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Anti-pollution in skin care




“Urban Aging Defence Serum”, “City Defence Crème”, “UV Plus Anti-Pollution Day Cream”…. Such claims on newly introduced care products show that the cosmetics industry is responding to the increasing level of air pollution and its negative impact on skin.

It is no secret any more that environmental factors like air pollution, UV radiation and ozone are having harmful effects on our health and damaging our skin, or otherwise aging our skin prematurely. The stresses are especially high in cities as a result of exhaust fumes, industrial smog, air conditioners and ozone, all of which disrupt the skin’s natural balance. The skin dries out and starts to look ashen, pallid and prematurely old. 

When discussing anti-pollution care products for the European market, we find ourselves repeatedly coming back to two main questions:


Can the anti-pollution claim so popular in the Asian market be commercially relevant in Europe?Is there a sound scientific basis behind the use of anti-pollution cosmetics? 


European relevance of the anti-pollution claim

The first question, regarding European commercial relevance, can be answered in the affirmative. Analysis of the European market reveals that an increasing number of products are being introduced with an anti-pollution claim, where Germany is an especially fast-growing market. The leading European countries for skin care products with an anti-pollution claim are England, France and, in third place, Germany. The number of new anti-pollution products introduced in Germany has been rising steadily since 2013 (1).

If we compare cosmetic products from Asia and Europe, however, we do see a number of significant differences. In Asia, one finds a great many products with only anti-pollution as the single claim on the packaging. These products are marketed as providing defence against pollutants, especially fine particulate matter.

A second important trend for anti-pollution products is premature extrinsic skin aging as accelerated by the modern urban lifestyle (stressful life and environmental pollution in big cities). Unlike the term photoaging, which is generic and unprotected, the term “Urban Aging™” is already a registered trademark (2).

Another thing that strikes us about Asian products is that we find terms like “PM 2.5” on the packaging. PM 2.5 is the abbreviation for fine particulate matter of a maximum size of 2.5 µm. This means cosmetics manufacturers assume the average Asian cosmetics consumer is informed about environmental pollution and understands the meaning of such technical terms. 


Taking a look at how “anti-pollution” products are launched in Europe, one notices that most of them so far are specifically intended for the face and neck and that, in most cases, anti-pollution is not the only claim made on the packaging. Other advertising claims for anti-pollution products launched in Europe in 2016 (3) were: 


  • Plant origin / herbal
  • Anti-aging
  • Moisturizing
  • Protection from the elements
  • Radiant skin / complexion
  • Antioxidant
  • Clinically tested
  • Reduction of fine lines
  • Anti-wrinkle
  • Paraben-free
  • Long-lasting


Scientific basis of anti-pollution products in Europe

The question of whether anti-pollution cosmetics are merely a temporary fashion trend or whether there is a scientifically sound basis for the existence of such products is currently a subject of intense discussion.

While hardly any studies on the harmful effects of sunlight on skin existed a hundred years ago, nobody doubts this correlation any more. Many studies on UV light’s harmful properties for skin cells have since been published, documenting these negative properties in detail. 

Covering a surface area of approximately 1.5 to 2 square metres, the skin is the largest organ in the human body and the first point of contact for all environmental stimuli.

In addition to the studies initiated by the cosmetics industry itself, there are now a growing number of observations being made by university research groups on the effects of environmental pollutants on skin. 

Earlier analyses had only assumed an indirect influence of environmental pollution on the skin. By breathing in small respirable particles that can pass through the alveoli into the blood, chronic inflammatory processes (also known as systemic inflammation, or SI) can be triggered if one is exposed for prolonged periods. The latest studies show that this can also negatively affect the skin’s function and lead, for example, to atopic dermatitis (4). 

Recent publications furthermore present good evidence that the skin directly absorbs airborne pollutants, known as transepidermal absorption (5). Receptors have already been identified in keratinocytes that are excessively activated by air pollution, which can result in atopic dermatitis (6). 


What is meant by dust, particulate matter and airborne pollutants?

Dusts are classic air pollutants. The term dust usually refers to relatively large, visible and solid particles like those that make up household dust or street dust, for example. Yet, dust particles can also be much smaller than that. Microscopic dust particles that are invisible to the naked eye are often referred to as particulate matter. 

Fine particles of matter remain suspended in the air to form atmospheric aerosols. The term aerosol refers to the mixture of air and suspended solid particles or liquid droplets. Aerosols differ in terms of the shape, size and composition of particles they contain (7). 

Fine particulate matter is the term reserved for especially small particles that pollute our atmosphere. Atmospheric pollutants are categorized into particulate matter of <10 μm diameter and fine particulate matter of <2.5 µm diameter. They exist as mixtures of organic, inorganic and biological matter of various shapes and sizes. 

Other toxic substances (for example polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, PAHs) can also be found adsorbed onto particulate matter. Oxidative stress is induced in cells by so-called reactive oxygen species (ROS) in particulate matter. Other pollutants in the air include:


  • Nitrogen oxides (NOx)
  • Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC)
  • Pesticides
  • Ozone
  • Heavy metals
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)
  • Nitric oxide
  • Sulphur dioxide


Perhaps in another hundred years, there will be no lingering doubt as to the harmful effects of environmental pollution on skin, especially now that the scientific studies delving more deeply into the subject have been producing such compelling results.


  1. Mintel Group Ltd. Analyse nach Europa, Anti-Pollution, Skin Care; Die Ergebnisse sind die Anzahl der neuen Produkte in Europa mti dem Claim Anti-Pollution; ausgewählte Jahre 2013-2016).
  2. Amorepacific Group; Marke: IOPE
  3. Mintel
  4. nfluences of Environmental Chemicals on Atopic Dermatitis, Kwangmi. Toxicol Res. 2015 Jun; 31(2): 89–96.
  5. Lademann, et al. 2004; Penetration of microparticles into human skin; Hautarzt 55, 1117–1119; doi: 10.1007/s00105-004-0841-1 ;C.J. Weschler et al. Transdermal uptake of diethyl phthalate and Di(n-butyl) phthalate directly from air: Expe; Weschlerrimental verification. Environmental Health Perspectives. Vol. 123, October 2015, p. 928. doi: 10.1289/ehp.1409151.; Air pollutants enter body through skin; For some semivolatiles such as phthalates, dermal uptake can at least match entry via lungs; By Janet Raloff , October 13, 2015.
  6. The aryl hydrocarbon receptor AhR links atopic dermatitis and air pollution via induction of the neurotrophic factor artemin, Nature Immunology  18, 64–73 (2017); Takanori H. et. al.
  7. Hessisches Landesamt für Umwelt und Geologie

Leslie Schlüter

Senior Product & Sales Manager

During my studies in biology I never thought I would end up in sales in the Personal Care industry. But as life goes, it happened about 7 years ago. I postgraduated in business administration and the mixture of scientific content (anti-pollution, microbiom, epigenetics...) and sales is a thrilling experience for me. I have been working for IMPAG in Germany since November 2017.

My biggest hobby is food...and sports (jogging, swimming, cycling, diving...) to indulge the former without a guilty conscience. But as I don't like cooking, my husband is taking over for me.

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