How to Protect Your Skin From Pollution (and Why You Should Care)


For the last few months, I’ve been riding my bike to work. Though it’s allowed me to avoid the TTC and wedge in 30 minutes of exercise at the start and end of my work day, the downside is that it’s put me directly on the receiving end of all the traffic pollution. I cringe as I cruise up alongside cube vans and streetcars, not just because I’m inhaling the stuff, but also because the actual particles (known as particulate matter) are adhering onto my face, which we now know is a huge threat to our skin, alongside UV.

“When you have pollutant particles in the skin, they are 20 times smaller than the surface of our pores, so it’s very easy for them to infiltrate and settle and then cause free radical damage,” says Dr. Dendy Engelman, a New York City-based dermatologist and consulting dermatologist for Elizabeth Arden. “That causes DNA breakdown and premature cell death so that can accelerate the process of aging, collagen and elastin breakdown and hyperpigmention.”

While globally we are doing better than places like Mexico City (where they are now limiting how many times a week you can drive your car), Beijing and Mumbai, if you live in an urban area, exposure is pretty much unavoidable. So what can you do? Stock up on anti-oxidants.

“They help to fight free radical damage that can be from anything: smoke, ultraviolet radiation, particulate matter, so that’s the overall umbrella that helps protect our skin,” says Dr. Engelman. She also points to products like Prevage City Smart Broad Spectrum Sunscreen SPF 50, which provides a silicone-based semi permeable membrane so that particles can’t enter the skin. “If you have that barrier, then it’s like a shield that disallows that entry point.”

If you’re looking into other options, Ren‘s Flash Defense Anti-Pollution Mist also provides a non-sticky shield using biosaccharide gum (derived from sugar and yeast). Then there’s La Prairie‘s Cellular Swiss Protection Veil and Philosophy‘s Take a Deep Breath Oil-Free Oxygenating Gel-Cream, both loaded with antioxidant protection.

Engelman also advocates thorough face washing at night which can involve a double cleanse as well as a cleansing brush like a Clarisonic or Foreo paired with something like Clinique City Block Purifying Charcoal Cleansing Gel; it uses the magnet-like power of natural bamboo charcoal to pull pollutants out of your face. Finally there’s treatments such as Kiehl’s Cilantro & Orange Extract Pollutant Defending Masque, which strengthens the skin barrier and prevents pollution particles from making a home of your pores. Seriously, do whatever it takes to show those guys the exit door.