How to protect your skin from pollution

We’re aware of the dangers of sunlight, but today there’s a whole new set of problems assaulting our skin. The villain is a manmade chemical smog of air pollutants, mainly from traffic, which means that city dwellers are wearing a mantle of pollution on their skin.

Research has highlighted the increased risk of life-threatening conditions including lung cancer, asthma and other respiratory diseases, heart disease and stroke from traffic-generated pollution. There has also been a surge in inflammatory skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, hives and acne at all ages, plus premature skin ageing with dryness, wrinkles and pigmentation.

‘The skin is our largest organ and the most exposed to external factors. That leads to significant absorption of environmental pollutants, which causes chronic inflammation and also damage to cells deeper in the dermis via a process called oxidative stress,’ explains aesthetic dermatologist Dr Phillip Levy. ‘This chemical smog can directly cause the skin to age by starving it of oxygen. Also, low-level ozone strips away vitamin E, which is vital for healthy skin.’ Dr Levy’s own high-end skincare brand addresses these issues.

Getty Images/Blend Images

There is evidence that toxic fumes cause pigmentation and wrinkles as well as other problems, says consultant dermatologist Dr Daniel Glass. He advises avoiding main roads whenever possible: walk through parks or travel by bus or car rather than the more polluted underground in London.

The only advantage of low-level ozone is that, like natural ozone high in the atmosphere, it reduces the cell-damaging effects of UV radiation. Unfortunately, says consultant dermatologist Dr Nick Lowe, we are now under attack from an indoor source of UVR: blue light emitted by computers, tablets and iPhones doesn’t only interfere with sleep. ‘There’s increasing evidence that blue-violet light, which is on a wavelength close to UV, can damage our skin deep within the cells, and our eyes,’ he says.

So how do we protect our skin? Experts agree that for our faces, effective cleansing is key, both at night to remove pollutants and make-up, and in the morning – looking at the grime on my bedroom blinds in London, I know why.

Chemist Dr Pauline Hili, a leading formulator of natural skincare, says evidence suggests that ‘including extracts of kale and other brassicas in skincare can break down environmental pollutants on the skin and remove them before they cause damage’. Massage in a targeted cleanser, such as Dr Hili’s Nourish London Skin Renew Cleanser (£20,

Dr Lowe recommends using an antioxidant-rich serum after cleansing, morning and evening. Skinceuticals C E Ferulic Acid Face Serum (£135, is a favourite of dermatologists. Less costly are Liz Earle Superskin Face Serum (£45, and Boots No 7 Restore & Renew Face & Neck Multi Action Serum (£28,

Applying retinol at night can help rejuvenate the complexion, says Dr Anita Sturnham. Options include Murad Retinol Youth Renewal Serum (£70, and Paula’s Choice Clinical 1% Retinol Treatment (£53,

However, retinol makes your skin more sensitive to UVUV, so apply SPF 30-50 during the day. It also helps protect against pollution. ‘Choose a reflective sunscreen with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, then apply mineral make-up,’ advises Dr Lowe. Try Derma E Natural Mineral Sunscreen SPF30 For Face (£20, and BareMinerals Original Foundation SPF 15 (£27,

Air pollutants: The sources

UVA/UVB RADIATION from sunlight.
BLUE-VIOLET LIGHT from digital devices, flat-screen TVTVs and lightbulbs.
PARTICULATE MATTER (PM) is a range of air pollutants from different sources; nano-size particles from vehicle emissions are considered some of the most harmful.
POLYCYCLIC AROMATIC HYDROCARBONS (PAHs) from exhaust fumes, especially diesel, cigarette smoke, wood and solid fuel burning.
VOLATILE ORGANIC COMPOUNDS (VOCs) from car exhausts, industrial emissions, paint and varnish.
OXIDES including nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulphur dioxide (SO₂) and carbon monoxide (CO) from combustion engines, eg, cars and lorries.
LOW-LEVEL OZONE (O₃) is formed by the interaction of sunlight, PAHs, VOCs and NOx.

Feature by Sarah Stacey