Friday, 21 February 2020 10:24

Anti-Pollution Skin Care: Understanding the Environment’s Impact and Ingredients That Can Provide Solutions

Written by   Lydia Sarfati

Protection from ultraviolet light was the single most important factor in skin care for the past 20 years. Going into the new millennium, addressing the effects of pollution will become just as important. Signs of aging, such as wrinkles, dark spots and hyperpigmentation, lack of elasticity and firmness, and rough, dry texture, have all been attributed to both intrinsic and extrinsic factors, such as genetics, and the biological age of the client, and external factors, such as ultraviolet light. While these play a tremendous role in the physical and biological attributes of the skin, there is now increased evidence that other external factors, such as pollution, can also increase signs of aging in the skin.1 Pollution can break down the skin’s essential protective moisture barrier, which research is showing can be detrimental not only to the appearance, but more importantly to the health and well-being of the client.

This article will look at the effects of air pollution on the skin, as well as the ingredients in skin care that can best help nullify its effects. These ingredients will perhaps be the most important factors to look for in skin care as environmental challenges continue to grow throughout the coming decades.




In 2018, about 76 million tons of pollution was emitted into the atmosphere in the United States.2 These emissions mostly contribute to the formation of ozone and particles.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, scientific evidence shows that long- and short-term exposures to fine particle pollution, also known as fine particulate matter can cause premature death and harmful effects on the cardiovascular system, including increased hospital admissions and emergency department visits for heart attacks and strokes. Scientific evidence also links particulate matter to harmful respiratory effects, including asthma attacks.3

Pollution is a contamination of either the indoor or outdoor environment by any chemical, physical, or biological agent. Air pollution is composed of two main types of primary pollutants: particulate matter, which are commonly referred to as fine (PM2.5 and PM10) or coarse particles, and gases (O3, CO2, CO, SO2, and NO2) or volatile organic compounds.4




Skin is the body’s first line of defense against the environment. Unclothed areas of skin are chronically exposed to environmental aggressors and stressors, such as ultraviolet light and pollution. The skin consists of two main layers, the epidermis and the dermis. Below the dermis lies subcutaneous fat tissue. Fibroblasts in the dermis create an extracellular matrix containing collagen and elastin fibers. The epidermis contains mostly keratinocytes that rise to the skin’s surface as they develop to form the superficial part of the epidermis, the stratum corneum (SC).

The skin is protected against oxidative stress by a variety of antioxidants; these include antioxidants such as glutathione peroxidase, superoxide dismutase, catalases, vitamin E, vitamin C, glutathione (GSH), uric acid, and ubiquinol. Antioxidants, however, are present in the deeper levels of the stratum corneum, and move up towards the epidermis along with the normal process of skin cell turnover. The outer layer of skin, therefore, is exposed and unprotected from oxidative stress for longer periods of time.

The stratum corneum is the first target of ultraviolet light and pollutants such as ozone (O3). Free radicals are formed during exposure, depleting the skin’s natural antioxidant stores, creating oxidative damage to the skin, including depletion of lipids and ceramides, therefore hindering its function to limit transepidermal water loss and allowing chemicals and pathogens to enter the body. This, in turn, can lead to inflammation.5

Studies have shown a direct correlation between exposure to air pollution and increase in the appearance of skin aging, most notably dark spots and hyperpigmentation.

Ambient particulate matter is airborne material that is detrimental – air pollution. A major mechanism by which ambient particulate matter exerts its detrimental effects is through the generation of oxidative stress. It has been postulated that these particles can serve as carriers for organic chemicals and metals that are capable of localizing in mitochondria and generate reactive oxygen species. The term oxidative stress is used when there is an imbalance between the number of free radicals compared to antioxidants. This can negatively influence the process of aging. 6

In a review of reactive oxygen species (pollution) and inflammation, researchers found that bodies, starting with the skin, are under ever greater assault from pollution and toxic elements in the environment that they have not yet evolved enough to neutralize on their own. Furthermore, inflammation and the resulting accumulation of reactive oxygen species play an important role in the intrinsic and photoaging of human skin. Environmental insults such as ultraviolet rays from sun, cigarette smoke exposure and pollutants, and the natural process of aging contribute to the generation of free radicals and reactive oxygen species that stimulate the inflammatory process in the skin.7




Recent studies and review have concluded that general recommendations for combatting the effects of pollution on the skin are: avoiding smoking, artificial ultraviolet exposures (indoor tanning), and intentional ultraviolet exposure for cosmetic purposes; seeking shade, whenever possible, when outdoors; using protective clothing; and maintaining a healthy lifestyle, with a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, limited alcohol intake, and enough sleep. 8


The general recommendations for daily skin care include:

  • Avoiding over-washing the skin, as it may damage the natural skin barrier function
  • Using a gentle cleanser and avoiding soap
  • Looking for ingredients that help to support the skin barrier function
  • Looking for ingredients that are potent antioxidants
  • Using broad-spectrum UVA and UVB sunscreen to block ultraviolet light
  • Using rinse-off cleansers to remove dirt, debris, and pollution residue from the skin’s surface




Perhaps one of the most potent ingredients to both fight the environmental aggression of pollution and maintain the skin barrier is seaweed. Seaweeds are one of the richest sources of natural antioxidants, such as phlorotannins, sulfated polysaccarides, fucosterol, and fucoxanthins.9

While seaweed is known to be beneficial for the skin, it is also beneficial for the planet. Water quality is of great importance to seaweed sustenance and growth. As seaweed absorbs the seawater around it, the environment in which the seaweed is grown is of paramount importance to the health of these marine plants. For centuries, seaweed was used to help purify the water, based on its ability to filter as water circulates and moves through seaweed beds with the tides.

According to the National Resources Defense Council, fossil fuels impact the water, as well as the air. Oceans absorb as much as a quarter of all man-made carbon emissions, which changes the pH of surface waters and leads to acidification.10 This change in pH also influences the production of heavy metals in the water, which has an effect on seaweeds in the formation of reactive oxygen species or free radicals.11

This problem is rapidly worsening – oceans are now acidifying faster than they have in some 300 million years. It is estimated that by the end of this century, if the human race keeps pace with current emissions practices, the surface waters of the ocean could be nearly 150% more acidic than they are now.

The World Bank predicts that rising carbon dioxide levels, the leading cause of ocean acidification, can also be reduced by seaweed. Seaweed can absorb five times more carbon than most land-based plants.12

Seaweeds are also being used to clean up waste pollution. This process, called extractive aquaculture or bioextraction, according to Charles Yarish, Ph.D., professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut in Stamford is able to use the physiological properties of seaweeds and other organisms to clean up excess nutrients in polluted areas, making them healthier, more productive, and more economically viable. 13

For skin care, in addition to its antioxidant attributes, seaweed, such as laminaria digitate, is a source of many important nutrients, including 12 vitamins, 18 amino acids, 42 trace elements and minerals, and phlorotannins – the key elements skin needs for deep surface hydration and balance. It also contains polyunsaturated fatty acids, enzymes, and bioactive peptides. Essential fatty acids help maintain the skin’s barrier and polysaccharides, such as alginic acid, help to lock moisture into the skin.




Niacinamide or vitamin B3 helps improve the overall appearance of skin, improves skin texture, evens the appearance of skin complexion, reduces the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, reduces the appearance of dark spots and discoloration, and improves the appearance of firmness and elasticity. 14, 15

Sodium hyaluronate and hydrolyzed sodium hyaluronate, or hyaluronic acid, is a natural, moisturizing polysaccharide prevalently found in the skin that is known to hold 1,000 times its weight in water. In the body, hyaluronic acid is known to help keep skin moisturized, repair skin tissue, transport nutrients in the blood to skin cells, serve as a cushion to lubricate and protect against damage, and contribute to the resilience and suppleness of the skin. As the body ages, hyaluronic acid decreases, leading to loss of moisture and elasticity and contributing to the formation of lines and wrinkles.16 In skin care, benefits include intense hydration of the skin, and the skin is plumped and the appearance of wrinkles is greatly diminished.

Quercetin is a polyphenol derived from plants responsible for their pigment color. It is reported to be more effective as an antioxidant than vitamins E and C. It has excellent soothing properties and has been shown to reduce oxidative stress.

Oxidized glutathione is a tripeptide composed of glutamic acid, cysteine, and glycine. Results prove this antioxidant has been effective in lightening the appearance of skin, increasing hydration, and reducing the appearance of wrinkles.

Camellia japonica seed oil, also known as tsubaki oil, is a powerful ingredient that helps to strengthen the appearance of the skin barrier function, it prevents moisture loss, is a powerful antioxidant, and helps reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

Ergothioneine, an amino acid that has powerful antioxidant properties, helps protect against oxidative stress and pollution.


Formulating with these ingredients to both help provide antioxidants to the skin’s surface and help restore and strengthen the skin’s barrier will be an important focus for aestheticians moving into the next decade. Proper education and implementation of facial treatments that address the detrimental effects of pollution, as well as other environmental factors, should be at the forefront of professional skin care development.



1 Vierkotter, Andrea, Tamara Schikowski, Ulrich Ranft, Dorothea Sugiri, Mary Matsui, Ursula

Kramer, and Jean Krutmann. “Airborne Particle Exposure and Extrinsic Skin Aging.” Journal of Investigative Dermatology 130 (2010): 2719-2726.

2 “Air Quality – National Summary.” EPA.


3 “Air Pollution: Current and Future Challenges.” EPA.


4 Krutmann, Jean, Anne Bouloc, Gabrielle Sore, Bruno A. Bernard, and Thierry Passeron. “The

skin aging exposome.” Journal of Dermatological Science 85 (2017): 152-161.

5 Valacchi, G., V. Fortino, and V. Bocci. “The dual action of ozone on the skin.”

British Journal of Dermatology 153, no. 6 (2005): 1096-1100.

6 Vierkotter, A., T. Schikowsk, U. Ranft, D. Sugiri, M. Matsui, U. Krame, and J. Krutmann.

“Airborne Particle Exposure and Extrinsic Skin Aging,” Journal of Investigative

Dermatology 130 (2010): 2719-2726.

7 Pillai, S., C. Oresajo, and J. Hayward. “Ultraviolet radiation and skin aging: roles of reactive

oxygen species, inflammation and protease activation, and strategies for prevention of

inflammation-induced matrix degradation - a review.” International Journal of Cosmetic

Science 27, no. 1 (2005): 17-34.

8 Krutmann, Jean, Anne Bouloc, Gabrielle Sore, Bruno A. Bernard, and Thierry Passeron. “The

skin aging exposome.” Journal of Dermatological Science 85 (2017): 152-161.

9 Kim, Se-Kwon. “Marine cosmeceuticals.” Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology 13, no. 1 (2014):


10 Denchak, Melissa. “Ocean Pollution: The Dirty Facts.” NRDC. Jan 2018.

11 Contreras-Porcia, Loretto, Andres P. Meynard, Camilo Lopez-Cristoffanini, Nicolas Latorre,

and Manoj Kumar. “Marine Metal Pollution and Effects on Seaweed Species.” Systems

Biology of Marine Ecosystems (2017): 35-48.


12 “The Current State of Seaweed: Part II.” Global Aquaculture Alliance. Nov 2017.

13 Buckley, Christine. “Seaweed: The New Trend in Water Purification.” UConn Today. Dec


14 Bissett, D.L., J.E. Oblong, and C.A. Berge. “Niacinamide: A B vitamin that improves aging

facial skin appearance.” Dermatologic Surgery 31, no. 7 pt. 2 (2005): 860-65.

15 Bissett, D.L., K. Miyamoto, P. Sun, J. Li, and C.A. Berge. “Topical niacinamide reduces

yellowing, wrinkling, red blotchiness, and hyperpigmented spots in aging facial skin.”

International Journal of Cosmetic Science 26, no. 5 (2004): 231-8.

16 Papakonstantinou, Eleni, Michael Roth, and George Karakiulakis. “Hyaluronic acid: A key

molecule in skin aging.” Dermato-Endocrinology 4, no. 3 (2012): 253-258.


Lydia Sarfati is the founder and CEO of Repêchage, the first company to bring seaweed-based skin care treatments and cosmetics to the United States market. Sarfati is an international industry leader with over 46 years of experience as an aesthetician, spa owner, manufacturer, and consultant. She has been featured in major media such as Vogue, InStyle, Glamour, Elle, Allure, and the New York Times, as well as on CNN, CBS, and FOX. She is the developer of the world-renowned Repêchage Four-Layer Facial, what Cosmopolitan UK has called “the best facial of the century.” Today, together with her husband David Sarfati, co-founder and COO, Sarfati oversees a 50,000-square-foot, ISO 9001:2015 certified, manufacturing, research, development, and training facility in Secaucus, New Jersey. All Repêchage professional products and treatments are manufactured in the United States and are sold in over 45 countries worldwide.



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