Anti-pollution is the biggest thing in beauty now, but how exactly does environmental contamination affect skin, and how do new gen products actually work against them? Aileen Lalor breaks it all down.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Pollution is really harmful to health

Don’t just take our word for it. In 2014, the World Health Organization (WHO) dubbed pollution the “single biggest environmental health risk”. Air pollution produced by industry and cars – a mixture of particulate matter and free-radical-containing gases that damage the body and skin – is especially toxic. Those minuscule bits of soot and smoke that get inside lungs and pores cause inflammation, and have been associated with countless diseases and conditions, from asthma to lung cancer.

Your skin is almost always exposed to it

It’s an incontrovertible fact that air pollution makes skin age, increasing pigmentation, sensitivity and wrinkles, and causing dehydration. It also amplifies the damage done by UVA rays, so sunny, polluted cities are the worst. “The harmful effects of particulate matter are less known than other aggressors like UV rays and smoking,” says Dr Ivan Tan, medical director of Nu.Reflections Medical Aesthetics. “This makes them the silent killer because many people are not aware of the harm, and thus don’t take precautions.”

Singapore’s air is pretty clean (well, most of the time anyway)

According to WHO and National Environment Agency (NEA) stats, the concentration of harmful gases and particulate matter in our air is usually in the good or moderate range. In fact, thanks to government regulation, air here is getting cleaner. There are, however, those periods of haze when the concentration of pollutants in our air rapidly increases. In 2013 and 2015, there were a number of days where the PSI climbed above 400, and the NEA classified air quality as unhealthy or very unhealthy.

Which means you don’t need antipollution skincare all the time

Since our air is usually pretty clean, Dr Tan says it’s not absolutely necessary to use anti-pollution products. “However, more protection is always good,” he says. “It’s a good idea to wear them during the haze.” You can also add them into your routine if you’re travelling to a particularly polluted place, or if you have sensitive skin, as you’d be more susceptible to the effects of pollution. As with all new products, though, be cautious to avoid irritation.

Anti-pollution skincare is not new – there’s just more of it now

Clinique’s Super City range was introduced more than a decade ago, while Clarins has included an Anti-pollution Complex (with plant-based actives like moringa, white tea and succory dock-cress) to all its day creams and complexion products since 1991. Yet in the past five years, there’s been a upsurge in interest here – market research firm Mintel says that in Asia-Pacific, anti-pollution products are now considered mainstream. What’s spurring this demand: Asian cities like Beijing and New Delhi are some of the most polluted globally, putting the idea on our radar. There’s lifestyle and education too. “With the wellness trend gaining global traction over the last two years and the increasing awareness of the negative effects of pollution on skin, women are taking steps to prevent damage through the regular use of the right skincare products,” says Brenda Loke, marketing manager for Clarins. Skincare technology has also improved, and there’s more evidence that anti-pollution products work.

The new gen products tend to be a quadruple threat

Early anti-pollution products typically had antioxidants to counteract the harmful effects of free radicals. The latest ones – from facial spritz to makeup – retain those, but also include ingredients that stop particulates from sticking to skin. There are also products designed to strengthen the moisture barrier so that pollutants can’t penetrate, and cleansers to dissolve particulates that regular cleansers can’t touch – all without compromising one’s moisture barrier.