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If you want the real dirt on aging skin, look no further than the air that you breathe. For decades we’ve been told that the main cause of spots, wrinkles and other signs of aging is UV light, so we have been slathering on sunscreen ever since. Now, however, compelling new research points to another offender: pollution. The toxins in the air are said to be as bad — if not worse — than the sun, so it’s time we rethink our approach to protective skincare (but that doesn’t mean you can toss your sunblock!).
A few weeks ago, I reported on a landmark study in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology that compared the skin of women living in urban and rural environments. Researchers found that those exposed to increased particulate matter from soot and traffic exhausts had more dark spots and wrinkling. Since then, I’ve been rummaging around for more information about the effects of pollution on skin and found that there is an astonishing wealth of material — much of it summarized in a research paper from the University of Athens, Greece.
In fact, as early as 1988, scientists were demonstrating that “air pollutants may induce severe interference of normal functions of lipids, DNA and/or proteins of the human skin via oxidative damage.” You might be inclined to say that we’ve cleaned up our environment act since then. Well, not that much. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, about 83 million tons of pollution were emitted into the air in the United States in 2012.
“Pollution breaks down collagen and the lipid layer in the skin, which impairs skin barrier functions,” says Zoe Draelos, MD, consulting professor of dermatology at Duke University in Durham, NC, and author of the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology article Aging in a Polluted World. Amongst the most common pollutants are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which bind with things in the air to form particulate matter (PM) and become toxic. When absorbed by the skin, they cause oxidative stress and thus protein and DNA damage, as well as lipid peroxidation. They are also linked to acne and skin cancers.
Meanwhile, one study showed that those PMs induce oxidative stress in human skin, while another found a significant correlation between PM pollution exposure (traffic particle and soot) and extrinsic skin aging signs, such as pigment spots on face, nasolabial folds, and wrinkles. Nitrogen oxides are also nasty things researchers believe to be responsible for eczema outbreaks. Finally, I found out recently that air pollution can also cause skin to become oily. Who knew? The skin treats toxins in the air as irritants that need to be flushed out by producing sebum.
You see, pollution wreaks havoc on more than just the planet, and no one wants their skin to be an ongoing natural disaster. Augment your regimen with antioxidants, anti-inflammatories and barrier-builders to help prevent and repair environmental damage. Here are the ingredients to look for, plus some products you’ll find them in.
Procter & Gamble researchers claim that snow fungus (tremella fuciformis) can help by drawing moisture into the skin. It is also said to detoxify and reduce irritation. Find it in Deciem NIOD Multi-Molecular Hyaluronic Complex ($35 in the shop) and Deciem Hand Chemistry Intense Youth Complex ($20 in the shop).
Moringa, also known as the “tree of miracles,” should be on your radar. The peptide extract from moringa seeds is used to encourage the elimination of pollution particles — studies dating back to 1970 have shown it can rid a well of 90 percent of impurities. It is also full of a component called zeatin that helps promote small cell size, a key to more youthful skin. Moringa is present in SimySkin Anti Aging Gel Cleanser ($45 in the shop) and Sweetsation Orchidee Vitae Age Defying Facial Oil ($35 in the shop).
Ferulic acid is one of those super-ingredients that fight on all fronts: It prevents UV damage, eliminates free radicals, lowers lipid activity, and increases antioxidant levels. When plants come under environmental stress, they naturally produce more ferulic acid, so it makes sense that we should look to this ingredient for protection. Your Best Face includes ferulic acid in its Prep Microdermabrasion face mask and scrub ($80 in the shop) and Antioxidants Concentrate ($65 in the shop), both of which are chock-full of powerful antioxidants and vitamins. Dr. Dennis Gross has embraced ferulic acid across his range, including Dr. Dennis Gross Ferulic and Retinol Moisturizer ($72 in the shop). Since hair suffers from environmental pollution as well as skin, we added ferulic to True Vitality True Volume Shampoo ($29 in the shop) where its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory powers aid healthy hair growth.
The powerhouse of milk thistle extract is silymarin, an antioxidant that protects against cell damage. Its most active compound, silybin, may protect the body from chemicals by blocking toxins from entering the cell or by moving toxins out of the cell before damage begins. They can strengthen cell walls, stimulate enzymes that make toxins less harmful to the body, as well as block free radicals from attacking cells, according to the National Cancer Institute. Difinsa53 ($62.50 in the shop) is a barrier repair lotion that boasts silybin toward the top of its list.
Since your skin is its own best defense, think about ingredients that strengthen the skin barrier. Consider ceramides, which replenish the lipids lost from harsh environmental factors and protect against the elements. You’ll find them in Stemulation’s new Drench ($195 in the shop).
Pollution depletes oxygen in the skin, but it can be replenished with an active called perfluorodecalin, a perfluorocarbon that mimics the blood’s ability to carry oxygen to the skin cells. There is a hefty dose in the Truth Vitality Treatment Gel ($49 in the shop) that can be used with the Lux Renew ultrasound and LED device (ultrasound also helps replenish oxygen) or on its own as a mask.
As the demand for anti-pollution products continues to grow, more ingredients are being studied and incorporated into formulations. I’ve heard that ectoin protects from pollution, but I have yet to find it in anything. Let me know if you have come across this anywhere.