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How to protect your skin from pollution

Jocelyn Bailey
Article written by Jocelyn Bailey

Date published 30 April 2024

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Pollution is bad news for skin, causing age spots, hyperpigmentation and more lines and wrinkles. Here's beauty expert Jocelyn Bailey's advice to keep skin smooth, vibrant and healthy-looking.

🕒 4 min read

Recent studies show that increases in environmental pollution produce more and faster signs of ageing, with traffic-related particles being especially associated with age spots and nose-to-mouth wrinkles. According to one startling statistic, the complexions of city women may age up to 10 per cent faster than those of women in more rural areas.

Before you start checking house prices in the Outer Hebrides, here's what you need to know in order to protect your skin and keep it looking healthy.

What is pollution?

Perhaps the best way to understand pollution is to think of your car windscreen. That greyish, sticky traffic film that develops on the glass is more than just dirt and dust; it contains smoky, gluey exhaust particles and a whole lot more.

Air pollution

That's because, in cities, we're surrounded by minute particles from construction sites, power plants, factories, roads, airports and trains. Of course, air pollution doesn't only come from city living: farming equipment, tractors and pesticides also contribute, as well as garden bonfires and barbecues.

Indoor pollution

We all contend with indoor pollution, too, including VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) from aerosol sprays, cleaning products, disinfectants and paint, as well as dust, soot and cigarette smoke.

UV rays and light pollution

The ageing effects of UV exposure are now well known, but high-energy blue light can also stimulate photo-ageing.

Blue light makes up about one-third of the visible light spectrum and comes not only from the sun but from computers, phones, and tablets (which we often hold close to our faces). It can therefore contribute to inflammation, discolouration, dryness, sensitivity and wrinkles.

How does pollution affect skin?

Should we really worry about a little dirt and some daily sunlight? Experts say we should.

Damaged skin barrier

Pollution damages the skin's natural barrier function, making it less able to retain moisture. Lipids and collagen content begin to break down and the surface becomes increasingly dry, uncomfortable and irritated. Those with sensitive complexions and dry skin are particularly vulnerable as the skin's barrier function is already compromised, so inflammatory conditions such as acne, eczema, psoriasis, rashes, and rosacea are easily aggravated.

Age spots and hyperpigmentation

Pollution can also cause pigment cells to become overactive, producing unwanted patches of melanin known as age spots or sun spots.

Oxidative stress

Above all, pollutants trigger the production of free radicals: unstable molecules that damage elastin and collagen fibres in the skin, leading to loss of suppleness and plumpness and to increased lines and wrinkles.

The more pollution your skin is exposed to, the more inflammation occurs and the more the ageing process speeds up.

Using skincare with antioxidants is therefore essential.

Protecting skin from pollution

Anti-pollution skincare doesn't have to be complicated, but consistency is essential. Try this three-point action plan to protect and revive your skin.

Action 1: Cleanse your skin thoroughly, especially at night

Take your time and, if necessary, double-cleanse (your morning spruce-up can be relatively light.) The first application of cleanser lifts off surface dirt and makeup; a second application provides more thorough, pore-deep cleansing, ideal after a day in the city.

Try our Replenish Cleanser & Replenish Toner, which is mild and respects the skin's natural barrier. Containing antioxidant vitamin E, it should be massaged in with the fingertips, then wiped off with a cotton pad. Follow with a light swipe of the refreshing toner to remove residue and help lock in moisture.

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Action 2: Boost recovery when it counts

Apply treatment products when your skin is already in renewal mode and therefore at its most receptive, i.e. at night after cleansing.

Look for antioxidant ingredients to neutralise free radicals and help skin to repair (such as vitamins C and E), moisturising agents such as ceramides and fatty acids, and water-retaining ingredients like hyaluronic acid, glycerin and panthenol. Together, these ingredients help to reinforce a strong skin barrier by filling in gaps and nourishing and lubricating.

The Replenish Intensive Pigmentation Reducing Complex contains vitamins C and E as well as retinol to help improve age spots and skin tone. I recommend following up with Intensive Night Treatment Cream formulated with powerful vitamin C and hyaluronic acid for smoother, more refined−looking skin, as well as improved moisture retention.

Action 3: Put a shield around your skin during the day

Protect delicate skin from further assault by both pollution and UV light by applying SPF50 every morning, especially in summer. The Daily UV Defence SPF50 contains highly effective UVA and UVB filters to defend your skin, plus super-potent vitamin C to fight free radical damage and stimulate natural collagen and hyaluronic acid production.

Lifestyle and diet

In the same way that it took more than one car and one aerosol to create a pollution problem, it will take multiple steps (and consistency) to begin recovering from it.

As well as boosting your skincare routine, more general lifestyle improvements (getting enough sleep, reducing long-term stress, improving your fitness, stopping smoking, drinking less alcohol, and eating a healthy diet) will also improve the health of your skin.

In particular, aim for more antioxidant-rich foods, such as fresh fruit (especially berries) and vegetables (especially leafy greens), as well as nuts and seeds, to help your body fight free radical damage from the inside.

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Jocelyn Bailey

About Jocelyn Bailey

Jocelyn Bailey has been a health and beauty journalist for over 30 years, including 10 as beauty editor of Woman magazine. She is an expert in top-to-toe beauty, with a particular interest in ingredients.