Early one April morning this year, environmental activists climbed Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square to put a gas mask on the celebrated admiral’s face. It was a stunt designed to draw attention not only to the degradation of London’s air quality – and the damage caused to statues – but also to the harm that pollution is doing to our skin and internal organs.
Today the skin of city dwellers is under attack, not just from the effects of a stronger sun but as a result of increased air pollution. “Until recently, excessive sun exposure was thought to be the main environmental hazard leading to premature skin ageing,” says Dr Stefanie Williams, medical director at London skin clinic Eudelo. “But more and more studies are revealing that urban pollution is just as harmful, leading to increased wrinkling, loss of elasticity and irregular pigmentation.”
In 2014, for example, a presentation by air quality scientist Dr David Carslaw at King’s College London revealed that concentrations of nitrogen dioxide – one of the main traffic-related pollutants – recorded on London’s Oxford Street in 2013 had reached more than 10 times the EU annual mean limit. And in May this year, the World Health Organization (WHO), drawing on its urban air quality database, announced that 80 per cent of the world’s population living in urban areas is exposed to air quality that falls well short of WHO guidelines.
“Pollution exerts powerful effects, even on the genetic level in some species,” explains Dr David Colbert of the New York Dermatology Group and creator of the skincare line Colbert MD. “A simple example of the power of pollution is how, during the industrial revolution, white moths in London eventually turned into black spotted moths.” Dr Rachael Eckel, a cosmetic dermatologist working with the American company ZO Skin Health, agrees: “Doctors are seeing the problems of pollution first manifested in ageing of the skin, which also serves as an indicator of the internal health of the patient.”
In 2014, skincare brand Olay, working with Dr Wei Liu, head of the dermatology department at the General Hospital of the Air Force in Beijing, conducted a study looking at two groups of 100 local women aged between 30 and 45. “One test group had lived in the city centre for at least 10 years with continuous exposure to terribly high air pollution, and the other had lived for the same period of time in the Beijing suburbs, which has significantly less pollution,” says Olay’s principal scientist Dr Frauke Neuser. “What we found is that the women in the city centre had drier skin and a weaker skin barrier” – factors that have an impact on the ageing process.
The study looked at the effects on the skin of particulate matter present in polluted air with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometres (PM2.5). “PM2.5 itself is too big to penetrate the dermis,” says Neuser, “but hundreds of chemicals can be attached to just one PM2.5 particle. It can have a cocktail of over 200 chemicals attached, from polyaromatic hydrocarbons to pesticides and heavy metals, and these chemicals are small enough to penetrate the skin at a cellular level.” This in turn initiates an eruption of free radicals – unstable molecules with one or more unpaired electrons, which damage healthy cells and multiply. This can have a negative effect on the skin’s collagen, elastin and DNA, causing lines, wrinkles, sagging, dull skin and dark spots.
Though we tend to think of anti-pollution beauty as an Asian phenomenon, Vivienne Rudd, director of insight and innovation at market intelligence agency Mintel, points out that “there has been a lot of work on anti-pollution product development in Europe. Huge strides are being made both in terms of the formulation and marketing of anti-pollution skincare in the west – and it’s only going to increase in the coming years.” Mintel has coined the label “toxic avengers” to describe this plethora of new products being launched to tackle pollution and the problems it causes.
“Over the past five years the number of brands offering solutions to protect skin from pollution has risen and evolved,” says Heather Alexander, managing director of the British beauty retailer Space NK. “We anticipate the innovation will continue – particularly as the Mayor of London announced that air quality alerts will be introduced across the capital during the worst incidents of air pollution, which will increase awareness of the problem.”
A new range from Origins, produced in collaboration with the integrative medical expert Dr Andrew Weil, aims to provide post-cleansing protection. Its Mega-Defense Barrier-Boosting Essence Oil (£39 for 30ml) is applied at night and helps to boost the skin’s moisture barrier; the Mega-Defense Advanced Daily UV Defender SPF45 (£30 for 30ml), which contains extract of Opuntia cactus, is applied the next morning to help combat free radicals and protect against UVA/UVB rays.
Among the brands focusing on antioxidants in the fight against pollution-led free-radical damage, Colbert MD Retensify Firming Cream (£175 for 50ml) contains goji berry to strengthen the skin’s barrier function, as well as the potent antioxidant vitamin C. Olay’s Total Effects 7-in-1 Featherweight Moisturiser SPF15 (£14.99 for 50ml) includes niacinamide, a vitamin B3 antioxidant, to strengthen the skin’s barrier and help reduce damage from UV rays. Elizabeth Arden’s new Prevage City Smart SPF50 Hydrating Shield (£55 for 40ml) features a blend of antioxidants including idebenone, which the company describes as “the single most powerful antioxidant”.
Chanel’s anti-pollution offering is its moisturiser La Solution 10 de Chanel (£58 for 30ml), developed in consultation with the New York dermatologist Dr Amy Wechsler, of which a key ingredient is the antioxidant-rich silver needle tea extract. When the company tested the product on a group of 72 women in Beijing, 79 per cent reported that their skin appeared less affected by pollution after using the moisturiser for a month. Decléor’s new Hydra Floral Anti-Pollution range (from £40) combines neroli oil, Moringa oleifera to protect against pollution and free radicals, and plant glycerine for its anti-inflammatory properties.
The French pharmacy brand La Roche-Posay uses retinol in an “anti-adhesion” formula to stop pollutant particles sticking to the skin. According to the company’s head of scientific direction Dr Dominique Moyal, its Redermic R Corrective UV SPF30 (£29.50 for 40ml) can have a corrective effect on surface skin damage. “The keratolytic [exfoliating] effect stimulates cellular renewal, which helps to improve the skin’s barrier, tone and pigmentation.”
Anti-pollution skin sprays and spritzes containing antioxidants offer another level of protection. Recent launches include REN Flash Defence Anti-Pollution Mist (£24 for 60ml), NIOD Superoxide Dismutase Saccharide Mist (£34 for 240ml) and Allies of Skin Molecular Saviour Toner Mist (£38 for 50ml), the latter formulated with a cocktail of antioxidants and rosewater to cling to the skin.
In polluted areas, skin needs more cleansing care at night too. Dr Tom Mammone of Clinique recommends using its City Block Purifying Charcoal Clay Mask + Scrub (£29 for 100ml), containing bamboo charcoal and kaolin, to help remove surface dirt and pollutive impurites once or twice a week. The mask turns light blue about five minutes after application, when it should be rinsed off with warm water using gentle massaging motions. Kiehl’s suggests using its Cilantro & Orange Extract Pollutant Defending Masque (£28 for 75ml) three times a week.
Margo Marrone, pharmacist, homeopath and co-founder of The Organic Pharmacy, advises using an oil-based cleanser (Carrot Butter Cleanser, £39.95 for 75ml, is her bestselling product). “The skin produces oily sebum all day long, which helps to protect skin from pollution like a shield,” she says. “Mix oil with oil and it will trap the dirt and thoroughly remove it.” The acupuncturist, aromatherapist and holistic facialist Annee de Mamiel’s three-pronged Atmosphériques pollution-proof skincare range starts with Pure Calm Cleansing Dew (£50 for 100ml), a cleansing oil used to calm the skin and reduce free radical damage; its delicious scent of calendula, comfrey, frankincense and lavender should further soothe stressed urbanites. Vichy’s anti-pollution Pureté Thermale cleansing range (from £6), launched last year, boasts five types of cleanser, from a gel to a scrub, all geared towards the removal of make-up and air pollution particles.
Other products aim to reverse the damaging effects of pollution. According to Mammone, “One aspect that Clinique has studied in depth is uneven skin tone caused by pollution. In the 1990s, when we launched City Block, it was mainly to protect against sun exposure, but other factors such as cigarette smoke and car exhausts were also on our agenda to research. In the past five years we’ve focused on the fact that pollution has damaging effects similar to sun exposure, and this year we launched Even Better Clinical Dark Spot Corrector & Optimizer [£60 for 100ml], a serum, to help address this issue.”
Pollution is not, however, just an outdoor problem. “High‑energy visible light from the screens that surround our daily lives can penetrate the skin, causing oxidative stress and free radical attack,” says de Mamiel. And according to research by the British technology company Dyson, cleaning materials, cooking fumes, pollen and dust can contribute to making the air inside the home up to five times more polluted than the air outside. Dyson claims its Pure Cool Link air purifier (£449.99) will remove 99.95 per cent of allergens and pollutants that attack the skin.
There are salon treatments, too, to combat the ills of air pollution. Harley Street’s Queen of Peels Dr Penelope Tympanidis of Dermaperfect believes, “Pollution particles attach to dead skin cells and are very hard to remove with just cleansing; you need a peel,” and will mix one bespoke (£180 for an initial consultation). Dr Jules Nabet’s 90-minute City Skin Buster Treatment (£220 for 90 mins) incorporates a facial and a 40 per cent mandelic acid peel to deep-cleanse skin. And Spanish skincare line Natura Bissé’s sensitivity to the problems of pollution are such that it has developed a portable treatment tent-cum-pod, the Bubble Pure Air, which filters out pollutants and allergens so that facials (from £100 for 60 mins) can be conducted in an environment where the air is 99.995 per cent pure. There are currently only two such pods in the UK, but pollutants on the attack should beware – skincare’s vast new array of “toxic avengers” are ready to fight back.