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City dwelling is jam-packed with excitement and surprises. As a city dweller, you rely on your senses to prepare your skin for everything as soon as you step out of your apartment to mix in with the crowd. If you feel the sunlight from the window is a bit too warm, you apply a generous amount of SPF. If you see the weather looking a little too cloudy, you wear your waterproof mascara.
But what happens when you can’t see, feel, or smell? How are you going to prepare and gear up your skin for the day? That’s the problem with pollution. It’s invisible. Let me lend you a special kind of glasses, so to speak, and define pollution first so you can see what you’re dealing with here.
Pollution refers to a range of harmful contaminants suspended in the air including particulate matter, windblown dust, and chemicals (1). As the first line of defense, our skin absorbs these through sweat glands.
Evidence suggests that pollution has a negative effect on our skin’s health (2). Pollution causes oxidative stress, resulting in the formation of free radicals and inflammation, and damage to collagen.
And though pollution is usually invisible, it can lead to pretty visible skin problems such as premature skin aging, wrinkles, dryness, skin disorders, acne, and dark spots.
Well, you don’t have to deal with these just because you’re living in the city. I know I don’t. From the hundreds of articles I’ve written, pollution was the sneaky but steady element that kept popping up whenever I talked about external factors that damage skin integrity.
So I did the research. And I’ve put together everything you need to know about anti-pollution skincare. Don’t fret. You can take control of the situation and prevent skin damage from pollution with a little help from your skincare products.
What Is Anti-Pollution Skincare?
Anti-pollution skincare refers to using specific active ingredients to actively protect the skin from the damaging effects of pollution and repair existing damage.
A typical anti-pollution skincare routine aims to get rid of physical particulates from the skin through cleansing, strengthen the skin barrier through moisturizing, and protect the skin through the use of antioxidants.
The most important thing to know here is that while anti-pollution skincare is a marketing term, ingredients that protect your skin from free radicals are all based on evidence.
So you need to look past the term. Currently, anti-pollution skincare is not an officially recognized term even though its effects are pretty much so.
What are Some Anti-Pollution Skincare Ingredients?
Pollution can harm your skin in different ways. And different offenses call for multiple defenses. Here are the most effective skincare ingredients to protect your skin against pollution.
As pollution depletes your antioxidant levels, using topical antioxidants in the form of serums or creams is one of the most effective ways to protect your skin against pollution.
Antioxidants like vitamin C and vitamin E are the ingredients to look for in your products (3). Note that these ingredients also help stimulate collagen production.
Other antioxidants you can utilize are botanical antioxidants such as green tea, and algae. While these are not specific to fighting against pollution, these are antioxidants so they’re inherently helpful in neutralizing free radicals (4).
Sunscreen is the best protection against UVA and UVB rays and it should be in your skincare routine whether you live in the city or not. However, sunscreens, whether it’s mineral or chemical, do not have a protective role when it comes to pollution.
With that being said, they are incredibly helpful in the process. Because certain pollution particles interact with UV rays and exacerbate the detrimental effects. That’s how sunscreen plays a role in protecting against pollution.
As pollution hurts the skin barrier, it can lead to increased epidermal water loss, skin dryness, and sensitivity (5). So moisturizers play a key role here as they form a physical and protective layer on the skin to guard it.
Look for rich moisturizers made with several barrier-restoring ingredients like niacinamide, ceramides, squalane, and amino acids to strengthen your skin barrier and make it more resilient.
Do Anti-Pollution Skincare Products Work?
Again, anti-pollution skincare is not an official term and is just a marketing term brands utilize to attract attention. But the ingredients in these products are real and evidence-based. So yes, anti-pollution skincare products work.
But that’s not the right question. The right question is do you need special anti-pollution skincare products?
If your current skincare routine includes antioxidants, a good moisturizer, and sunscreen, you absolutely don’t need to go out of your way to buy anti-pollution skincare products. Ingredients in these products are not special or different. The labeling is just about marketing and that’s it.
Best Anti-Pollution Skincare Products
Now, while I don’t appreciate buzzy marketing terms or overly hyped trends, I do appreciate practicality. And that’s why I love a good beauty product made with effective ingredients but is also helpful for busy city dwellers. And that’s what you’ll find below. I’ve got an amazing set of products that won’t interfere with your daily skincare/makeup routine but offer major skin benefits. If you think you could use more convenient, time-saving, multi-purpose products to tackle pollution, keep reading for the best anti-pollution skincare products.
1. Caudalie Beauty Elixir
As we’ve established, pollution causes dehydration and dullness. And this multi-tasking face mist comes to the rescue for a quick pick-me-up for tired skin. It preps your skin for makeup, sets your makeup, and also boosts radiance when you use it without makeup. It’s made with incredibly refreshing essential oils like peppermint and rosemary. Plus, it has grape water and citrus water, which are all rich in antioxidants and have anti-inflammatory effects to counter the effects of daily pollution (6).
Just trust me on this and take a second when you’re swamped with work, and simply close your eyes and apply the face mist. The scent will take you to a French pharmacy and you’ll forget you’re in the city even if it is just for a few minutes. Keep a travel size on your desk, in your bag, or in your car to wake up your senses, recharge, and fend off dullness caused by pollution.
Key Ingredients: Orange flower water, rosemary leaf oil, melissa leaf oil
Size: 3.3 oz/100 ml
Good To Know: Cruelty-free, vegan, natural, recyclable packaging
2. Peter Thomas Roth Irish Moor Mud Purifying Black Mask
Every single article I read on the topic focuses on cleansing to physically remove the day’s dirt and grime as a way to recover skin from pollution. And we all have one daily cleanser to properly wash our faces. But this face mask is something I use a few days a week after facial cleansing to really feel the detoxifying effects and clean up my skin.
It’s a charcoal mask and also packs clay, which helps absorb excess oil and dirt from pollution (7). So you feel your skin getting rid of visible and invisible dust while keeping your skin barrier happy. It’s easy to apply and easy to remove and leaves the skin pure and healthy. It’s the best anti-pollution face mask you can put on your face when you come home in the evening and just strip the day’s dirt and pollution from your skin before hitting the hay.
Key Ingredients: Charcoal powder, Irish moor mud, clay
Size: 5 oz/150 ml
3. Colorescience Sunforgettable Total Protection Brush-On Shield SPF 50
While sunscreen won’t give you direct protection from pollution, Colorescience has its own line of sunscreens that claim otherwise. Their secret sauce is their special coating and ingredients that not only shield your skin from the sun but also from environmental pollution (8). This powder sunscreen is all mineral, titanium dioxide, and zinc oxide, and is water resistant for up to 80 minutes.
Moreover, it’s enriched with antioxidant green tea and it’s a must-have for city dwellers in sunny areas where you need something convenient and practical. Just use the brush to reapply sunscreen over makeup and soak up sweat and excess oil. It’s your full protection against UVA, UVB, and environmental aggressors.
Key Ingredients: Mineral SPF, grape seed extract, green tea extract
Size: 0.21 oz
Good To Know: Vegan, cruelty-free, hypoallergenic
4. Murad Essential-C Overnight Barrier Repair Cream
If you’re someone who is already dealing with dry skin, here’s the scoop. Transepidermal water loss, which is skin losing water to the environment, peaks at night. That’s why night creams are usually formulated to be thicker than day creams so that they can physically reduce moisture loss.
And this beautifully packaged night cream helps you put back that moisture you lose during the day and repair the skin barrier to pollution-proof your skin. It has vitamin C, and vitamin E to replenish your antioxidant levels and ginger and marrubium extracts to calm inflammation. It’s not heavy but it does make you wake up to luminous skin so you can fight city grime in style.
Key Ingredients: Vitamin C, vitamin E, ginger extract, allantoin
Size: 1.7 oz/50 ml
Good To Know: Vegan, cruelty-free
5. Ole Henriksen Banana Bright 15% Vitamin C Dark Spot Serum
Vitamin C thrives in face serums. And even if you don’t want to try anti-pollution products, invest in a good daily vitamin C serum and pair it with a nice sunscreen for the ultimate defense against free radicals. Now, easier said than done. Because some vitamin C serums can feel greasy, and sticky, making it difficult to use every day before leaving the house.
But this pleasant formula is all you need under your sunscreen. It’s made with a very gentle and stable form of vitamin C with a concentration of 15%. It will reduce existing hyperpigmentation while preventing further dark spots. Plus, it makes your skin instantly plump and luminous. The invigorating scent is like a breath of fresh air for the skin.
Key Ingredients: Vitamin C, gluconolactone, vitamin B5, hyaluronic acid
Size: 1 oz/30 ml
Good To Know: Vegan, cruelty-free
6. Dr. Barbara Sturm Anti-Pollution Drops
If you want to take the extra step and just go for maximum pollution protection but something that won’t interfere with your skincare routine or your makeup, this anti-pollution serum is unrivaled. Pollution can damage your skin in different ways. This serum covers all your bases against dehydration, inflammation, and free radicals. It packs hyaluronic acid to plump and hydrate the skin and purslane extract, which is rich in vitamins C, E, and A.
It’s basically a reservoir of antioxidants to shield your skin against environmental damage and revive the dull complexion. The water-like serum disappears into the skin and strengthens your skin barrier to encourage healthier, more resilient skin. On a side note, Dr. Sturm claims that the serum also protects the skin from blue light damage from our screens.
Key Ingredients: Purslane extract, hyaluronic acid, cocoa seed extract
Size: 1 oz/30 ml
Good To Know: Vegan, cruelty-free, fragrance-free
7. Lancome Advanced Genifique Face Serum
Sometimes, you see what the day has done to your skin only after you’ve washed it in the evening. The redness reveals itself when you look in the mirror now that the makeup is removed. But this super nourishing antioxidant serum will help your skin bounce back in no time! Because it’s made with prebiotics with a concentration of 10%.
Prebiotics are anti-inflammatory and support your skin’s microbiome (9), which can be negatively affected by environmental stressors. But that’s not all, the lightweight formula also has skin-plumping hyaluronic acid and antioxidant vitamin C. Use it in your evening skincare routine to calm inflammation and help your skin recover from pollution and wake up to rested, fresh, and even skin.
Key Ingredients: Prebiotics, hyaluronic acid, vitamin C
Size: 1 oz/30 ml
Anti-Pollution Skincare Routine
Now that you’re more conscious about anti-pollution skincare, be more mindful of the products you use. Add a face mist to your daily routine.
Try detoxifying clay and charcoal masks a few times a week. Incorporate exfoliation into your routine to accelerate skin turnover and stimulate collagen production and soften wrinkles.
And if you’re not sure how to go about using skincare to protect your skin from pollution, here’s a basic skincare routine that’s easy to follow using the products you currently have. Remember, you don’t have to have separate anti-pollution products if you don’t want to.
Step #1: Cleanse
While most of us consider cleansing as a way to get rid of makeup or excess oil, it’s actually incredibly helpful in getting rid of daily dust and invisible pollution particles. So no matter what you do, prevent pollution from staying on your skin and wash your face every day twice a day with a cleanser suitable for your skin type.
Step #2: Apply Anti-Pollution Product
This can be a special anti-pollution serum you use or a daily antioxidant serum such as a vitamin C serum. Either way, apply your anti-pollution serum/cream on your clean dry skin and let it absorb before moving on to your other products.
Step #3: Moisturize
Use a moisturizer suitable for your skin type after you apply your serums. Again, pollution can impair the skin barrier function, and moisturizers remedy this situation. They keep your skin barrier intact and prevent environmental aggressors from damaging it. And of course, hydrated and moisturized skin looks plumper and also helps your makeup application too.
Step #4: Apply Sunscreen
Remember that sun exposure already causes inflammation on the skin and the formation of free radicals. Combining unprotected sun exposure with pollution can make things worse, especially if you already have sensitive skin or a skin condition like rosacea like me. So urban living or rural living, make it a habit to wear sunscreen every day. Apply a generous amount of your sunscreen because even if you reapply every 2 hours, the first layer of sunscreen you apply is the most important and protective one.
So this is how anti-pollution skincare products work and all the tools you need to get ahead and protect your skin. You can enjoy the city and maintain healthy skin.
- Park S-Y, Byun EJ, Lee JD, Kim S, Kim HS. Air Pollution, Autophagy, and Skin Aging: Impact of Particulate Matter (PM10) on Human Dermal Fibroblasts. International Journal of Molecular Sciences. 2018; 19(9):2727. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms19092727
- Araviiskaia, E., Berardesca, E., Bieber, T., Gontijo, G., Sanchez Viera, M., Marrot, L., Chuberre, B., & Dreno, B. (2019). The impact of airborne pollution on skin. Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology : JEADV, 33(8), 1496–1505. https://doi.org/10.1111/jdv.15583
- Puri, P., Nandar, S. K., Kathuria, S., & Ramesh, V. (2017). Effects of air pollution on the skin: A review. Indian journal of dermatology, venereology and leprology, 83(4), 415–423. https://doi.org/10.4103/0378-6323.199579
- Juliano C, Magrini GA. Cosmetic Functional Ingredients from Botanical Sources for Anti-Pollution Skincare Products. Cosmetics. 2018; 5(1):19. https://doi.org/10.3390/cosmetics5010019
- Mistry N. Guidelines for Formulating Anti-Pollution Products. Cosmetics. 2017; 4(4):57. https://doi.org/10.3390/cosmetics4040057
- Agarwal, P., Sebghatollahi, Z., Kamal, M., Dhyani, A., Shrivastava, A., Singh, K. K., Sinha, M., Mahato, N., Mishra, A. K., & Baek, K. H. (2022). Citrus Essential Oils in Aromatherapy: Therapeutic Effects and Mechanisms. Antioxidants (Basel, Switzerland), 11(12), 2374. https://doi.org/10.3390/antiox11122374
- Velasco, M.V., Zague, V., Dario, M.F., Nishikawa, D.D., Pinto, C.A., Mariana, M., Trossini, G.H., Coelho, A.C., & Rolim, A. (2017). Characterization and Short-Term clinical study of clay facial mask. Journal of Basic and Applied Pharmaceutical Sciencies, 37.
- Bernstein, E. F., Sarkas, H. W., Boland, P., & Bouche, D. (2020). Beyond sun protection factor: An approach to environmental protection with novel mineral coatings in a vehicle containing a blend of skincare ingredients. Journal of cosmetic dermatology, 19(2), 407–415. https://doi.org/10.1111/jocd.13007
- Bustamante, M., Oomah, B. D., Oliveira, W. P., Burgos-Díaz, C., Rubilar, M., & Shene, C. (2020). Probiotics and prebiotics potential for the care of skin, female urogenital tract, and respiratory tract. Folia microbiologica, 65(2), 245–264. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12223-019-00759-3