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Why We Need To Start Using Anti-Pollution Skincare

As well as anti-ageing and sun protection, you should factor air quality into your grooming routine

Pictures of Delhi always seem to be heavy with haze, as though the lens was covered in impenetrable dust. The Indian megatropolis is a standard example for unchecked air pollution. Construction, crop burning, coal-fired power stations and relentless traffic have created an average of 150 micrograms of pollution per cubic metre, according to The World Health Organization. The chief minister of Delhi went so far as to compare the city to a “gas chamber”.

And yet, all this said, it was in London, where the smog is considerably less noticeable, that levels of particulate matter exceeded the annual limit before January was out. London has, in fact, been living with illegal levels of pollution since 2010, far exceeding the emission levels of Madrid or New York. The UK capital may not have reached the headline-grabbing levels of Delhi, but the invisibly small particles that envelop its streets can penetrate the lungs and skin with greater ease.

Researchers at Queen Mary University in east London have found that even low levels of pollution are linked to changes in the structure of the heart. And a Chinese study published recently in the journal Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences revealed that cognitive ability declines as a result of exposure to pollution. Complications arising from oxidative stress, neuroinflammation and neurodegeneration are expected to become increasingly common in the next few decades if emissions trends continue on their current trajectory.

Alas, there is no quick fix. Many environmentalists are debating whether the issue is fixable at all. And while the following doesn’t offer a solution to the greater problem, any effort to mitigate the impact of particulate matter on our bodies is worthwhile. In this, the beauty industry is making great leaps. 

For years, the conversation around environmental aggressors was limited to protection from ultraviolet rays and the DNA damage they could cause. Now, we have polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds, heavy metals and nitrogen oxides to consider. “The vast number of chemicals and particulate matter present in air pollution makes the numerous chemical reactions occurring on the surface of the skin and in the soft tissues difficult to fully appreciate,” says aesthetic doctor Dr David Jack.

Given that the skin is a semi-permeable membrane (stuff comes out, stuff gets in), pollution can penetrate epidermal cells where it can trigger inflammatory conditions, acne, allergies and eczema. “Generally speaking, there will be a high level of oxidative stress at both the surface of the skin and in the deeper layers, where pigment cells are located,” says Dr Jack. “This can result in changes in pigmentation as well as abnormalities of cell division.” The combination of grime and oxidative stress can also affect the underlying structure of skin, resulting in a degradation of collagen and elastin.

To this end, antioxidants – scavengers of reactive oxygen and nitrogen species – are your best bet when it comes to negating the damage caused by pollutants. From Sisley’s plant-powered Hydra-Global Serum to Dr. Barbara Sturm’s Anti-Pollution Drops and ferulic acid-infused products, such as Dr Dennis Gross Ferulic + Retinol Wrinkle Recovery Overnight Serum, there are as many antioxidants on the market as there are pollutants in the air, many of them marketed as anti-ageing formulas. Natura Bissé is about to launch its Diamond Collection, a line of anti-pollution treatments designed to strengthen the skin’s natural barrier, prevent the adhesion of ambient particles to the skin and help to undo damage in deeper layers.

“At present, the scientific evidence is really just for antioxidants, such as vitamin C and E, retinol and AHAs,” says Dr Jack. “But it is likely that we will see many more products in the coming years directed at other aspects of air pollution on the skin.”

Dr Jack is not looking into a crystal ball so much as considering the influence of Asia and the Far East on Western markets. We are light years behind countries such as Korea, where brands are already developing anti-pollution products that protect against heavy-metal exposure and particulate matter of various sizes. According to market researchers at Mintel, 32 per cent of Chinese consumers say they would consider pollutants a primary concern. The same research revealed that 40 per cent of the country’s city dwellers already relied on cleaning facial masks, a statistic that has increased year on year.

Antioxidants aside, there is a lot to be said for the simplicity of a thorough cleansing. “I think two-stage cleansing at least twice a day is useful in combating the effects of pollution,” says Dr Jack. “First with a micellar cleanser, and then with an antioxidant, AHA-based cleanser.” Upping your cleansing game becomes doubly important if you’re stuck in traffic during the day or if you have the misfortune of relying on the Tube to get you from A to B.

There are, of course, myriad gadgets designed to offset pollution or help you to avoid high levels of particulate matter. Apps such as Flow by Plume Labs employ AI to provide real-time information about pollution levels in your immediate area. The company has also ventured into hardware and created a personal sensor that feeds back into the company’s larger data set, aimed at helping other members of your community.

Controlling indoor air has been made relatively easy with devices such as Dyson’s Pure Cool purifying fan, a design statement that the company claims can “remove 99.95 per cent of allergens and pollutants in the air, even those as small as 0.1 microns”. If you don’t trust the tech, you could always jump on the urban jungle bandwagon and turn your office space or home into a greenhouse. Studies conducted by Nasa, with assistance from the Associated Landscape Contractors of America, have identified 50 houseplants that remove indoor pollutants ranging from carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides to volatile organic compounds. Among these species are the areca palm, lady palm, philodendron and the humble dracaena. You could, of course, arrange them around your living space and ponder the fact that, unless something happens to curb rising levels of pollution, these plants may well outlive us. But, on a more jolly note, they will also make your surroundings more Instagrammable.

Anti-pollution essentials

  • 111Skin Rose Gold Brightening Facial Treatment Mask, 5 x 30ml

  • Natura Bissé The Cure Cream, 50ml

  • Grown Alchemist Gentle Gel Facial Cleanser - Geranium Leaf, Bergamot & Rose-Bud, 200ml

  • Dr. Barbara Sturm Anti-Pollution Drops, 30ml

  • Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Ferulic + Retinol Wrinkle Recovery Overnight Serum, 30ml

  • Dr. Jackson's 07 Face Wash, 200ml