City Proof Your Skin

City Proof Your Skin

Faced with plummeting air quality in urban areas, beauty brands have stepped up with a new crop of anti-pollution formulas designed to let your skin breathe a sigh of relief

Just eight days into 2016,  London had breached its legal air pollution limits. Not for the month, but for the entire year.  It’s news that sent the capital’s beauty editors choking into their green juices. Not just because pollution is seriously bad news for our lungs but because the latest research proves it has  dire consequences for our complexions too.

‘There’s now sufficient evidence that people who are exposed to pollutants age faster than those who aren’t,’ says  Dr Marko Lens, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon and founder of Zelens skincare. But it’s not just lines and wrinkles  we need to worry about. ‘Skin exposed to pollutants looks more congested and has reduced luminosity. I can definitely notice the difference between my clients living in urban areas and those living in the country.’

So, aside from donning protective headgear, what exactly can we city dwellers do? The answer may lie in one of the many new anti-pollution skincare formulas currently flooding onto department store shelves. ‘The way pollution affects skin hasn’t really changed in the last five years,’ says Mouna Ghoul, Scientific Communication Manager at Shiseido. ‘The pollutants are essentially the same but the products and actives created to face them have evolved, becoming more sophisticated as pollutants  are more documented.’

Whereas before, pollution  was regarded as one blanket concern to be blitzed with an arsenal of antioxidants, now, armed with new scientific insight, the product formulators are targeting each of the different types of airborne pollution individually, for a more multi-faceted approach. From oxides, attributed to increased free radical activity and skin sensitivity, to vitamin C-depleting ozone, skin-drying volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons that increase inflammation – the root cause of ageing – a new 360-degree approach is emerging.

While traditional antioxidants are still very much present, these new wave products have progressed in texture and function to create a literal shield against smog and toxic particles – enter REN’s Flash Defense Anti-Pollution Mist, £24, made with a sugar-derived gum which forms a non-sticky, invisible protective ‘force-field’ on the skin. Meanwhile Shiseido has developed its ‘Hybrid Anti-Pollution Powder’, found in Future Solution LX Universal Defense SPF 50, £65, which effectively traps pollution particles before they can penetrate skin.

Of all the five types of pollution, one in particular may prove especially worrisome for our complexions. Particulate matter, or PM2.5 as it’s often referred to, describes the microscopic toxic particles expelled via exhaust fumes  and factories and absorbed directly into our skin, contributing to a plethora of problems from pigmentation and dark spots to wrinkles – in short, a miniature horror story for skin cells.

‘In my opinion it’s the most worrying type as the size of the particles is so small, smaller than our pores even, that it can simply pass straight through the epidermis and travel deep into the lower layers, where cosmetic products cannot penetrate,’ explains Gerwyn Powell, Head of Kiehl’s Education, UK.

To counter this, Kiehl’s has developed the Cilantro & Orange Extract Pollutant Defending Masque, £28, which contains, alongside a cocktail of skin-strengthening antioxidants, a special ‘anti-cohesion filter’ to prevent PM2.5 particles from adhering to the skin.

Besides these off-the-shelf innovations, what can we learn from countries already battling apocalyptic levels of air pollution? ‘I grew up in Hong Kong, with frequent trips to Japan, Singapore and Korea from a very young age,’ says Ada Ooi, an aromatherapist, beauty therapist and founder of 001 Skincare. ‘When you grow up in a developed city in these countries you are, by default, accepting pollution as part of the deal, and that’s reflected in the skincare market. In particular there are more types of cleansers and the cleansing ritual itself is sometimes three to four steps,  as opposed to the usual one-  or two-step cleanse that’s recommended here in the UK.’

While, admittedly, a four-step cleanse sounds a little excessive, this more thorough, eastern approach – performing a ‘double detox’ cleanse first with an oil-based cleanser, then using a gentle water-based solution – is pretty much standard in Asia. Korean brand Erborian even advocate a third deep-cleansing exfoliation step once a week  to further purify the skin.

It’s true, ditching the humble face wipe could go a long way towards tackling pollution’s toxic build-up on a daily basis, but  by doubling up with the latest anti-pollution formulas to bolster our skin’s own internal resilience, we all stand a much better chance of squaring up to pollution, and winning.

Pollution fighting skin saviours



Kiehl’s Cilantro & Orange Extract Pollutant Defending Masque, £28
Replenishes pollution-ravaged skin with natural antioxidants, while  a unique anti-cohesion filter blocks toxic matter.



RMK Barrier Treatment Essence, £55 
Contains GABA, a natural amino acid, that reinforces the skin’s own internal defence mechanisms.

Givenchy Vax’in for Youth City Skin Solution Youth Protecting Water, £29 Made with hyaluronic acid to rehydrate parched complexions, plus AHAs to resurface and remove toxic build up.

REN Flash  Defence Anti-Pollution Mist, £24 A dual-action detoxifier packed with antioxidants that creates an invisible protective layer over the face

Shiseido Future Solution LX Universal Defense, £65 This SPF 50 formula blocks harmful UV rays and contains an anti-pollution powder to form a shield against toxic matter.

Origins By All Greens Foaming Deep Cleansing Mask, £32 (available April)  This spirulina, spinach, green tea and kaolin clay blend is proven to cleanse the skin of PM2.5 particles.

  • Words: Bella Binns