How to protect your skin from environmental pollutants

By: Andrea Karr

Photography by Carlyle Routh Author: Canadian Living Credits: Photography by Carlyle Routh


How to protect your skin from environmental pollutants

By: Andrea Karr
On a recent trip to Shanghai, I touched down in a virtually invisible metropolis encased in what I presumed to be a thick fog. When I complained to a fellow traveller about being unable to see the skyline, she quickly corrected me: "That's not fog, dear. It's smog."

In many Asian cities, extreme pollution is a part of life. Residents check the smog index on a phone app every morning, and protect themselves with surgical masks and gloves when commuting to work. According to Grace Lim, L'Oréal Paris consumer insights director in Shanghai, Chinese women list pollution as one of their top five beauty enemies—alongside lack of sleep, stress, UV exposure and dry weather—and they are always on the lookout for skin-care products that will  lleviate the effects of environmental stressors and reveal plump, radiant skin.

Though Asia and its smog problems may seem a world away from North America, Asian beauty brands and trends (think BB creams, cloth face masks and sleeping masks) are some of the top influencers on Canadian beauty desires, says Euromonitor International, a company that researches market trends and their drivers around the world. In short, whatever Asian women want now, we'll want in the near future.

There's scientific proof that pollutants such as ozone, car exhaust, industrial gases, mould and bacteria affect everyone to some degree. In 1998, Marc-André Lefebvre, L'Oréal Paris scientific secretariat director, began research on the effects of pollution on skin by sending his son on a tour of Paris with half of his face covered and the other half exposed to the elements. He repeated the study with more participants in 2000 (in high- and low-level pollution areas in Mexico) and 2008 (in high- and low-level pollution areas in China). The test results revealed that poor environmental conditions increase sebum production. They also deplete vitamin E (an antioxidant that prevents skin damage) and squalene (a lipid that protects the skin from moisture loss) while increasing oxidized proteins (a sign of damaged, aging skin).

Clarins, a leader in antipollution skin-care technology, has also extensively studied the effects of pollution on skin, rejigging its product formulas four times to accommodate changes in air composition. The Clarins Anti-Pollution Complex has become an integral part of the brand because "an increasing number of people living in urban areas complain of skin reactions—from dehydrated skin and irritation or redness to feelings of discomfort and tight skin," says Caroline Debbasch, Clarins international scientific communication director. These skin issues crop up because particles of pollution stick to the skin, causing an imbalance in pH levels and preventing the skin's protective barrier from adequately retaining moisture. Plus, they initiate the production of free radicals—also created when UV rays damage the skin—and inflammatory molecules that destroy collagen and elastin, accelerating the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles and loss of elasticity.

Research into pollution's effects on skin aging and ways to prevent damage is still in its infancy, so expect to see more information and product launches targeting the problem in the next few years.

What You Can Do
Though you may not be able to escape environmental pollution, it is possible to shield yourself from its damaging effects. Start by cleansing every night with a gel, foam or oil that suits your skin type. L'Oréal Paris has a new range of Sublime cleansers that target dry and sensitive, normal-to-combination and tired skin. Add a cleansing brush to your routine every day or so to lift off more residue than your fingers can alone. The new Clinique Sonic System Purifying Cleansing Brush is even proven to remove PM 2.5, an extremely small form of particulate matter (made of organic compounds, metals and car exhaust) that can penetrate and harm the skin.

Next, apply a product that can build your skin's defences against visible aging and damage. Shiseido's new Ultimune Power Infusing Concentrate does just that by enhancing the function of Langerhans cells, which detect foreign substances in the skin and warn other cells to increase immune functions, all the while calming inflammation.

SkinCeuticals, known for its antioxidant serums that target free radicals in the skin caused by UVA, UVB and infrared-A radiation, has also recently begun research on the benefits of antioxidants such as vitamin C and E on pollution-ravaged skin. The preliminary findings suggest that C E Ferulic, a SkinCeuticals antioxidant formula made of vitamins C and E and ferulic acid, reduces cellular inflammation, as well as lipid and protein damage caused by exposure to ozone. Simply pat it on your face in the morning after cleansing, and the protective effects will last for 72 hours.

To round out your routine, apply moisturizer and sunscreen as barriers against the elements. A nickel-size amount of SPF will do the job. If they have additional protective ingredients, such as white tea and moringa in Clarins Anti-Pollution Complex, so much the better.

All these steps may seem excessive, but they're nothing compared to the beauty regimen practised by many Chinese, Korean and Japanese women. It's common to layer 10 to 15 products to double cleanse, exfoliate, tone and replenish moisture—and these women tend to have ageless skin to show for it. So grab your cleansing brush and antioxidants and get busy.  Your skin will thank you. 


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5 ways to protect your skin from pollutants

Cleansing oil

Smooth this cleansing oil onto dry skin, then add water. It will exfoliate and hydrate a dull-looking complexion. L’Oréal Paris Sublime Radiance Sensational Cleansing Oil, $12,

By: Andrea Karr Source: L’Oréal Paris Credits: Canadian Living

5 ways to protect your skin from pollutants

Cleansing brush

Gently move (don’t scrub) the vibrating bristles of this brush over your face to remove oil, dirt and particulate matter. Clinique Sonic System Purifying Cleansing Brush, $95,

By: Andrea Karr Source: Clinique Credits: Canadian Living

5 ways to protect your skin from pollutants


Combat free radicals that accelerate visible aging by patting this liquid onto cleansed skin. SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic, $159, 

By: Andrea Karr Source: SkinCeuticals Credits: Canadian Living

5 ways to protect your skin from pollutants


This light serum will invigorate your skin’s defence cells for stronger, smoother, firmer skin. Shiseido Ultimune Power Infusing Concentrate, $78,  

By: Andrea Karr Source: The Bay Credits: Canadian Living

5 ways to protect your skin from pollutants


Make this sunscreen the last step in your skin-care routine. It will protect against sun and pollution damage. Clarins UV Plus HP Day Screen High Protection SPF 40, $41, Keep your skin healthy by trying these natural skin care products.

By: Andrea Karr Source: Clarins Credits: Canadian Living

Keep your skin healthy and soft with these anti-aging skin care tips.

This story was originally titled "Dirty Talk" in the October 2014 issue.

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How to protect your skin from environmental pollutants