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Does Anti-Pollution Skincare Actually Work? Here's What You Need to Know

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We already know that pollutants — smog, smoke, hot garbage fumes, whatever is baking on the subway platform — are not only causing environmental issues, but they can wreak havoc on your health. And if it’s bad for your bod, it’s bad for your skin, which is why the beauty industry has devoted itself to developing products designed to fight pollution’s effects on your skin.

So what exactly is all that yucky stuff in the air doing to your skin? “Pollution can cause damage to the skin’s natural barrier, thereby making the skin more sensitive,” says Elizabeth Tanzi, MD, and founder and director of Capital Laser & Skin Care and assistant clinical professor, department of dermatology at the George Washington University Medical Center. “Long-term pollution can cause low-grade inflammation, which can damage the skin in multiple ways — including an acceleration of the aging process.”

And as Dendy Engelman, MD, of Manhattan Dermatology and Cosmetic Surgery, points out, it’s fairly easy for pollution particles to penetrate the skin. Too much, and you might find yourself with skin issues including dryness, dullness, clogged pores, inflammation and allergic reactions.

“Pollutants enter the pores and cause free-radical damage, which, in turn, can cause premature cellular death. In other words, it can wreak havoc on the skin right down to its DNA,” says Engelman. “Over time, damage can also manifest into signs of aging such as hyperpigmentation, fine lines and wrinkles.”

To stop those problems before they start, skincare companies have begun formulating products with ingredients made to coat the skin with a protective layer, in order to combat the damage caused by toxins looming in the air.

“Ideally, these products should sit on top of the skin so they can effectively shield pollutants without the risk of clogging pores,” says Engelman. “The pollution particles will then fall away or be removed when you wash your face.”

Elizabeth Arden’s Prevage City Smart Broad Spectrum SPF 50 Hydrating Shield, made with antioxidants including green tea and ferulic acid, seamlessly blends into skin to act as a shield against irritants in the air (plus, it’s got that all-important SPF!). Decléor Paris’ Hydra Floral Anti-Pollution Active Lotion contains hyaluronic acid to hydrate and smooth the surface of skin to help block toxins, while Ren Skincare’s Flash Defence Anti-Pollution Mist and Tula Urban Defense Hydrating Mist are both non-sticky spritzes that coat your skin with a protective layer.

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Origins’ new pollution-fighting Mega-Defense line, which features a sunscreen and face oil, is “an integrative approach to protecting, defending and strengthening skin to protect from future damage,” says Lizz Starr, the brand’s global product development executive director. “It’s a comprehensive solution to everyday pollution exposure.”

And for those who prefer to fight free radicals from the couch, both Tata Harper and Kiehl’s recently launched mask options: a Purifying Mask that contains probiotics and broccoli extract to cleanse and detox, and an overnight Cilantro & Orange Extract Pollutant Defending Masque to renew dull, damaged skin, respectively.

While the hype around pollution-fighting products isn’t necessarily a new concept, it is a “reaction to the increasing scientific evidence that pollution actually does damage the skin,” says Tanzi. Which is why we’ve recently seen a surge of formulations touted to prevent signs of aging caused by environmental stressors this summer.

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If you’d rather use something already found in your skincare stash, Engelman recommends reaching for antioxidant-packed products including vitamin C, vitamin E and ferulic acid. “Antioxidants are your best bet when it comes to your existing products protecting against pollution,” she says. “These help to neutralize free-radical damage, which, in turn, will minimize the appearance of hyperpigmentation, wrinkles and sagging skin over time.”

But no matter where you fall on the anti-pollution skincare spectrum, Tanzi says your skin’s first form of defense, above all else, should be sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher. “The No. 1 thing that damages the skin is ultraviolet radiation, which is why a good SPF is the most important part of a skin protection program,” she says.

What do you think of the anti-pollution skincare trend? Share below!

–Sarah Kinonen