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Anti-Pollution Claims – What’s that all about then?

September 6, 2017

Sometimes I find myself explaining something to a customer and as I’m saying it I start to get this feeling in my head like there is a little kid in there with its hand up as high as it will go saying ‘but why, but what, but how?????’   I mostly listen to that little person, invite them into the conversation and see where it gets me – the net result is often a lot more reading and another article, such as this.

Anti-Pollution – but what, but why, but how….

On one level this is quite simple, we go outside, especially in city and built-up areas and we are exposed to pollution.  Pollution can often be seen as we enter into a big city – the smog, haze etc – but sometimes it is less discernible than all that.   It can often be smelled – wood fire smoke,  rotting waste, catalytic converter eggy smell – but sometimes there is no smell at all. Occasionally we can feel it as greasiness, stickiness or particulate soot but sometimes we may not notice a thing.

Some typical and common forms of pollutants that can affect the skin are as follows:

Particulate matter (dirt such as soot – carbon, lead particles etc, dust, pollen etc) PM 2.5 = fine particles,  PM 10 = inhalable particles. 


SO2 (Sulphur Dioxide)

NOx (Nitrous Oxide)

VOC’s (Volatile Organic Compounds)

CO (Carbon Monoxide)



The idea that a cosmetic product could be ‘anti-pollution’ is not so hard to imagine – one could take a product that occludes the skin, forming a physical barrier to all of this gunk,  rather like wearing a raincoat in a storm. But it doesn’t take long before we remember the feeling of such a product – occlusion can feel heavy, greasy, suffocating – not great cosmetically.  What is better than that is the idea that we can create an invisible layer of protection across our skin to shield us from the sometimes-visible and discernible and sometimes not pollution that smacks us in the face every time we go outside – well, maybe.  That’s the story that many ingredient manufacturers have been working on of late, so much so in fact, that anti-pollution cosmetics are said to be this years ‘big thing’ – OK so this year is nearly over but to be honest, formulating trends that work do tend to stick around for a while.  So all we have to do now is look at the what’s, how’s and where’s of it all.

The first ‘what’ I had was this:  What does ‘pollution’ do to the skin?

My first answer would be that pollution puts the skin under stress and that stress can then result in redness, irritation, sensitivity and maybe even pimples and discolouration, extra wrinkles and the degradation of collagen.  While all of this is true enough, I was suddenly struck by the fact that I was missing a step in my understanding – a step that would be essential in selecting the perfect tool for the prevention job – that step is HOW this damage happens biologically.  The skin can’t possibly look at everything individually and decide how to react, it has a number of pathways available to it to minimise or neutralise risk and damage to its self so I thought it would be good to look at these more closely so as to better understand how to support them.

When skin fights back.

While there are lots of man-made and relatively modern sources of pollution out there for our skin to deal with, the skin has only a few tools to deal with them with.  The tool it picks to neutralise the invader is chosen based on the biological pathway switch that’s tripped by the presence of these invaders.  These look like pretty important ones as far as anti-ageing goes.

  • The free-radical trigger
  • The inflammatory trigger
  • The microbial flora altering trigger
  • The Aryl Hydrocarbon Receptor trigger.


Free radicals can be generated on the skin by excessive UV exposure and these energetic little particles can do some damage and even result in cell death – an outcome that is not entirely without benefit, damaged cells are better off dead (apoptosis) than hanging around and damaging others.  They can also be formed in environmental pollution including particulate matter and VOC’s.  Neutralising free radicals has long been known to be a good anti-ageing and skin-protective strategy for cosmetic chemists and one of the most well-known ways to do this is to incorporate liberal amounts of antioxidant in the formula.  Antioxidants come in many shapes and sizes and it is often worthwhile to employ a suite of antioxidants rather than just have lots of one. Common antioxidants include Vitamin E, Vitamin C, Rosemary Antioxidant, Green Tea, Coenzyme Q10, Resveratrol and Lycopene.  While it is tempting to think of the skin as a passive ‘victim’ in this assault, it is important to remember that the skin has its own antioxidant based free-radical fighting machinery built-into its self and so in many ways the cosmetic product is just assisting and supporting this rather than coming in and taking over.  The skin mainly relies on vitamin C and E working together to quench this free radical threat.

When it comes to inflammation Cytokines are the chemicals that sound the alarm to the body, urging it to respond and neutralise the inflammatory threat.  While the inflammatory response is quite complicated suffice to say that once triggered the blood flow to the triggered area increases, the capilliaries become more permeable and fluid is released, white blood cells are triggered and the area may end up looking red, swollen and hot.  Things that trigger an inflammatory response can include chemicals that are known dermal irritants or sensitisers, microbes or situations that put the skin under immense stress (such as burns, extreme pH etc).

The microbial flora altering trigger is another stressor as the skin has its own microflora that acts as a defensive and protective shield, maintaining barrier integrity.  When a pathogen or foreign microbial particle comes into contact with the skin it may trigger an immune response.  This response could get all the way to an inflammatory response in order to trigger release of white blood cells that can help neutralise the threat of this unwanted bacteria.  On a smaller level, this response can still initiate local inflammation which, in its self, puts the skin under some degree of stress.

Finally the Aryl Hydrocarbon Receptor  (AhR) Trigger is one that kicks into gear when it comes across things like smoke and some airborne man-made polluting chemicals. Once triggered this pathway can lead to disordered pigmentation as well as a degradation in collagen and elastin.  Unlike the free radical, inflammatory and microbial triggers above which are present at or around the skin surface, the AhR is located within the cytoplasm of cells.  As the first layers of our skin consist of corneocytes that don’t have a cytoplasm (because they are dead cells) this trigger is a bit harder to pull – not a bad thing.  So basically the aim of a cosmetic is to prevent pollution from getting this far.

Using this information to make a good anti-pollution cosmetic. 

Looking at the above it seems logical that a good anti-pollution fighting product would include anti-inflammatory agents to help take the burden off the skin should it come under stress,  plenty of antioxidants to mop up those free radicals before they do damage, potentially something to support the natural microflora of the skin or at least a strategy that avoids stressing or stripping off what’s there and finally something to sweep up or lock away any dirt that’s left.  These last ingredients are called ‘chelating agents’.

Chelating as an anti-pollution strategy.

I’ve talked a bit about chelating agents before – see this article.  

But it isn’t just ‘boring’ chemicals that chelate stuff,  some plant-based extracts can also act as particulate mops and help keep the skin from being attacked as can some proteobacteria!  One such ‘good’ bacterial ‘mop’ is extracted from French Polynesia kopara  (a microbial ‘mat’ that develop in shallow ponds). Apparently this ingredient has the ability to prevent particulate matter including that from cigarette smoke and exhaust fumes from wreaking havoc on our epidermis. The trade name for this is Exo-P and it is made by Lucas Myer.

But that isn’t all, there are extracts made from artichokes (Kerasym from Symrise),  Sea Lettuce (Phycol UL from Seppic), Ectoin – a substance that bacteria use to protect themselves from harsh environments (28Extremoin) and many more.  It’s actually quite exciting to see what lovely new ingredients are being tested in this area!

Wonderful, but can these things work?

That’s a big question and it is one that has a simple answer and a more complex one.  Anti-pollution products can and do work and have been doing so for many years in one shape or form, in fact, any cosmetic containing  UV protection, anti-inflammatory agents or antioxidants is already partly there.  But to be 100% there it is clear to me that the product must contain some ability to seriously lock-up these particulates before they can do damage and in most cases that means adding something that can chelate.  I guess the next thing to keep in mind is the need for the product to not add to the environmental burden the skin faces – trying to formulate to make sure the product is adequately preserved without being over-preserved,  non-irritating,  resistant to oxidation and containing little-to-no heavy metals or chemical irritants its self.  This sounds simple enough and might immediately lead to the conclusion that natural or organic products naturally have an advantage here but that would not be correct, many natural extracts contain trace impurities in the way of heavy metals as do many clays so all those serious about anti-pollution should take a good look at their ingredient specs before wasting money on ingredients that are going to be kept busy before they even reach the skin.

My advice would be to keep it simple yet strategic – cover all bases but don’t add fluff that might counter or compromise your efforts.


Happy formulating, purchasing and playing!  I’m off to cook up something myself now.

Amanda x

PS: It is rather disturbing that this week I was greeted in my news feed by an article on what to do in case of a nuclear war – don’t condition your hair was one piece of advice that I thought was interesting, if not a bit odd (though I could see why).  I just hope we don’t need our anti-pollution cosmetics for that purpose as I’m not sure how much use any cream would be in a situation like that – I think I’d just drop everything and run for the hills!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jess Taylor permalink
    September 6, 2017 11:45 pm

    Thank you for the article. Do you know whether there’s been much progress in creating standardized efficacy tests for anti-pollution claims, or is it up to the brand owner to determine what to cover and test? It could be seen as such a broad term and I wonder how customers would differentiate between anti-pollution products, plus free radical damage or inflammation could result from something other than pollution!

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      September 6, 2017 11:58 pm

      Hi Jess, I don’t know what progress there’s been in anti-pollution claims substantiation to be honest but I would have thought that most people would expect an anti-pollution product to guard against the damaging aspects of pollution which seems obvious but I don’t think it necessarily is. I would expect there to be an ingredient used at a efficacious level to neutralise the threat from environmental pollutants either chemically or physically. It should be possible to create a test that measures the difference in deposition of metal particulates on the skin surface from a formula containing the active vs one that doesn’t. The antioxidant, UV protection and anti-inflammatory benefits would really be secondary to that in my opinion for this claim vs say a general ‘anti-ageing’ claim. A swab of the skin should be enough to collect what’s left and measure it.

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