Pollution is waging war on your complexion, new research shows. But derms are ﬁnding ways to ﬁght back and win.
You can’t usually see it and you probably don’t feel it, but there’s a lot of junk ﬂoating in the air. As we’re now learning, it’s hitting our skin hard. In just the last few years, scientists have been studying the dermal effects of particulate matter, gases and other stealthy airborne attackers wafting around our cities, and it’s pretty clear these pollutants are ageing us.
One of the most convincing studies, conducted at the Leibniz Research Institute for Environmental Medicine in Germany, looked at how some 2,000 women had fared health-wise after 20 years of living with extragrimy air in their polluted region. “We found a strong association between pigmentation spots on their cheeks and high pollution levels,” says Dr Jean Krutmann, the institute’s director. Speciﬁcally, the women who were exposed to high levels of particulate matter, like soot and traffic pollution, had 20 percent more age spots and more pronounced wrinkles than those living in rural areas.
Since the publication of these ﬁndings in 2010, experts have learnt more about how pollution causes us to age. And what they have uncovered may motivate you to step up your skincare. The pollution-ageing connection Scientists from Olay, L’Oreal and other major beauty companies have also begun exploring the link between pollution and skin problems. exhaust and garbage incinerator smoke.
The pollution-ageing connection
Scientists from Olay, L’Oreal and other major beauty companies have also begun exploring the link between pollution and skin problems.
One Estee Lauder study, published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, showed that particulate matter (PM) causes oxidative stress in the skin, the result of damaging molecules like free radicals overwhelming your defence mechanisms and including DNA destruction, both of which can lead to premature signs of ageing.
As its name suggests, PM is minuscule dust or soot particles of metals, carbon and other compounds. Its sources include car exhaust and garbage incinerator smoke.
“We know that oxidative stress due to this pollutant directly damages skin’s underlying structure,” says Yevgeniy Krol, the scientiﬁc director for Skinceuticals. That’s mostly because the microscopic size of PMs enables them to easily penetrate skin.
It gets worse: “Your body responds to pollution by increasing the inﬂammatory response. Inﬂammation helps destroy the bad guys, but also everything around it, including the collagen and elastin that support your skin,” Yevgeniy says. “So it’s a double whammy.”
The filthy five
PM is just one of ﬁve types of air pollutants that trigger oxidative stress and age us. Another, surface ozone – also known as smog – is highly toxic, Yevgeniy says. Surface ozone forms when two of the other five key pollutants – volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxide – mix with another skin nemesis, ultraviolet (UV) rays. VOCs are chemicals released from car exhaust, paint and emission from industrial plants. Nitrogen dioxide gas is a by-product of burning fuel, such as from cars or factories.
Rounding out the notorious quintet are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons – chemicals found in smoke and, again, car exhaust.
As you stroll through traffic, various invisible particles can cling to and penetrate your skin. PM is typically measured at 2.5 to 10 microns, and pores are about 50 microns wide. It’s like having an open goal.
What happens then? Your stores of natural antioxidants will mobilise to neutralise the damaging molecules. But this drains your defence mechanism, leaving skin less equipped to ﬁght off other damage. This eventually leads to the oxidative stressinﬂammation one-two punch that Yevgeniy spoke of.
But that’s only part of the problem. Pollution triggers genetic changes, says Dr Wendy Roberts, a US dermatologist who has studied pollution’s impact on skin. PM causes cell functioning to go haywire, sending pigment-producing cells into overdrive.
Plus, PM from cars triggers an overproduction of enzymes that break down collagen and trigger peptides, leading to more pigment production.
Meanwhile, ozone, in particular, damages the skin’s surface. It attacks lipids and proteins that keep your complexion hydrated and your barrier function strong.
As a result, your face becomes drier, and the damage opens the door for airborne chemicals to enter. Throw in UV exposure, which makes PM more reactive, and the idea of living off the grid becomes appealing.
How to do damage control
Luckily, you don’t need to give up urban life to thwart pollution’s ageing effects. First, wash your face at night. PM accumulates on skin over the course of the day, and the longer it sits and the more it builds up, the worse its effect, Dr Roberts says.
Use a gentle, moisturising cleanser such as Clarins Extra-Comfort Cleansing Cream ($50, www.clarins.com.sg). Afterwards, apply a topical antioxidant, which will bolster your internal army of pollution ﬁghters. Look for those that contain ferulic acid or vitamin C, such as The Body Shop Drops of Light Pure Translucency Essence Lotion ($32.90).
Next, keep skin hydrated with a moisturiser containing niacinamide, which helps build skin’s pollution-blocking barrier, and vitamin E, which acts as a ﬁrst line of defence. Vichy Ideal White Sleeping Mask ($59, leading pharmacies) has both ingredients. At night, use products with resveratrol. “It activates your body’s own antioxidant system and builds up your stores,” Yevgeniy says. It’s in Skinceuticals Resveratrol B E Serum ($129, Derma Center).
Also, switch to a mineral-based sunscreen with zinc or titanium dioxide, such as Kiehl’s Dermatologist Solutions Ultra Light Daily UV Defense Mineral Sunscreen SPF 50 PA+++ ($72). It protects against UV rays, which can increase the damage that pollution does.
Wearing foundation and powder makeup helps too, because both add yet another layer of protection from pollution, Dr Roberts says. New products targeting contaminants also provide novel ways of blocking out bad stuff. For example, Shiseido Future Solution LX Total Protective Cream SPF 15 ($350, Tangs) contains invisible powders that trap pollution particles and stop them from adhering to skin.
Stick with this streamlined routine and you’ll see there’s nothing more gorgeous than skin that’s got its guard up.
"Ozone damages the skin’s surface. It attacks lipids and proteins that keep your complexion hydrated and your barrier function strong."