We think of air pollution as being a problem of smog bound Asian cities. But a 2018 WHO report showed that particulate matter air pollution exceeds health limits in the UK too, not just in London but York, Leeds, Leicester, Leamington Spa and many other towns. As for nitrogen oxides (which come principally from car exhausts), some streets in London have exceeded their annual safe limits by the end of the first month of 20181.
The effect of air pollution on lungs is very well known. What’s less well known is the strength of the scientific evidence supporting the effect of air pollution on skin. It is now clear that pollution is an important cause of skin ageing and damage. So how best to protect the skin? We talked with Dr Justine Kluk, a consultant dermatologist at St George’s Hospital Medical School. She also has a private practice in Harley Street where she specialises in acne, acne scarring and the problems of sensitive skin, which is particularly affected by pollution.
How significant is pollution for the skin and how does it cause damage?
The World Health Organisation has shown that today’s ambient air pollution (the pollution in the air around us) is double their previous estimates. Globally air pollution causes 3.7 million deaths. The skin is the outermost barrier of our body in direct contact with pollutants. The major issues are exacerbation of existing skin conditions such as acne or sensitive skin, damage to the skin barrier and premature skin ageing through wrinkle formation and pigment spots.
Pollution has many elements. Large and small particles (PM10 and PM2.5) can have polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) stuck to them which interact with skin receptors. This triggers reactions including activation of genes known to be involved in wrinkle formation and pigment spots, inflammation and the formation of reactive oxygen species (free radicals). Gases such as nitrogen oxides are linked to increased levels of acne and pigmentation whereas ozone is specifically linked to wrinkle formation. All these effects are increased in the presence of UV light.
Is there a need for anti-pollution skincare?
Pollution levels are rising and I am seeing an increase in the number of people living in urban areas who are complaining about skin problems. It makes sense to use products to protect your skin. In Asia, a third of their skincare products are bought to address pollution.
What do we need to do?
Remove as much of the particle load as possible with a mild wash product, counteract the free radicals formed with topical antioxidants, protect and strengthen the skin barrier with emollients and finally, always use sun protection, even in winter.
What should my routine be?
- Cleanse with a mild wash product. It’s important not to over wash as this damages the skin barrier.
- Apply a topical antioxidant serum, ideally one that combines vitamin C and vitamin E which helps prevent damage by ozone or one which contains phloretin, vitamin C and ferulic acid, targeting pigmentation.
- Put on a moisturiser, this is supremely important in helping restore the skin barrier.
- Finally, sun protection is essential even in winter.
Personally, I tend to use the SkinCeuticals Ultra Facial Defense SPF 50 as a moisturiser as it is hydrating or you could use Brightening UV Defense SPF 30.
- Cleanse again, as before,
- If wrinkles are your issue, apply an appropriate retinol or,
- For brightening, use Metacell Renewal B3 which contains a high dose of niacinamide (B3).
This article reflects the opinions of Dr Justine Kluk and is intended as general information only. You should seek advice from a professional before starting any new regimen or course of conduct.