Like many teenagers, Nicolas Travis struggled with severe acne. But he did something about it.
“My experience with acne sparked off my passion for skin care,” the 30-year-old said. “I wanted to go back to basics and treat the most fundamental aspect of skin health: a healthy barrier.”
Growing up in Asia, where air pollution is rampant, Travis wanted to protect his skin against pollution, which he thinks aggravated his acne. It took him years to get it under control after trying a number of products such as antibiotics and cortisone shots.
“Pollution is a huge contributor of inflammation, and you can’t really run away from it,” Travis said.
The Singaporean man studied biomedical and pharmaceutical science at the University of Bradford in the UK and, in 2016, launched a skin care company, Allies of Skin. The products aim to utilize the antioxidant properties of ingredients such as Moringa and Manuka honey, which are thought to help strengthen the structure of skin and fight damaging molecules — in turn, protecting it.
Pollution and your skin
Air pollution can lead to skin aging and the worsening of inflammatory skin diseases like eczema, acne and psoriasis, said Dr. Chan Yung, a dermatologist with the Apex Dermatology Institute in Hong Kong. It can also increase the risk of skin cancer.
Yung recommends combating these effects by wearing sunscreen and a hat, even using an umbrella during the daytime. But he also advises the use of an antioxidant to help reduce oxidative stress from free radicals.
A topical antioxidant is best, he said, because the oral absorption of vitamins is limited, leaving the amount available for skin further reduced.
White blood cells produce free radicals from oxygen to kill bacteria or viruses, explains Linwei Tian, an environmental epidemiologist at the University of Hong Kong. When they are exposed to air pollution, these free radicals may be created to fight off potential pollution deposits, but as the white blood cells cannot kill the pollution particles, more white blood cells come in, creating even more free radicals, causing oxidative stress and inflammation.
Traffic-related air pollution has also been shown to cause the formation of lentigenes — dark spots on the skin — in women in Germany and China, with the most pronounced changes on the cheeks of Asian women over 50, according to research in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology.
A recent study in China found that indoor air pollution, due to close proximity to smokers, cooking fuels and roads, can also cause skin aging.
But while studies like these suggest a direct correlation between air pollution and skin damage, Dr. Henry HL Chan, a dermatologist with the Hong Kong Dermatology and Laser Center and a professor at the University of Hong Kong, said it’s hard to find exact statistics on just how big a role pollution plays.
Two factors cause the greatest damage — sun and smoke — and when air particles cause free radical damage to cells, certain parts of our cells are not replaceable, Chan said.
Many skin products, like Travis’ Allies of Skin, utilize the properties of antioxidants to help prevent the formation of free radicals.
Moringa leaf extract, which is rich in antioxidants, was the most commonly used botanical in anti-pollution claims, used in 6% of product launches in 2015, according to Mintel, a global market intelligence agency.
Other anti-pollution products protect by serving as a barrier to air pollution. For example, the Shiseido brand IHADA claims to prevent air pollution particles from adhering to the skin. Shiseido won an award for a shield technology to keep off air pollutants from the International Federation of Societies of Cosmetic Chemists in 2017.
Anti-pollution products first appeared on the market 10 years ago, according to Mintel, which covers 38,000 thousand product launches a month. More than one in three (38%) beauty products launched with an anti-pollution claim in the Asia-Pacific market in 2016, up from 28% in 2015, according to Mintel’s study.
Clarins, now on its seventh-generation anti-pollution complex, was one of the first on the market in 1991. Spokesman Lucas Petry said the company’s products are enriched with plant extracts like African ebony, Furcellaria, Alpine sanicle and Lampsana to protect skin from free radicals, treat scarring and soothe irritation.
But Chan and other experts question the true effectiveness of these products, saying there is no way to prove that skin care products can prevent possible skin damage from pollution.
Many of these skin care products may have antioxidant properties, Chan said, but the billion-dollar question is whether they are concentrated enough to really combat damage and the aging process.
Instead, the University of Hong Kong professor recommends using a simple skin cleanser and ingesting antioxidant supplements such as vitamin C and E.
Air pollution in Asia
Antioxidants work by fighting how the body is trying to combat pollution, and skin care products build a barrier aimed at stopping pollution from getting into the body in the first place.
But neither option fights the pollution itself, so environmental epidemiologist Tian argues that we should instead work toward legislation for clean air.
The World Health Organization describes air pollution as a “public health emergency,” causing 3 million deaths a year from outdoor pollution and 6 million deaths from indoor pollution in 2016.
Much of this air pollution occurs in Asia. In a study of 482 cities in the region, 99.6% were exposed to unhealthy air quality levels based on WHO guidelines, according to Clean Asia Air, an international nongovernmental organization that works toward better air quality and healthier, more livable cities.