An Attempt to Understand Anti-Pollution Skincare


Since being in China I have had a lot of time to think about home and the differences between my lifestyle here and my lifestyle there. It has been quite an adjustment but luckily for me I had travelled to and from here before my actual move, so it wasn’t a huge shock to my system. I am also very lucky to know that ‘home’ isn’t too far away and I am very grateful to have a partner who is so understanding and will allow me to fly home if severe homesickness sets in. 

Other than the language barrier (I do not speak a drop of Mandarin) and far away from family and friends, one thing that I am finding a little harder to adjust to is the actual pollution in the air. Over the past few days, it has actually been quite nice here in Shanghai, with relatively low levels of pollution (there is an app on my iPhone which updates me everyday on the pollution levels). There have been other days where the pollution levels has been quite bad. I really miss that feeling of ‘clean and crisp’ air like that of my home city in Australia! According the most recent data, Shanghai sits at the top 25 cities in the world in terms of air pollution. With the knowledge of what pollution can do to your body, especially your lungs, I couldn’t help but wonder what pollution can also do to your skin – your largest organ and one of your body’s first barrier of defence. 

Face masks are quite common in many Asian cities and normally worn on days where there is high pollution, like this day in Beijing, China. Image Source: Getty ImagesFace masks are quite common in many Asian cities and normally worn on days where there is high pollution, like this day in Beijing, China. Image Source: Getty Images

Face masks are quite common in many Asian cities and normally worn on days where there is high pollution, like this day in Beijing, China.
Image Source: Getty Images

Recently, I have noticed a plethora of different skincare companies releasing products that are ‘anti-pollution’ or claim that they will defend your skin from pollution. Given my move to China, its an area of skincare which I have recently been very interested in, as I plan to protect my body as much as possible from the effects of air pollution. It also makes me wonder how valid the anti-pollution claims are on a lot of the products we see today, I can’t help but wonder sometimes if it is a marketing ploy or do these companies really do put their money where their mouth is?

My sincerest apologies if my blog post is a long, lengthy and sometimes a bit complicated, but I thought I would share and summarise some of the information I have found in my research and try link it back to the skincare in which we purchase and try to understand the skincare claims of anti-pollution and its future in the skincare industry. Please also forgive me (and let me know) if I haven’t explained something correctly, if it isn’t clear or if sounds outright ridiculous as I have the facts all wrong. I am still learning and I have tried to back what I have written with the original source articles (which if you click on the underlined links, it will take you to that article). I have tried my best to summarise everything that I have read over the past few days into a way that I can and hopefully everyone else can understand as well. 

Pollution and the Skincare Industry
Over the past few years, I have noticed a lot of skincare companies are focusing on anti-pollution products or city defence products. For example: Clarins have an Anti-Pollution range that consists of a cleanser and a daily sunscreen, Clinique have their ‘City-Defense’ range, Dior have the ‘One Essential’ range and Lancome have their ‘City Miracle’ CC Cream.  

In Asia, there has been a huge surge in products that claim to be of the anti-pollution variety. According to, research conducted in the Asia Pacific (where the effect of air pollution has been a concern amongst the general population) between 2011-2013, has depicted a 40% rise in beauty and skincare products being released with the anti-pollution claim. In a study conducted in China in 2015, pollution is now the third highest concern when it comes to skincare for the age category of 20-49 years old. As you can see, for the Chinese especially, pollution is a huge concern for their consumers as the population learns about the effect of pollution on their skin (its already very common to see people wear masks when they are commuting). Mintel, a market intelligence agency has predicted that anti-pollution claims will be a key trend in the skincare and cosmetic in the next few years to come. 

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Scientific Studies on the Effects of Pollution on the Skin
In a controlled study that was conducted in 2008 in the Shanghai area, 159 participants made up of 79 people from down town Shanghai (urban city) and 80 participants from the Chong Ming area (a more rural area approximately 100km north from Shanghai) were studied during the summer. Scientists looked at the biochemical factors of their skin and asked the participants to answer a feedback questionnaire with regards to their skin. The results found that those participants in the Chong Ming area had a significant difference to biochemical levels in comparison to their inner city counterparts. Most notably, an increased ratio of the squalene/lipid levels, a lower level of lactic acid and better cohesion of the upper epidermis of the skin. The participants feedback in their skin conditions were mainly attributed to their exposure to pollution. In another study that was mentioned in the Daily Telegraph (original source is unknown) if you live in a polluted city, by the age of 40 you are expected to look a year older than those who live in a more rural area. According to another study, those who are exposed to more heavily polluted areas are more prone to developing skin spots and pigmentation, another sign of anti-ageing. 

A brief diagram that shows how pollution can damage the skin. PM2.5 can travel through the skin's top later of the epidermis which will cause inflammation and change to the skins make-up.  Image Source: www.researchgate.netA brief diagram that shows how pollution can damage the skin. PM2.5 can travel through the skin's top later of the epidermis which will cause inflammation and change to the skins make-up.  Image Source:

A brief diagram that shows how pollution can damage the skin. PM2.5 can travel through the skin’s top later of the epidermis which will cause inflammation and change to the skins make-up. 
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These effects on the skin are caused by the chemical particles in pollution, in particular the fine particulate matter or PM2.5 which refers to tiny droplets of air that are 2.5 microns in size. To give you an idea, there are 25 000 microns in one inch, so these particles are tiny. These particles can be made up of smoke, soot, acid and any other pollutants in the air. It has been linked to increased risk of cancers, strokes, respiratory disorders (such as lung cancer, bronchitis, asthma etc) as PM2.5 can travel quite deep in the respiratory tract and easily penetrate into the body and blood stream. In terms of skin, PM2.5 is twenty times smaller than the pores of your skin, which means that it can easily penetrate the outer layer of your skin and eventually lead to inflammation of the deeper layers of your skin where wrinkles and other signs of skin ageing will  eventually occur from this inflammation. 

Free Radicals and Their Effects
In my research I have found that SPF just isn’t enough as it only protects us from free radicals caused by sun damage and UVA and UVB rays. Skincare rich in antioxidants seem to be the answer in protecting us or at least creating a shield from pollution free radicals. A free radical is an unstable and highly reactive atom or group of atoms that have an unpaired electrons that are able to have an independent existence. In everyday terms, think of a free radical as thief that is running low on energy, what they do when they come in to contact with our body is that they steal energy (an electron) from our otherwise stable and healthy cells to satisfy themselves. This will cause our cells to become damaged. However, when a free radical comes into contact with an antioxidant, it happily donates an electron to the free radical which in turn will inhibit its degrading effects on our cells and body. 

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Please note however, not all antioxidants are made equal and different types will defend us some different things. In a lot of skincare we see today – they mostly target one type of free radical. There are actually three types of free radicals: oxygen, nitrogen and carbon. Oxygen free radicals are caused by the air we breathe, sunlight, smog and smoke. It is the most common free radical that the media talks about and most skincare companies will refer to. They attack our skin’s moisture barrier, ruin the dermis, start the inflammation process and can deform our skin’s DNA. Nitrogen free radicals are found in very unassuming areas such as parks, farms and gardens. Nitrogen free radicals are actually a by product of nitrogen rich soils, things such as fertilisers, car exhausts and the exhalation from surrounding trees create these free radicals. The effect of nitrogen free radicals are mainly heavy inflammation and also increase the damage caused by both oxygen and carbon free radicals. The last of the free radicals are of the carbon variety – this has more to do with our diet than anything. It is to do with the food we consume such as sugar and simple carbohydrates (think white bread and pasta) which in turn cause a metabolic process call glycation. Glycation affects the make up of our skin, having an effect on collagen fibres and cause our skin to loose its elasticity and become more ‘rigid’. This which in turn will cause wrinkles, dark spots and on a cellular level further inflammation. 

Understanding Antioxidants in Skincare Ingredients
So with this knowledge in mind – how does one create a barrier on our skin from these free radicals and slow down the whole aging process as well as protecting our skin from further damage? I don’t think there is one solution and I don’t think there is a miracle product (although there are a few that may come close, which you will see later). I think it comes down to the importance of understanding ingredients and what they do, which is something I am still learning and scientists are still discovering. With an apparent increase in anti-pollution products in Asia and also dispersing slowly across Western countries, how do you know what is complete BS and what is the actual truth? It’s something that I am trying to figure out myself and with technology and new research cropping up all the time, it can be a little hard to keep up!

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As a foundation, any product that contains a stable form Vitamin C is a great start to protect our skin from free radicals and creating a barrier for our skin. A product rich with a stable form of Vitamin C such as L-Ascorbic acid, tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate, magnesium ascorbyl palmitate or are infused with botanical/natural ingredients such as any type of tea (green tea especially), orange, citrus, berries etc are a great start to protecting ourselves from oxidative free radical damage to our skin. You will find that most ‘antioxidant’ skincare products available are generally rich in Vitamin C (and not the others antioxidants that you will need to fight off the other 2 free radicals). The other bonus is that Vitamin C also gives our skin some radiance and glow. The other form of protection products that have the antioxidant Vitamin E, which will help fight off nitrogen based free radicals. Ingredients listings that have things such as tocopheryl or lipochroman-6 will assist in the barrier of nitrogen free radicals. It is a fantastic anti-inflammatory and works hand in hand with Vitamin C. Vitamin E also acts as an excellent moisturiser for our skin. The final type of free radical stress is a hard one to ‘create’ a barrier for as it does generally depends on your diet but there are some ingredients or ingredient types to look for to prevent glycation of the skin (other than some adjustments to diet). These include caretenoids which are found in mircoalgae, carrots and ergothioneine which is a type of amino acid which is found in a mushroom. I believe some forms of Vitamin A such as retinol are also most definitely a fantastic antioxidants as well, I am unable to locate exactly which free radical it protects us from – but the definitely have great antioxidant qualities and inhibit the anti-ageing process as well. For more detailed information (I have just summarised and added a few of my own points from these) I would suggest to have a bit of a read of this article, this article and this article.

Skincare Products and Their Claims
After that word vomit of information (sorry! I did try to keep in short but there was so much information to summarise), what products will potentially work then? Is it worth investing in anti-pollution skincare or is it all just marketing hype? The truth is, I think a lot of our skincare already has a lot of anti-pollution qualities in it already but are just not advertised as specifically ‘anti-pollution’. I don’t think boosting our skincare with antioxidants is anything new or exciting, as for a very long time companies have been infusing our skincare with all sorts of antioxidants to slow down the process of anti-ageing or to treat a particular skin concern. For me, I think the excitement now is in the technology that is coming from all this skincare companies and more knowledge of particular types of free radicals, their effects on the skin and the particular types of antioxidants to combat them. 

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In doing the research for this blog post I noticed that a lot of my skincare products, in particular the serums I use, have lots of antioxidants. A lot of them are the Vitamin C variety as I do tend to favour skincare products that have radiance boosting qualities and Vitamin C does give the skin a bit more of a glow but even so, other items have do contain some Vitamin E, Vitamin A and a whole bunch of other antioxidants that fight off some form of free radical. I have two products in my kit that are specifically ‘anti-pollution’ and a few samples of the Lu Ming Tang range which also boast ‘anti-pollution’ properties. The Lu Ming Tang products are infused with tea extracts and other antioxidants as their main function and selling point of the entire range is to protect the skin from free radicals. My Kiehls Cilantro & Orange Extract Pollutant Defending Mask is packed with orange and citrus extracts which is a great source of Vitamin C, as well as Vitamin E and Ferulic Acid, also being a mask it does generally detoxify, clean and purify the skin anyway and thus doing its job of getting rid of any nasties in the skin. The REN Flash Defence Anti-Pollution Mist was a tough one to decipher in terms of the ingredients to back the claims and I can confirm that the Zinc and Manganese Amino Acids do help the skin to defend itself from free radicals and work with antioxidants as do the Quercetin (which is derived from a particular type of flower). 

With all this information in my head, I feel that the missing puzzle piece for me is perhaps a serum that acts as a barrier for free-radicals. Yes I do have lots of serums, lotions and potions with antioxidants, but most of these target one type of free radical which is oxidative. I would like something that would potentially target all three and have the technology and research to back it up. I don’t think there is a ‘miracle’ serum but I do feel that the Grown Alchemist Antioxidant+3 Detox Serum and the Zelens Intense Defence Serum in terms of ingredients and the science will suit the purpose that I am after. Both aim to fight all three types of free radicals and have extensive research to back up the claims. In saying that though, it is super hard as I am normally one to judge a product on instant results. With these two serums, I don’t think I will get that instant result fix but instead I have to look at it as a preventative measure. A product that will act a shield for my skin against pollution and free radical activity. The Zelens product in particular is one that interests me most (but I need to justify the price tag – this one isn’t cheap at approximately AUD$200 a bottle) as I know that Zelens is a brand that backs alot of their claims with scientific research and tests. Alot of skincare enthusiasts swear by him and Miss Caroline Hirons herself cannot sing his praises enough. The Grown Alchemist serum is much more affordable at AUD$59.95 and claims to do what the Zelens product does but I haven’t read much about the research into developing this product.

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Final Thoughts and Musings
Going forward, I think the most exciting thing now over the next few years to come is to see where skincare companies will go with the whole anti-pollution claims. I think over the next few years there will be some exciting new developments in technology, science and research. The Asian market is already investing some serious money in this particular area as consumers are worried about effects of pollution on the skin, especially those in the Chinese market. Earlier this year, Amore Pacific announced that their brand Laniege had created the new Anti-Pollution Defensor that contained a high tech dust repellant and also helps the strengthen the skin barrier to block off free radicals. Whether or not these claims are 100% effective is a different story, but with Asian cosmetics and skincare, you cannot doubt that their research and development departments and their dedication to be cutting edge are impressive. 

Laniege's impressive new Dust Block Technology Image Source: www.laniege.comLaniege's impressive new Dust Block Technology Image Source:

Laniege’s impressive new Dust Block Technology
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So is anti-pollution skincare an actual concern or just a marketing ploy? I honestly do think that it is a bit of both but the pollution effects on not only my skin and my body are a huge concern for me living in China. I have already started to notice that my skin is a bit different to what it is back home, it is a lot more sensitive, even in the home and it feels more clogged up at the end of the day. There is definitely a difference in air quality here and to think that I am not only inhaling but my body is absorbing those little PM2.5 particles! I think for me, it is probably better to be safe than sorry and even if I can’t see results instantly I feel at least I am doing something about it. I hope I don’t sound crazy but going forward I will invest more in products that do boast major antioxidant qualities and look carefully at the ingredients listed and read into the technology behind it (if there are any) and if ‘anti-pollution’ is in the name, then I guess its a bit of a bonus then isn’t it?

What are your thoughts on anti-pollution skincare? Is pollution a concern for you? Would you invest in anti-pollution products? Or do you think it is all one big marketing ploy for consumers? Let me know your thoughts!


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