Is Anti-Pollution Skincare Really THAT Important?


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While some get to bounce around in fresh country bumpkin air, not everyone has the luxury of crisp, clear blue skies. Whether we realize it or not, the reality is that a large percentage of us live in big cities where issues like pollution impact us. “We are all exposed to exhaust fumes and subway emissions,” says Dr. Ava Shamban, a board-certified dermatologist in Los Angeles. “Even the blue light from phones and computers [can] have a disastrous dermal effect on our skin.” Turns out, there’s a new category of skincare — “anti-pollution skincare” — that specifically targets these issues. To get the full DL on what sort of havoc pollution can cause for our dermis, and what we can do about it with over-the-counter potions, keep reading. 

How Does Pollution Affect Your Skin?

Skin is our largest organ and serves as a protective barrier between the outside world and our body. It’s forever on defense to help protect us against attacks from invaders, including the sun’s brutal UV rays and — you guessed it — environmental pollutants. Sometimes, though, it’s a bit too much for our dermis to handle, and so we begin to see the effects.  

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“[While] UV damage is the primary culprit, pollutants cause damage in a similar way,” explains Dr. Shamban. Specifically, they cause free radical damage (oxidation.)  Free radicals are unpaired oxygen atoms. Because these atoms prefer to be coupled up, they try desperately to find a new “partner” in order to become stabilized. When the level of free radicals exceeds our skin’s own natural defenses, it triggers oxidative stress on the skin cells. This causes a chain reaction that degrades our collagen and elastin (the stuff that makes baby cheeks so plump).  

Think about how rust takes time to show up on metal. It’s the same concept, only we’re talking about our dermis and instead of rust, we’re talking about fine lines and wrinkles, skin laxity, and dullness. Dr. Shamban says pollution can also have short-term effects, like rashes, redness, and inflammation. It may even worsen conditions such as eczema, acne, and even skin cancer. 

What is Anti-Pollution Skincare?

The goal of anti-pollutant skincare products is to serve as backup for your skin’s natural defenses. Dr. Shamban says these products are typically formulated with “intensive, highly-selective groupings of ingredients” to defend against the free radical damage that occurs at a deep level. They also contain ingredients that help seal the skin so it’s less penetrable to begin with.

Many anti-pollution skincare products are also formulated with SPF to shield our skin from the sun’s rays, as well as soothing ingredients to calm irritation and inflammation. Some products are marketed specifically as “anti-pollution,” but many other skincare products already have these noble qualities. When in doubt, look for antioxidants (which minimize free radical damage) and barrier-strengthening ingredients such as ceramides and peptides. And SPF — obvi. 

The Best Skincare Routine to Defend Against Pollution

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Eager to dive into a skincare regimen that shields your skin from pollution? Julie Lindh, an esthetician based in New York City, gives the full rundown.

In the Morning: Antioxidants, Barrier-Boosters, and SPF

Cleansing in the morning is up to you. Some prefer to wash, others prefer to simply rinse with water, and others dive right into their regimen. Do what’s best for your skin. For topicals, start with an antioxidant-rich toner and/or serum, and layer it with a moisturizing product that bolsters the barrier. Seal the deal with an SPF, which Lindh says, “serves as a great shield to bounce off the rays from the sun and a computer/mobile screen.” 

Some of our favorite anti-pollution skincare products include Paula’s Choice C15 Super Booster, $49, e.l.f. Beauty Shield Vitamin C Pollution Prevention Serum, $15, Dr. Barbara Sturm Anti-Pollution Drops, $50, cocokind Barrier Ceramide Serum, $20, EltaMD Barrier Renewal Complex, $37, and Supergoop! City Sunscreen Serum SPF 30, $42. 

At Night: Cleanse, Treat, and Moisturize

Washing your face is arguably the most important step of your routine. “[It removes] all that dirt, debris, and makeup that gets stuck in your pores that you don’t want to bring to bed,” says Lindh. “If you don’t want to have bumpy skin with clogged large pores, pimples, and premature aging, you have to cleanse the face thoroughly.”

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After patting dry, apply a skin care treatment such as an exfoliant or retinoid. Formulated with AHAs, BHAs, enzymes, or physical exfoliators, exfoliating products help remove dead skin cells that sit on the surface of your skin. Exfoliants can be alternated with retinoids, which help improve cell turnover to correct and protect. “Make sure to use stronger products that will continue to correct, repair the skin damage, and rejuvenate the cells,” advises Lindh. “I highly recommend adding a beauty device that stimulates circulations and promotes more oxygen in the skin tissues to keep the skin in constant repair mode. Follow up with a soothing moisturizer to hydrate your skin.

Hungry for more juicy skincare info? Check out the essential skincare products every routine needs.

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