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Pollution can wreak havoc on your skin. Here's how to safeguard against it

Image: Pexels
Image: Pexels

There’s no getting away from it, pollution may be imperceptible in the air, but countless studies are showing the effect it’s having on our skin is far from invisible. In fact, the director-general of the World Health Organisation has described air pollution as "one of the most pernicious threats to global public health" and alongside sun exposure, pollution has been identified as the main cause of premature ageing, increased skin sensitivity and lack of radiance.

Just this week, London's major, Sadiq Khan, issued a high pollution warning in the capital after a build-up of global and local emissions saw pollution particles in the air spike. It's bad news for our health, of course, and it's bad news for our skin.

“According to a study in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, exposure to air and particle pollution significantly correlates to an increase in signs of skin ageing,” says Sally Penford, director of education at Dermalogica. In practice, pollution infiltrating our skin is responsible for redness, dullness and fine lines. “The scary thing about pollution is most pollution particles are 20-40 times smaller than our pores so it is very easy for them to settle deep down in our skin and wreak havoc on our skin health,” says Dr Dendy Engelman, Elizabeth Arden Consulting Dermatologist.

So what can we do to shield our skin from pollution and what are the best products to use? We asked the experts below.

What is pollution?

“The world ‘pollution’ rather gives the impression that it’s one monster that we’re fighting but there are masses of types of pollution, each of which has a different effect on our skin,” says Georgie Cleeve, founder of skincare brand Oskia.

“For example, the ones that we come across on a daily basis and that do the worst damage to the skin, are pM (or particulate matter), which are tiny pieces of metal under 0.2mg that due to their tiny size, penetrate through the skin pores into the lower layers and cause inflammation and DNA and cellular damage.

"We then have four different types of free-radicals, (more on those below) mostly caused by industry. We also have man-made ozone which attacks skin cells in a similar way to free radicals,” she adds.

How does pollution affect our skin?

“The microscopic contaminants in air pollution, help to produce (the aforementioned) ‘free radicals,’” explains Sally. “Think of these as angry little PacMan characters that bounce around, destroying and damaging essential elements in your skin,” says David Delport Global Ambassador at REN Clean Skincare. “This can cause damage to your collagen, elastin (skin proteins) and lipids (the glue that holds it all together). The result in extreme cases is a broken or compromised skin barrier which manifests as redness, itchiness, flakiness, dryness and dehydration,” he adds.

“When healthy, the skin is a pretty efficient filter of what’s good versus what’s bad,” explains Sally, but when compromised, it’s not able to retain moisture and keep out dirt and other impurities,” she says. “Bacteria can find its way in,” agrees David, which causes even more problems. “Some clients are allergic to pollution particles from the onset, while others might just find their skin looks a little more grey than usual, with an increase in congestion and blackheads.”

Added to this, “there is a clear correlation between exposure to high levels of ambient particulate matter [in pollution] and extrinsic signs of skin ageing including hyperpigmentation on the face and cheeks,” reveals Dr Dendy.

Is pollution worse in the city than the countryside?

“Sadly, it can affect us everywhere and in unexpected places,” says David. If you’re lucky enough to live in a little village, those quaint narrow streets can act as concentrating funnels for car fumes. If you live within 100 meters of a busy road, chances are you’ll develop more pigmentation because levels of pollution in these areas can be as high as London,” he adds.

If you’re interested to know how much pollution you’re coming into contact with personally, Dermalogica has designed a widget that works out your pollution levels based on your location. But, the bottom line is, “protection is pretty much essential everywhere, especially when exposed to car fumes and industrial pollution,” says David.

What are the steps we can take to tackle the effects of pollution on our skin?

Firstly, “limit exposure,” says David, “(choose smaller, less busy roads to walk on). Next, “cleanse, double cleanse or even triple cleanse at night to remove daily pollution," says Sue Nabi, founder of bio-fermented skincare brand, Orveda.

Consultant dermatologist, Dr Sandeep Cliff, agrees; "I advise my patients to double cleanse with a powerful acid cleanser to neutralise any particles in the skin,” he says. “Follow with an exfoliant in your evening regimen,” says Sally, “to detoxify pores and prevent the adherence of pollutants to skin.” Then, "layer your skincare (a serum, a fluid and a daily moisturiser) to create layers of protection that will keep small particles on top of the skin and will protect from makeup penetration,” explains Sue.

Finally, block, shield and counteract against pollution with active products,” says David. “Antioxidants, help strengthen the skin and neutralise the primary triggers of skin ageing,” says Sally. How? If we think about our cell membranes as a zipper, free radicals unzip the zipper and cause the cell to die,” explains Dr Dendy. “Antioxidants insert themselves into the zipper (or the cell membrane) and stop that unzipping. That is how they protect cells from premature cell death and accelerated damage.”

“Always look for products that are formulated purely for pollution protection and that have been clinically proven to do so,” adds Georgie. “Antioxidants are very volatile and can become pro-oxidant very easily,” so make sure you're choosing brands that have done the research.

If your skin is very sensitive, "polyhydroxy acids, or PHAs, are also known to deliver antioxidant benefits without irritation," explains Dr Cliff. "PHAs help to neutralise the visible ageing effects of environmental stressors including pollution."

Aside from skincare another clever way of preventing pollution-related damage is to invest in an air purification device, like the Dyson Pure Cool purifying fan, which is able to reveal the indoor pollution you can’t see with an LCD display that reports on the pollutants in the home in real time, it then reacts automatically using a unique algorithm. The clever device then uses its in-built filter system, which combines an activated carbon filter to remove gases, and a Glass HEPA filter that captures 99.95% of microscopic allergens and pollutants as small as 0.1 microns, meaning you can relax in the knowledge that the air around you is clean.

This article was originally published on Glamour UK.

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