When I first moved to New York, it felt as if my skin was a magnet for dirt. My commute involved descending into a cavernous subway station and then walking—and walking—through traffic-filled streets with thick plumes of exhaust from taxis, buses, and cars rising up around me. At night, I’d come home and wash my face, but it seemed like I still had a thin layer of grime on me. Like many aspects of living in New York, this daily assault took some getting used to. But I considered pollution something I had to put up with—the gritty, messy reality of living in an urban metropolis. I never thought the debris would have a lasting impact on my skin—or damage it like the sun does. I slathered on sunscreen and figured I was covered.
It turns out I wasn’t entirely right. While UV rays are known carcinogens, the most urgent threat to our skin, pollution—from city living, construction sites, power plants, and cars—is now regarded as a serious complexion hazard. A recent study in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology found a link between traffic-related air pollution and dark spots on the skin, and previous research comparing women in urban and rural environments found that those exposed to increased smoke, soot, and other pollutants had more hyperpigmentation and wrinkling. Looking in the mirror, I have all those telltale markers.
“Pollution is full of molecules that can cause oxidative stress to the skin,” explains Amy Wechsler, MD, assistant clinical professor in dermatology at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in New York and an adviser for Chanel Skin Care. “This can damage the DNA of skin cells, break down the barrier function, and weaken collagen.” Exposure is almost unavoidable, though. “Pollution is the harmful by-product of our industrial society,” says Elizabeth Tanzi, MD, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at George Washington University Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and the founder and director of Capital Laser & Skin Care. Even if you live in a town with one stop sign and nothing but clear blue skies, you could still be at risk. “Much of the world deals with pollution, not just the cities,” notes Dr. Tanzi.
SPF is no longer enough—your hair and skin need an extra layer of defence.
The solution, I discovered, is not living in a yurt or radically overhauling my beauty routine. Rather, the best line of defence involves using ingredients already known to protect the skin, but blended into targeted formulas. The most crucial of these is antioxidants, “which neutralize the unstable free radicals that are formed with exposure to pollution, so they aren’t able to damage the skin cells,” says Dr. Tanzi. Other nutrients also work to calm inflammation and strengthen your skin’s barrier, helping to prevent irritating particles from getting beneath the surface.
The best place to start? With your SPF: the new high-tech options are powerful complexion avengers. Chanel’s latest UV Essentiel Multi-Protection Daily Defense Sunscreen boasts adaptive technology that adjusts to environmental conditions to neutralize free radicals, while Dr. Jart+’s intelligent Every Sun Day UV Sun Fluid is designed to have the same electrical charge as dust, which helps it repel fine debris with magnet-like force (plus, it melts in with a cool, gel texture).
For extra fortification under your sunscreen, you can layer on innovative masks like Singapore-based Allies of Skin’s 1A All-Day Mask. The potent blend of antioxidants, peptides, and anti-inflammatory ingredients “forms a breathable anti-pollution shield that prevents smog and smoke particles from clinging on to your skin,” explains founder Nicolas Travis. Once absorbed, the clear mask can be left on for the entire day—no need to rinse off. Facial oils can be another key player, rich with antioxidants. African Botanics’s Fleurs d’Afrique Intensive Recovery Oil contains South African bush and desert plants that have been macerated for weeks to create a “supercharged” wrinkle-fighting elixir. “Our ingredients come from remote, untouched areas where they are not exposed to any pollution from daily life,” says co-founder Julia Noik. Just dispense five to eight drops in the palm of your hand, rub your hands together, and press over clean, damp skin, morning and night.
Even your mane is at risk, says Dr. Wechsler, since pollution can have an impact on its health.
For those who prefer to DIY, or play the role of chemist, Clarins’s new Detox Booster drops can be mixed into any moisturizer to increase its anti-pollution abilities. The tincture is rich with green coffee extracts “that have intense antioxidant properties,” says Marie-Hélène Lair, Clarins’s international scientific communication director. It’s rounded out with hydrating hyaluronic acids and soothing cottonseed extracts to further “isolate skin from the harsh effects of pollution,” Lair notes.
Still, the easiest solution might be to just mist on protection: REN’s Flash Defence Anti-Pollution Mist forms a second-skin-like shield against cigarette smoke, exhaust fumes, and heavy metals that can leave your complexion ashy (and lead to what the company ominously calls the “urban grey” effect). The mist also delivers zinc and manganese amino acids to mop up free radicals, and quercetin to stimulate skin repair. As an added bonus, you can spritz it on your hair as well.
Yes, even your mane is at risk, says Dr. Wechsler, since pollution can have an impact on its health. That could explain why Grown Alchemist invested over 10 years of research into creating its new hair-care range, which wards off the effects of radiation, airborne toxins, and other lifestyle factors that can structurally weaken strands. Its Detox Shampoo 0.1 and Detox Conditioner 0.1—available at Want Apothecary locations in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver—rely on hydrolyzed silk proteins as well as plant-derived liposomes and antioxidants to keep the scalp and hair shaft in peak shape. (Its subtle sage aroma also smells lovely.)
As for my lo-fi face-washing routine? Lathering up can actually do a lot of good. “But in heavily polluted cities, you should take the extra step of using a cleansing brush to better remove particles,” says Dr. Tanzi, adding that this technique is more effective “than hand washing alone.” Even though I now live in the leafy, green suburbs, miles away from the city, I’ve taken that as my cue to invest in a shiny new exfoliating brush—and you know, I’ve never felt quite so clean.