We all know the toll that too much sunshine, alcohol and eating badly can take on our complexion; think wrinkles, age spots, sagging skin. But if you live or work in a large city, like London or Leeds it turns out there’s another huge factor that’s prematurely ageing our skin: toxic air pollution. Not just harmful to our lungs, car petrol fumes are causing untold damage to our skin, too. And to make matters worse, the current freezing weather conditions, combined with the hygge trend for wood-burning stoves, has previously created smog across London – last year our capital city was even more polluted than Beijing, which is pretty terrifying when you consider that Beijing suffers one of the worst air pollution problems in the world.
But if you think we’re just scaremongering, here are the facts. Back in 2014, a study found that women living in highly polluted areas could expect their skin to age 10% faster than the skin of those living in rural, cleaner spaces. Last year, meanwhile, a report published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology demonstrated the link between traffic-related air pollution and increased unwanted pigmentation on the skin in the form of age and dark spots (lentigines). “Traffic pollution is emerging as the single most toxic substance for skin and the dream of perfect skin is over for those living and working in traffic-polluted areas unless they take steps to protect their skin right now,” comments Dr. Mervyn Patterson, cosmetic dermatologist at Woodford Medical clinic. “Unless people do more to protect their skin they will end up wearing the pollution on their faces in 10 years’ time.”
So why is pollution so bad for our skin? “Your skin is your outermost barrier, so it is one of the first and largest targets for air pollution,” explains Dr. Anjali Mahto, consultant dermatologist and British Skin Foundation spokesperson. “Many of the aggressors present in urban pollution, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), volatile organic compounds (VOC), oxides, particulate matter, ozone, as well as cigarette smoke, can actually penetrate into our skin's pores. And prolonged and repetitive exposure to these agents can have negative effects on the skin”, she adds.
Scientific studies have shown that air pollution can contribute to free radical damage, which breaks down the collagen fibres in our skin causing premature skin ageing, wrinkling and pigmentation spots. It can also damage the skin’s protective outer layer, causing dryness, redness and irritation as well as worsening of inflammatory skin diseases such as eczema, psoriasis and acne.
But aside from wearing a balaclava (as well as a gas mask) every time you leave the house, what can you do to protect your skin from the perils of toxic air?
Don’t skip cleansing
It’s sometimes tempting to fall into bed without washing your face first. But if you’ve been pounding the streets of the Big Smoke all day, all those microscopic pollution particles will be glued to your skin. All the experts agree that cleansing your face, neck and décolleté every single night to remove dirt and environmental toxins from the skin surface is THE most important thing you can do to protect your skin. And who wants to go to sleep with all that city grime still stuck to their face? Dr. Mahto advocates a double cleansing routine to get rid of a build-up of dirt and pollution. “I use a gentle foaming cleanser first to remove my makeup and surface dirt and then I follow this with a cotton pad soaked in micellar water, swiped over my face, neck and chest.”
Try Elemis Gentle Foaming Facial Wash, which is mild enough not to strip the skin of moisture, followed by La Roche Posay Micellar Water for Sensitive Skin to remove any excess grime. And once a week, use an exfoliation treatment like the amazing two-step Vitage C02 Micro Peel to give your skin a really deep clean, leaving it smooth and glowing.
Build up your skin’s barrier
To combat the effects of winter pollution, it’s vital to use products that protect and nourish, as well as create a barrier that prevents toxins entering the skin. Studies have shown that people who live in polluted areas have significantly lower skin hydration so, at night, always use a hydrating cream enriched with hyaluronic acid, such as Murad Hydro-Dynamic Ultimate Moisture, which will replenish the skin’s moisture levels as you sleep. During the day, once you’ve cleansed, “use an antioxidant serum containing vitamin C and resveratrol, as these ingredients have the ability to neutralise damage caused by pollution particles,” advises Dr. Mahto. One of the best is NeoStrata Antioxidant Defense Serum. It contains a powerful concentrated formula of eight antioxidants to protect skin from premature ageing, neutralising five kinds of harmful free radicals and defending against pollution. And don’t ever leave the house without layering a cream containing a broad-spectrum UVA and UVB filter over the top. As well as blocking out UV radiation, this will help protect skin from the environment and can stop tiny pollution particles from attaching to the skin. Shiseido Future Solution LX Universal Defense is formulated with SPF 50 to guard against free radicals generated by UV rays and air pollutants. And keep a look out for Vichy’s new Mineral 89 skin booster, which launches later this year. Dubbed the ultimate ‘pollution partner’, this lightweight lotion combines high levels of mineralising water with hyaluronic acid to seal the skin against pollution before you apply any serums or day creams.
You are what you eat
But it’s not just what you put on your skin that will help. Being mindful of what you put in your mouth can help protect from the inside out, too. Foods that are high in antioxidants will help fight collagen-depleting free radicals. “Choose foods such as oranges, goji berries, apricots and spinach. The vitamins and minerals within these foods prevent free radical damage caused by pollution, creating a barrier that protects skin,” advises skin guru Dr. Howard Murad. “When it comes to raw fruits and vegetables, the more colourful the better! They are full of skin-protective antioxidants and have a high water content, which helps keep your skin’s barrier hydrated and more resistant to pollution’s free radical damage.”