Anti-pollution Cosmetics: In the Face of a Changing Environment


In India, fairness products were once the craze, but the changing environment has forced consumers to think differently. For example, they now seek to prevent or repair the negative effects of pollution. In fact, research has shown pollution can cause age spots and other hyperpigmentation in skin,1 so this shift is both complementary to and a natural progression of skin lightening.

The anti-pollution wave is driving the Rs 5,500 crore (US $86.41 million) skin care market in India. This may come as no surprise since Asia-Pacific (APAC) regions have highest levels of air contamination. Some of the most polluted cities in the world include: New Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore in India; Karachi in Pakistan; and Shanghai and Beijing in China.

According to Mintel, the APAC region registered a 40% rise in the number of beauty and personal care products carrying an anti-pollution claim between 2011 and 2013. This accounted for 22% and 27%, respectively, of the world’s cosmetics with anti-pollution claims.2 Specifically, the number of anti-pollution soap and bath products in the region grew by 63% between 2011 and 2013. Anti-pollution hair products rose 61%, while skin care increased 46% over the same period.3

However, the trend has become global. Consumers in the West are now seeking cosmetics to not only fight the signs of aging, but also protect against environmental threats, including pollution. Indeed, the World Health Organization declared pollution as the world’s biggest environmental health risk.1, 4

So what is pollution? Generally, it is considered as contamination in one’s natural surroundings that adversely affects a normal lifestyle. Pollution disturbs the balance of the ecosystem, and with today’s modernization and development, it has reached its peak, giving rise to global warming and human illness.

Pollution and Skin

Pollution in different forms and media can cause skin distress. Examples include pollen, smog and/or smoke in the air; UV and other light radiation from natural sources or technology; thermal stress from heat/air conditioning; etc. Such pollution can lead to visual dullness and signs of aging, or cause various skin disorders.3 In ground water, heavy metals can be injurious to health, let alone skin; halogen acne, chemical depigmentation, connective tissue diseases and skin cancer are some common skin diseases caused by pollution.7, 13

In the air, pollutants such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), oxides, particulate matter (PM), ozone (O3) and cigarette smoke can negatively affect skin. Specifically, particulate matter at sizes of approx. 2.5–10 microns (PM2.5 and PM10) seems to be the main threat to skin health.5 These fine particles are coated with PAHs, heavy metals and other contaminants, and, being up to 20× smaller than pores, are capable of penetrating into the deeper layers of skin.3, 9, 14

Within skin, they break down collagen and elastin and release free radicals. This causes signs of aging, inflammation, dehydration and other allergic skin conditions such as atopic dermatitis, eczema, psoriasis or acne—ultimately, even skin cancer.6, 7 And although human skin acts as a biological shield against oxidative chemicals and physical air pollutants, prolonged or repetitive exposure to high levels may have profound negative effects.

Zoe Draelos, M.D., consulting professor of dermatology at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, explained:3 “Pollution breaks down collagen and the lipid layer in the skin, which impairs skin barrier functions.” Indeed, ozone, the basic element in smog, has been shown to quickly strip vitamin E from the topmost layer of the skin.13, 15

From a skin aging standpoint, air pollution particles can speed up the process.8 For example, while loss of skin moisture and elasticity is a natural part of aging, pollution can starve the skin of oxygen and dry out its natural oils. In fact, 90% of visible aging—e.g., wrinkles, rough patches, loss of elasticity, discoloration, dark spots and dryness—is caused by environmental factors such as sun exposure and pollution.

In relation, research conducted by L’Oréal pointed to a link between atmospheric pollution and premature skin aging, especially in individuals with sensitive skin. According to the study, those living in populous cities had lower levels of vitamin E and squalene in sebum compared with those living in rural areas.8, 16

Particulate matter coated with contaminants penetrates skin, where it breaks down collagen and elastin, and releases
free radicals.

Anti-pollution Products and Ingredients

Considering the evidence, leading global cosmetic companies are turning to a full spectrum of anti-pollution ingredients for answers. These range from plant extracts, vitamins or antioxidant complexes, to ingredients that create a physical barrier between skin and pollutants. Other promising approaches have chelating or magnetic properties, which are reported to prevent pollutants from interacting with the skin.2

Plant extracts, vitamins and antioxidant complexes are among the most popular anti-pollution ingredients, favored by the growing demand for natural ingredients. Procter & Gamble’s Olay Total Effects products, for example, have been reformulated with a greater proportion of vitamin E and niacinamide. The company also expanded its Active Botanicals line with two natural anti-pollution ingredients: artichoke extract and snow fungus, traditionally used in natural Chinese medicine. Clarins also uses actives derived from range of anti-pollution plants, such as moringa, white tea, green tea, açai berry, dock-cress, etc.

Other brands are betting on less traditional ingredients to provide pollution protection. Tula combines antioxidant and probiotic ingredients in its Urban Defense Hydrating Mist, while Lancôme’s City Miracle and Avon’s Clinical E-Defense Deep Recovery products contain two specific anti-pollution ingredients—a detoxifying and chelating agenta that prevents metallic pollutants from sticking to the skin; and Thymosin β-4, a protein that helps to attract healthy cells to areas that have been damaged by pollution.

Chinese brands such as Hua Niang or Fumakilla market their products with specific anti-pollution claims, such as “anti-PM 2.5,” to attract consumer attention. Unilever’s Pond’s brand uses this claim, too, in its Pure White cleansing line.9

Emami also came out with a product focused on “anti-pollution,” while Dabur's skin bleach promises to mend pale-looking skin exposed to stress, harsh sunlight and high levels of pollution. Boroplus and Fair & Lovely also launched anti-pollution face washes to remove impurities.

Clinique was the first to use anti-pollution terminology in marketing the Even Better City Block Anti-Pollution SPF 40 product. The brand identified that sun, pollution and the environment can all irritate the skin and cause dark spots. As a result, the cream boasts the benefits of high-SPF protection and antioxidants while also brightening skin. Subsequently, Elizabeth Arden, Decl’eor, Dior and others launched products in this category.

The number of anti-pollution solutions offered by ingredient manufacturers has jumped to meet growing consumer demand, as shown in Table 1. In addition to these ingredients, others such as probiotics, algae, turmeric, ginger, zinc and orange extract are used to ward off the irritating and aging effects of smog. Furthermore, some manufacturers have tapped into protective complexes derived from extremophiles.

Although these ingredients are promising, further clinical research is necessary to better understand their effects. So far, there is no perfect solution or single ingredient able to provide full protection. Therefore, a combination of botanical extracts, vitamins and ingredients that create a physical barrier is likely to be the preferred option. In relation, it is key for manufacturers to include antioxidants in their formulations alongside anti-pollution ingredients.

As the anti-pollution category continues to evolve, so will specific anti-pollution terminology and credentials.

Future Trends in Anti-pollution

As the anti-pollution category continues to evolve, so will specific anti-pollution terminology and credentials; for example, terms specifying the source and chemical composition of the pollution, and claims backed by certification organizations. These will expand across regions, categories, occasions, ages and gender. Protective ranges to address pollution will also work from the inside-out via nutraceuticals, by imparting a layer over or under other products, or by wearable devices including mobile apps to measure daily air conditions and customize products that respond to daily environmental conditions.

Related apps and devices are already on the market but new and innovative iterations will arrive soon and tie more closely to anti-pollution skin care management. SkinVision, for example, is an awareness and tracking mobile app that helps individuals assess suspicious moles and skin conditions, and gives recommendations based on the risk assessment. With the personal gallery, users can compare pictures over time and easily share their images with a doctor.10 MAPO, created by Wired Beauty, is another example. It is the world's first connected beauty mask that checks and maintains skin moisture.11

While most cities monitor air conditions, in order to gain a better understanding of air quality and health, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other government agencies awarded a $100,000 prize through the “My Air, My Health” challenge to a new wearable air pollution and health monitoring device. The winning Conscious Clothing system tracks particulate matter, measures breaths and can transmit data via bluetooth.12

“With people wearing these new data-collecting devices, researchers will be able to see and understand the relationships between varying levels of air pollutants and individual health responses in real-time. This is a big step toward treating and, more importantly, preventing disease and illness,” said Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, part of NIH. “This is an exciting time in research.”

Such devices can also help guide product developers to design appropriate formulas for a particular area, or could encourage personal formulation concepts. There is no doubt that the trend for anti-pollution cosmetics is here to stay and will continue to grow, especially considering there is no easy answer to solve the larger pollution problem.


All websites accessed on Jan. 10, 2018.

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