to notice anti-pollution skin care products cropping up at your favorite online beauty shops.
Either way, you might have wondered: Is pollution really harming my skin? And can anti-pollution skin care protect it?
We dug through the research and asked a few top-notch dermatologists to weigh in on this trending beauty term.
Like many of the world’s biggest beauty trends, the “anti-pollution skin care” wave began in Asia.
That may be because in some big Asian cities, like Beijing, the amount of air pollution
“It causes them to focus on this more than in countries that aren’t as challenged as much by pollutants,” says Dr. Bruce Robinson, FAAD, a board certified dermatologist in New York City and clinical professor of dermatology at Lenox Hill Hospital.
With climate change becoming a problem no matter where you live, we’re all a bit more aware of pollution these days.
But what does science actually say about the benefits of anti-pollution skin care?
How pollution harms the skin
Numerous studies have linked pollution to skin conditions including hives, acne, premature skin aging, and inflammatory skin conditions like eczema.
Pollutants pass through skin cell membranes and diffuse into the body, explains Dr. Adam Mamelak, a board certified dermatologist based in Austin, Texas.
“The uptake of pollutants by the skin has been reported as similar to the uptake after inhalation,” he explains. “That means similar levels of pollutants get into our body through the skin as they do through breathing in these noxious chemicals.”
According to Mamelak, normal metabolic processes and inflammation cause the body to produce free radicals. We naturally produce antioxidants to neutralize these free radicals before they cause damage.
“The body typically can maintain a balance between antioxidants and free radicals. However, external factors, such as pollution or ultraviolet (UV) radiation, can cause an imbalance,” says Dr. Kellie Reed, a board certified dermatologist at Westlake Dermatology in Austin, Texas.
This causes inflammation and impairs the skin barrier.
“More comprehensive studies need to be done, but overall, the symptoms of chronic inflammatory skin diseases such as acne and atopic dermatitis (eczema) seem exacerbated when people are exposed to high pollution levels,” says Reed.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lists the following as the main outdoor pollutants:
- nitrogen dioxide
- sulphur dioxide
- carbon monoxide
- particulate matter (PM)
- heavy metals
“Nitrogen oxide compounds interact with volatile organic compounds upon UV exposure and get activated to generate ground‐level ozone,” explains Mamelak.
Particulate matter leads to oxidative stress and inflammation
Polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are another pollutant mainly found in cigarette smoke that’s
It probably won’t surprise you that pollutants tend to be most problematic in big and densely populated cities, says Robinson.
Car emissions are a major culprit, contributing significantly to nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, and sulphur dioxide pollution, notes Mamelak.
How anti-pollution skin care protects the skin
Robinson says there’s not a lot of research to support anti-pollution skin care products, and most studies have been done by skin care companies.
“There is definitely some bias. However, many can show significant results in using their products,” says Mamelak.
What’s more, because the term “anti-pollution” isn’t regulated, says Mamelak, many skin care products can have anti-pollution effects without the “anti-pollution” label.
“To me, there’s nothing new in these. It’s marketing,” adds Robinson.
All the doctors we talked to agree that skin care products with anti-pollution benefits contain ingredients that protect the skin from all sources of damage, including environmental pollutants.
They work their magic in one of a few ways:
Antioxidants bind to free radicals before they can wreak havoc on skin cells, explain Robinson and Reed. Limited but promising research suggests they may battle pollution-linked skin damage.
A 2020 study funded by an American skin care company looking at human skin cells in the lab found that regularly applying a solution with vitamin C (l-ascorbic acid), vitamin E, and ferulic acid prevented pollution-induced damage.
Reed says the following antioxidants have been shown to be the most effective at protecting against skin damage from free radicals:
- vitamin C
- retinol (vitamin A)
- vitamin E
- coenzymeQ10 (CoQ10)
- ferulic acid
Regularly moisturizing strengthens the skin barrier to minimize the potential for air pollutants to penetrate skin cells and cause oxidative stress.
Robinson and Reed recommend:
- Ceramides. These are some of the most effective ingredients to help boost the skin’s barrier function, say Robinson and Reed.
- Hyaluronic acid. Also known as sodium hyaluronate just hyaluronate, it’s an important building block of skin. “It definitely helps to maintain moisture in the skin, thereby preserving the skin barrier,” says Robinson.
3. Physical UV blockers
UV light is like a smart bomb, entering the skin and exploding collagen and elastic fibers to cause wrinkles, saggy skin, and cellular DNA changes that increase cancer risk, explains Robinson.
But there’s another reason to protect your skin from the sun: Some pollutants are actually activated by UV light before they exert their detrimental effects, adds Mamelak.
A mineral sunscreen (look for titanium dioxide or zinc oxide) with an SPF 30 or greater provides a physical barrier to both UV rays and pollutants.
4. Probiotics and prebiotics
“Pollution has been shown to affect the skin’s microbiome, the bacteria and microorganisms that naturally live on the skin and contribute to skin health,” says Mamelak.
Microbiome skin care “can help restore the proper balance of microorganisms on the skin,” he adds.
5. Other less-proven ingredients
Malachite is touted as a pollution magnet that binds to heavy metals to decrease oxidative stress on skin, say experts. But Robinson says he hasn’t seen any big studies proving if and how heavy metals really do damage the skin.
“I don’t think there’s medical research to support these other items,” Robinson says.
“Many of these are proprietary ingredients that are studied prior to adding them to cosmetic products, and therefore hard to know exactly what they are and what is their mechanism of action,” says Mamelak.
A few tips to get the most out of your anti-pollution skin care product:
- Start with a gentle cleanser. Cleansing can reduce the particle load of pollutants on the skin, especially particulate matter, say Reed and Mamelak. Use a gentle cleanser: Harsh soaps strip skin of natural oils, compromising your skin barrier, says Reed.
- Then apply an anti-pollution product. Use an anti-pollution cream or serum once or twice a day after washing skin. If it’s a serum, apply before your moisturizer, suggests Robinson.
- Moisturize twice a day. “Ensure you have a strong skin barrier by hydrating your skin,” says Reed.
- Use sunscreen every day. A mineral sunscreen (with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide) should be the last step in your daily morning skin care routine, since it’s reflective and doesn’t need to get absorbed into the skin to work. A chemical sunscreen should go on first, says Robinson.
- Encourage skin regeneration. To repair existing skin damage, ask your dermatologist about a chemical peel. “They ultimately thicken skin so it’s more protective against environmental assaults,” says Robinson.
- Add exfoliation to your skin care routine. Alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) is a skin care ingredient sometimes used in chemical peels that helps to thicken skin over time to improve barrier function, says Robinson.
- Prioritize exercise, sleep, and healthy eating. These habits boost overall skin health by supporting its natural barrier function, says Robinson. “All of these increase metabolism and help eliminate toxins from the body,” says Mamelak.
There are many anti-pollution formulations, but experts suggest choosing a serum or cream.
“They stay on the skin and are a great way to deliver antioxidants and humectants to help prevent, repair, and restore,” says Mamelak.
Look for ceramides or hyaluronic acid plus antioxidants.
“If you’re already using a product with those ingredients, you’re probably getting all the protection you need,” says Robinson.
Pollution has been shown to increase the risk of wrinkles, acne, and eczema.
Skin care products with hydrating ingredients like ceramides and hyaluronic acid help build up your skin’s barrier function to protect against environmental assaults.
Antioxidants like vitamins C and E help prevent free radicals from damaging the skin. And a mineral sunscreen can physically block both UV rays and pollutants.
That said, you don’t have to choose a product specifically labeled as “anti-pollution” to reap pollution-protecting benefits.
“There’s nothing new in these products,” says Robinson. “It has become a catchphrase for products that already exist.”
Colleen de Bellefonds is a Paris-based health and wellness journalist with over a decade of experience regularly writing and editing for publications including WhatToExpect.com, Women’s Health, WebMD, Healthgrades.com, and CleanPlates.com. Find her on Twitter @ColleenCYNC.