Does anti-pollution makeup work much better than a typical sunscreen?

In the past few years, many makeup companies have added another function to products that already claim to block damaging light and moisturize the skin: they reportedly protect the skin from harmful effects of air pollution. But do these products work the way their manufacturers claim? And if so, do you really need them?


To start with, there is some evidence that air pollution does damage skin. A well-known study published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology in 2010 compared the skin of 400 elderly Caucasian women and found that women who lived in areas with a lot of traffic (and were thus presumably exposed to more particles from vehicles’ exhaust) had more pronounced wrinkles and discolored spots on the cheeks and forehead. In the years since, additional studies have found that airborne pollutants from cooking fuels, cigarettes, and industrial activity can have similar effects, speeding up skin aging.

Scientists aren’t quite sure how this works on a molecular level, says Ranella Hirsch, a dermatologist in Boston. But they do know that these effects don’t just appear overnight; they happen over the long term.

This area of study has really taken off in the past five years, coinciding with the timing of the first anti-pollution cosmetics. But the science is just one of the reasons why anti-pollution makeup is one of the biggest cosmetic trends of the moment, Hirsch says.

Beauty products from Korea are all the rage in the U.S., she says, and many of those emphasize having flawless skin above all else. Plus, air pollution is a substantial problem in many Asian cities, so it makes sense that anti-pollution skincare products might have originated there. “It’s a perfect storm of things coming together, another way to sell skin cream,” Hirsch says.

Looking at the labels of some anti-pollution cosmetics, {a majority?} of them mention free radicals, which are highly reactive atoms.

{insert a graf on What are free radicals, what are antioxidants, are they harmful, do we need to mitigate them}

The Products

Aside from free radicals, many of the products offer protection from UV, which comes from the sun. {That’s not really a pollutant, right? maybe UV is off this topic? } Others are less specific, merely mentioning “environmental toxins” found in urban environments, which may include heavy metal elements like cadmium, lead and mercury that are common in air pollution and can have damaging health effects.

It’s not always apparent just how the products ward off damaging compounds. Dior claims its “One Essential City Defense” ($59) fights “toxins” with “anti-adhesion, anti-penetration, and anti-oxidization” properties; Clarins’ “UV PLUS Anti-Pollution Sunscreen” ($44) can “[protect] against the harmful effects of UV rays, free radicals, and pollution to preserve youth, luminosity, and even tone of the skin.”

Ni’Kita Wilson, a cosmetic chemist, says the products are mostly centered around combating free radicals. The body has a natural process of creating its own free radicals, then using antioxidants to absorb them before they can wreak havoc on many of the body’s tissues. But if free radicals from the environment bombard the body, that balance can often be thrown out of whack. That’s why many skincare products, including anti-pollution cosmetics, contain antioxidants, Wilson says. “The goal is to help the body out by stopping free radicals before they can do damage, and help the body’s ability to repair it,” she says.

Experts like Wilson have known for a long time that antioxidants protect skin. It’s been proven with dozens of tests, done in a petri dish and on human subjects, that can indicate whether or not a product is working as it should.

Often, exactly why these products are working isn’t clear. But manufacturers don’t have to figure that out before putting their product on the market.

Without seeing the clinical studies for each anti-pollution product, it’s impossible for Wilson to know if these cosmetics are protecting against all facets of pollution (not just antioxidants but heavy metals too). But she notes that the background science makes sense. “On the surface we would say, yes, [anti-pollution cosmetics] do appear to be working. But it may not always be working under the same mechanism they think,” Wilson says.

So do they work?

They seem to. But not much better than other products.

Hirsch isn’t convinced that the products are actually absorbing air pollution in a way that will meaningfully slow skin’s aging. She would need to see more data — about how they work on a cellular level, the results of DNA tests that show the products result in less damage, and the effects over the course of several years.

That’s not to say these products don’t provide any benefits to consumers. But those benefits mostly come from protection from damaging UV rays from the sun, not by warding off pollution. “If you’re going to put a sunscreen on, not only is there no downside, it’s actually a positive thing,” Hirsch says.

In the end, anti-pollution makeup might be a skincare fad, like fermented products and probiotics for the skin. But as long as you’re not breaking the bank to afford these products, Hirsch says, “you’re not doing anything terrible by using this stuff.”

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