Are Anti-Pollution Skincare Products Necessary?

Have you noticed an increase in pollution-fighting products in the skincare aisle?

Cosmetics companies now claim that it’s not just the sun that can seriously alter your complexion. In addition to UVA and UVB rays, the marketers behind these trendy beauty products say that air pollution is also to blame for accelerated aging.

There are hundreds of beauty brands jumping on the pollution protection bandwagon.

Data provided by Mintel reveals that between 2011 and 2013 there was a 40% rise in the number of beauty and personal care products launched carrying an anti-pollution promise, such as those containing important ingredients that will protect against environmental damage.

The idea that pollution isn’t great for our lungs is widely accepted. But, the popularity of these anti-pollution skincare products begs the question: How worried should we be?

What Kind of Pollution Could Be Affecting Our Skin?

In an interview with Teen Vogue, Dr. Mammone, the executive director of skin physiology and pharmacology for Clinique’s research and development team, affirms that ‘pollution’ isn’t just a catch-all phrase.

Instead, he points to airborne particulates—which are described as the tiny bits of floating gunk that make up smoke or diesel exhaust—as the culprit that causes damage to your complexion.

According to Dr. Mammone, these free-floating particulates carry toxins, which then end up sticking to your skin. Once there, he claims that particulates are responsible for breaking down collagen and increasing the free radicals on the surface of your skin. This results in dullness, wrinkles, and dark spots.

Airborne particulates aren’t the only cause of concern. When searching for information about the effects of pollution on your skin, we found a number of other articles listing ozone pollution as a top environmental offender.

Ground-level ozone occurs when UV light hits mono-nitrogen oxides (basically, combustion exhaust), and is suspected by some to be one of the primary causes of pollution-related skin damage. (Just to clarify, ozone in the stratosphere absorbs UV rays, and so is protective against skin cancer. But ground-level ozone is a different story.)

According to dermatologist Elizabeth Tanzi, MD, these gases stick to your skin, breaking down what’s called the barrier function—the waxy portion that keeps the moisture in.

Dr. Tanzi states that, by breaking down proteins and lipids, ozone pollution can lead to inflammation and sensitivity.

On a Scale From 1–10, How Concerned Should You Be About Pollution?

Teen Vogue’s article went on to say that air pollution is more problematic for those with oily skin because sebum behaves a lot like a lipid (fat), and “That oil essentially behaves as a breeding ground for the toxins in the air.”

The phrase “breeding ground” caught our attention as potentially inaccurate. After all, pollutants aren’t living organisms capable of independent thought, much less a nefarious agenda. And, aside from the hundreds of wire hangers that inexplicably appear in the back of your closet, there’s no proof that inanimate matter is able to multiply.

To understand the potential consequences that daily exposure to pollutants could have on your complexion, we wanted to ask someone outside of the beauty industry about the behavior of airborne particles and ground ozone gases.

We reached out to MarieJeanne deForet, a former environmental chemist with almost two decades of experience monitoring chemicals in the air, water, and soil—and what effects they can have. While the focus of her research was on a larger scale, MarieJeanne was skeptical that airborne particles could cause a significant level of damage to your skin.

“If you were exposed to these pollutants in a bubble, trapping particles next to your skin, there might be cause for concern,” she said. “However, when you’re walking around, the long-term effects to your epidermis are negligible.”

When asked specifically about some of the claims in Teen Vogue’s story, MarieJeanne said it was her opinion that the article was putting a marketing spin on science, “taking things that are true, and combining them in a way that gives a false impression—or, at the very least, is stretching it.”

Want to learn more? Check out Think that Clinical Study is Legit? 4 Steps for Identifying Fake Science.

That there’s no immediate need for panic was seconded by Dr. Gilly Munavalli, medical director of Dermatology, Laser & Vein Specialists of the Carolinas in Charlotte, N.C, in an interview with The New York Times. “Particulate matter, the tiny harmful particles in the air, attach to the skin as you go about your day. But it isn’t immediately damaging.”

While it sounds like there’s no reason to isolate yourself in a human-size hamster ball, we’re still left wondering if there’s any truth to the claims made by pollution-fighting beauty products. Are they just a clever marketing tactic, or can particulates in the air actually affect your complexion?

Can Certain Skincare Products Protect Your Skin From Pollution?

According to Debra Luftman, MD, a dermatologist, and member of the Simple Advisory Board, many of the claims that a product can protect your skin from pollution are just clever marketing. “There’s no such thing as anti-pollution ingredients per se,” she says.

We reached out to Dr. Tsippora Shainhouse, a board-certified dermatologist, for a second opinion on pollution-fighting beauty products.

According to Dr. Shainhouse, “Most of the claims on anti-pollution products that promise to ‘suck all of the pollution out of your pores’ may not be exactly accurate.”

So, does that mean pollution-fighting skincare is a scam?  Not entirely.

Dr. Shainhouse says that, while most particles cannot get deep into the skin due to their large size, some tiny, nano-particles probably can. More so, she says “There are skincare products that can help prevent some of the damage that environmental air pollution can wreak on the skin.”

3 Things to Look for in a Pollution-Fighting Beauty Product

Dr. Shainhouse says that the goal of any anti-pollution product should be three-fold. Look for a product that does the following:

  1. Remove surface dirt, grease, grime, soot – all of which can clog pores, potentially damage skin cells, and be physical irritants that can irritate the skin. Chronic irritation, even if it is low-grade, can lead to collagen degradation.
  2. Provide antioxidants to reduce inflammation and ‘sop up’ free radicals that get through, since these can cause damage to the skin's structural collagen and elastin. She suggests that you check ingredients labels for products with vitamin C, resveratrol, vitamin E, green tea, acai, coffee berry.
  3. Provide a barrier to keep aging and damaging pollutants from irritating and potentially getting into the skin.

With those guidelines in mind, let’s take a look at three of the anti-pollution products listed in popular e-magazines, starting with Vogue’s Is Pollution Aging Your Skin? 8 Products to Combat the Effects of Bad Air:

REN Flash Defence Anti-Pollution Mist ($38)

REN Flash Defence Anti-Pollution MistImage via Sephora

REN Flash Defence Anti-Pollution Mist is a fine mist that claims to form an invisible protective, breathable barrier to shield skin from the aging effects of pollution. Biosaccharide Gum forms a non-sticky, invisible protective barrier. Includes Zinc and Manganese Amino Acids to protect skin from free radicals.

Does it meet the three requirements? When compared to the three points outlined by Dr. Shainhouse, Ren’s Flash Defense Anti-Pollution Mist comes up a little short.

It doesn’t remove dirt and grime, nor does its label include any of the recommended antioxidant ingredients. However, it does claim to create a barrier and protect skin from free radicals.

Additionally, the spray-on formula can be applied throughout the day without disrupting your makeup.

Make’s Moonlight Primer ($55)

Make’s Moonlight Primer ​Image via Shop Spring

Make’s Moonlight Primer is a make-up primer that purports to block invisible radiation from computers and smartphones. Also contains a marine algae that claims to protect against free radicals, pollution, and heavy metals.

Does it meet the three requirements? This product claims that HEV (blue) light and Infrared (IR) light have been shown to penetrate the skin more deeply than the traditionally marketed UVA, UVB and UVC rays.

However, a perfunctory search shows that blue light is generally only considered a concern for your vision.

Further, there are no studies proving that IR light creates thermal damage. In fact, it’s used in many laser treatments (though in different frequencies than emitted by your computer screen.)

While it doesn’t cleanse, Make’s Moonlight Primer does form a barrier and claims to fight free radicals. Cons include that reapplication isn’t easy (the layer is applied under your makeup), and it doesn’t offer UV protection.

Dr. Jart+ Every Sun Day UV Sun Fluid ($34)

Dr. Jart+ Every Sun Day UV Sun Fluid​Image via Sephora

Dr. Jart+ Every Sun Day UV Sun Fluid is a broad-spectrum SPF 30 sunblock that claims to have the same electrical charge as dust particles in the air, therefore repelling them and creating a protective field.

Does it meet the three requirements? Again, there’s no cleansing here. However, Dr. Jart’s UV Sun Fluid does provide a barrier layer.

What about this product's claim to be a cation shield (which it calls cationic shield)? Turns out, it’s possible to design polymers with either attracting or repulsing electrical properties.

The product also contains seaweed water ‘to purify skin.’ (Seaweed is a known antioxidant.)

What We’ve Learned From Comparing Anti-Pollution Products

A quick recap: So far we’ve learned that particulates from pollution do stick to your skin during the day, but that they’re not immediately damaging. Also, most can be dislodged by gently cleansing your face in the evening.

While floating bits of gunk and free radicals don’t present an immediate danger, they can cause low-grade irritation which, over time, can degrade your existing collagen.

With that in mind, it’s not so easy to find a single product that cleanses, provides antioxidants, and creates a barrier. But not to worry, as that might be to your benefit.

The reason being that any product used to wash your face doesn’t spend all that long in contact with your skin, leaving any free radical-fighting goodies to go straight down the drain.

Because gentle cleansing is enough to remove any particles from the surface of your skin, those concerned with preventing cumulative skin damage due to free radicals and low-grade irritation should focus on products with high concentrations of antioxidants (to sop up free radicals) and products that create a physical barrier.

In Summer DIY Beauty Hacks: We Asked Medical Experts Which Skin Care Tips Are Safe, Dr. Shainhouse confirmed that green tea bags that have been briefly steeped, then chilled, provide soothing antioxidants to your undereye area. Why not just apply straight green tea to your whole face? Due to the limited concentration of EGCG in each brewed cup, you’d have to make your skin absorb four teaspoons of liquid to see any serious benefit.

Since we’re pretty sure that’s not possible, it's off to the product aisle to compare potions that pack a little more punch. Where to look?

Many toners are chock-full of antioxidants such as green tea and vitamin E. (Learn how to pick the right toner for your skin type.) You can also get a healthy dose of antioxidants from a serum, particularly those that include vitamin C.

What about a barrier? You might already have one in your makeup bag!

Silicon primers are like the Spanx of cosmetics, as they’re used to create a smooth base for makeup application. As a bonus, they also do a great job of protecting your skin from dust and particulates.

Some primers, such as Laura Mercier Hydrating Foundation Primer ($36) offer additional bells and whistles such as vitamins A, C, and E. If name brand primers are too spendy for your budget, you can also find drugstore copycats, such as Maybelline Master Prime for under ten bucks at your local Target or WalMart.

What Else Can You Do to Protect Your Skin From Pollution

At the end of the day, we can no more avoid particulates and ground ozone than we can the air, itself – but that doesn't mean our skin is at immediate risk. That being said, there are things you can do to help de-gunk your skin and reduce the accumulative effects of damage:

  • Wash your face twice a day. Even if surface dirt, grease, and grime particles are too big to infiltrate your pores, they can still cause irritation. Over time, that irritation will degrade the collagen in your skin, leading to accelerated aging.
  • Protect your skin with a barrier product. But, if you’ve already got a makeup primer on hand, there’s no need to make an additional purchase.
  • At night, apply a serum or moisturizer with antioxidants. Ingredients such as vitamin C, resveratrol, vitamin E, green tea, acai, coffee berry help to neutralize the free radicals that result from pollution, smoke, and ground ozone.

Want to learn more about how to protect and care for your skin? In the above clip, HighYa’s very own beauty expert, Olga Belous, walks us through her ten steps to good skin—starting with selecting the right cleanser that can help wash away most of those environmental culprits.

We’ve covered several products that claim to help protect your skin from the accumulated effects of pollutants, including Wakaya Perfection’s line of skincare and Beverly Hills MD Crepe Correcting Body Complex.

Main photo credit:

Autumn Yates

Autumn draws from a reporting background and years of experience working remotely, while living abroad, to focus on topics in travel, beauty, and online safety.