So much for slathering on the SPF and taking cover in the shade. In the battle against signs of aging, it seems sun protection isn't the only weapon required. After decades of studying the effects of UV-induced aging, scientists have only recently begun to uncover a link between air pollution and its long-term effects on skin, such as pigment spots, fine lines and loss of elasticity.
"Ambient air pollution is a less well-recognized environmental aggressor," says Dr. Marcie Ulmer, board certified cosmetic and medical dermatologist at Pacific Derm, Cosmetic and Medical Dermatology, and clinical instructor with the University of Britsh Columbia's department of dermatology and skin science in Vancouver. "Studies have shown the harmful effects of air pollution on our internal organs, but there is less data on its effect on the largest organ of the body – the skin," she says.
In 2010, the Journal of Investigative Dermatology published a watershed study connecting toxic air to skin aging. After examining 400 Caucasian women aged 70 to 80 years, researchers found that exposure to air pollution was strongly associated with visible signs of aging, including wrinkles, age spots and hyperpigmentation. According to a 2015 study published in the same journal, data from subjects in Germany and China indicated a link between traffic-related air pollution and increased liver spots on the face.
Such findings are especially unnerving given that the World Health Organization last year confirmed that nine out of 10 people worldwide live in places where air pollution exceeds WHO limits. While higher levels of pollution in urban areas are to be expected, Statistics Canada released a report last month revealing that exposure to airborne pollutants, such as aerosols, smoke and dust, is especially high in parts of southern Ontario, particularly around Toronto and Windsor.
In light of such data, a number of beauty brands are stepping up their efforts to develop anti-pollution products with a focus on urbanites. Last year, Elizabeth Arden launched the City Smart Hydrating Shield, a primer that combines UV protection with invisible polymers that work like a mask over the skin. The City Smart Double Action Detox Peel Off Mask, set to hit counters in May, is also among the newest additions to Elizabeth Arden's anti-aging skincare line, Prevage. "In the early days, most of the research was focused on how sun affects the skin, but as we've continued to develop more Prevage products and better understand the effects of the environment on the skin, we learned that pollution really exacerbates the problem," says Kara Langan, senior vice president of global marketing at Elizabeth Arden.
Of primary concern is particulate matter, a key component of airborne pollution made up of microscopic particles that seep through the pores and damage the integrity of the skin. "Particulate matters are actually 20 times smaller than pores," says Langan. "That's the equivalent of throwing a nickel into a basketball hoop."
To convey the prevalence of particulate matter, Beth Bialko, associate director at the Global Curriculum International Dermal Institute and skincare brand Dermalogica, paints an equally unpleasant picture. "Think about a ray of sunshine coming through your window and how it shows all of the tiny dust particles in the air," she says. "For every visible particle, there are one million invisible particles."
For its part, Dermalogica teamed up with air quality analytics company BreezoMeter to launch the website www.skinpollution.com, a real-time, location-based index, earlier this year. Together with the partnership, Dermalogica unveiled its Daily Superfoliant, a polishing powder featuring activated charcoal to draw out environmental pollutants, along with anti-inflammatory red algae, tara fruit extract and niacinamide.
Niacinamide, more commonly known as vitamin B3, also features prominently in Olay's Total Effects skincare line. "Niacinamide has been clinically proven to strengthen the moisture barrier of skin," says Dr. Frauke Neuser, principal scientist for Olay. "The stronger the barrier, the better protected skin is against external stressors."
Damage-deflecting antioxidants also have a part to play. "A comprehensive skincare regimen requires both protection and prevention from environmental aggressors," seconds Megan Manco, scientific director at SkinCeuticals, a L'Oréal-owned skincare brand specializing in topical antioxidants. "Efficient antioxidants neutralize free radicals and strengthen skin's defence against environmental aggressors, allowing skin to self-repair," she says.
Though protecting your skin does become increasingly harder with age, it is never too late to start, says Langan. "As women age, pores tend to expand as the body becomes less effective at combating exposures to the environment, so aging does exacerbate the problem." Still, "as we get older, the signs of aging continue to get worse and worse, so no matter what age you are, if you start taking steps now, you are going to delay worse signs down the road."
Anti-pollution skincare is still in the early stages, but expect more innovation in the years to come, says Dr. Ulmer. "Although currently there are not a lot of products proven for prevention of air pollution related skin damage, I suspect this will be a major focus for ongoing study as the link between ambient air pollution damage to the skin becomes a more prominent issue, and as consumers become more aware of the potential damage," she says.
No doubt beauty companies will also lead the push for more data. "Air pollution has clearly gotten a lot worse over the last 10 to 20 years, especially in Asia, but we also now have better and more sensitive methods to measure air pollution levels and to study their effect on overall health and other aspects, such as skin health and appearance," says Olay's Dr. Neuser.
Langan agrees. "What we're exposed to is extremely dynamic, so it's very important for us to stay at the forefront of the research in terms of understanding how the air may impact our skin," she says. "You're definitely going to see some new technologies emerge in the next few years that combine shielding against pollution, repairing damage caused by environmental exposure and effectively removing those toxins at the end of the day."