Urban Lifestyle - Pollution Busting Skin Care

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Urban Lifestyle - Pollution Busting Skin Care

For many the bright lights hustle and bustle and vibrancy of the city is exciting and full of opportunity and promise. That may well be true but what's also true is the fact that big city living may well be conspiring against our skin, ageing us prematurely and leaving us itchy, dry and a little bit more wrinkled. This, my friends, is a story about urban pollution.

Pollution can often be marked by a change in sky colour visible as we approach a big city but sometimes it is less discernible than all that. Sometimes all that's noticed after a day in the ‘big smoke' is a residual greasiness, stickiness or particulate soot that we wipe from our skin along with our make-up at the end of the day. Occasionally we might smell the change in air quality as we move around the city- a hint of smoke, the eggy vapours from a catalytic convertor or the heavy, oily belch from a diesel engine. Urban pollution is everywhere and while more and more cities are working towards cleaning up the air and soil around them that all takes time and so, in the meantime it's best to take matters into your own hands and fight back!

Pollution - identifying the enemy.

The first rule of combat is to know your enemy so let's get started with that by looking at what exactly IS in the air that surrounds us...

Particulate matter - PM 2.5 and PM 10.

Dirt such as soot - carbon, lead particles etc, dust, pollen etc.

PM stands for ‘particulate matter' and the numbers relate to its size. The smaller the particles, the greater their ability to be inhaled into our bodies and the higher the potential for them to do damage. It is interesting to note at this point that not all of this PM pollution is man-made or ‘chemical', pollen is also particulate matter and that can, under certain circumstances be equally as damaging as exhaust fumes. It was only last year when Thunderstorm asthma was blamed for eight people losing their the lives in and around Melbourne. Then there's fire and its resulting particulate soot and smoke - again natural and not limited to inner cities. But outside of nature's pollen, fire and dust storms we are talking about the particulates that are belched out of machinery or that are suspended in the air after being expelled from vehicles with include planes, trains and automobiles.


Ozone is formed by a reaction between pollutants emitted by machinery including cars and sunlight. While ozone is naturally present as a protective layer in the upper atmosphere, at ground levels it is harmful to can and us make breathing quite difficult, especially for those with asthma and other respiratory conditions. In terms of skin it is a source of free radicals that can cause a cascade of degradation across the skin surface that might result in inflammation, redness, dryness and an increase in wrinkle formation.

SO2 (Sulphur Dioxide)

Sulphur Dioxide is an irritant and can be to blame for the dry, itchy eyes and throats that we sometimes experience after spending time in a polluted atmosphere. The main source of SO2 in the atmosphere is industrial activity such as generating electricity from coal, oil or gas (as these contain sulphur). Sulphur Dioxide is also found in motor vehicle emissions although it is now not a major source of this pollution.

NOx (Nitrous Oxide)

Nitrous Oxide is also known as laughing gas but it is no laughing matter when this gets into the atmosphere as it has significant power to warm the atmosphere as it acts as a greenhouse gas. The majority of nitrous oxide released into the atmosphere comes from agricultural activities but small amounts are also released from motor vehicles and it is also used as a propellant in things like cans of cream and cooking oil.

VOC's (Volatile Organic Compounds)

Perfume and essential oils are examples of VOC's but are not necessarily ones that we think of as problematic. What's more of an issue to our general and skin health are those VOC's emitted by paints and protective coatings, industrial solvents, plastics, resins and synthetic fibres. VOC's are also found in tobacco smoke, fuels and exhaust fumes. There are many different chemicals within the VOC category but some can cause vomiting, dizziness, changes in heart rate and even allergic responses both topically (on the skin) and systemically (in the body).

CO (Carbon Monoxide)

Carbon monoxide is produced when fuels are burned in an atmosphere with little oxygen - this situation can occur in winter when un-flued gas heaters are used as heating sources in closed-up houses. Carbon monoxide is a toxin and can ultimately suffocate us.


Pesticides come in many different shapes and sizes addressing everything from crawling insects in the house (insecticides) to termite barrier chemicals, rodent bait, fungicides including anti-fungal bathroom cleaners and anti-microbials (disinfectants). These can cause irritation to the eyes, nose and throat and itchiness and irritation on the skin at low levels and at higher levels can be fatal.


Microbial pollution can be a trigger for general disease and skin complaints. Dark, damp environments encourage the growth of mould spores, which can irritate, inflame and infect.

So what can be done to protect us from these enemies?

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 this entire 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 or enter into a ‘dirty' environment. 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.

As we have seen when looking at the different pollutants, pollution puts the skin under stress and that stress can then result in redness, irritation, and sensitivity and maybe even pimples and discolouration, extra wrinkles and the degradation of collagen. While the skin can't possibly look at every assailant individually and decide how to react, it is also wrong to think of it as a passive victim in all of this. Our skin has a number of different strategies for dealing with pollution and often our job is to just understand and support these as best we can.

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. The skin mainly relies on its own stores of vitamin C and E working together to quench this free radical threat but it is always useful to bring a few other antioxidants along to the party to take the pressure off our own in-built protection mechanisms.

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 capillaries 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 micro flora 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. One specialised ingredient designed to assist the skin in maintaining its ‘good' bacteria is the Prebiotic Skin Balancer available now from New Directions. This yeast extract supports and nourishes the good bacteria, allowing them to flourish and crowd out any pathogens or un-wanted microbes that might disrupt the biome.

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 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 coenocytes 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 micro flora 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

Chelating as an anti-pollution strategy.

Chelating agents are often thought of as a bit old-fashioned and ‘boring' but nothing could be further from the truth! There are many plant-based extracts out there that 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 this is now available to purchase online at New Directions.

How realistic is it to think we can fight pollutants that land on our skin?

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. 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.

And if all else fails, DETOX!

There is always the potential for some little critters of particulates to miss out on being chelated or neutralised at point of contact and that's why it is also useful to consider detox products in your environmental pollution-fighting arsenal - something for the aftermath! What better ingredient to do that than activated charcoal!

Activated charcoal in its pure form is a dusty, Nano-particulate powder that can cause issues its self if one doesn't handle it properly. That's why we have opted to supply it in non-dusting micro encapsulated beads that break on contact with the skin, reducing the potential for a breathing hazard while ensuring a good dose of active charcoal to the skin. Charcoal is used as a detoxifying agent that helps to adsorb particles from the skin, trapping them in its pores before they can be washed away.

Another completely natural detoxifying active new to New Directions is our Eucalyptus Stem Cells. These encourage the release of cellular waste in asphyxiated cells (skin cells depleted of oxygen often as a result of environmental pollutants) and have a reoxygenating effect whilst reducing the creation of free radicals.

Resist Pollution, Embrace Great Skin!

With so many exciting ways to help the skin fight back it is no wonder that Anti-Pollution skin care is getting so much attention. I'm looking forward to trying out some of these ingredients myself but for those of you who want to save time and pick up an off-the-shelf solution why not treat your skin to our new ready-to-wear Urban Lifestyle range today!

Amanda Foxon-Hill

11 September 2017

More about: Skincare, Urban Lifestyle

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