Fighting Pollution with Antioxidants


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There are many ways to fight aging—one tactic is to block or counter the major factors that cause the body and skin to age. Obviously, we can’t stop growing older, but we can avoid, interrupt, and reduce the impact the various aging factors have on our skin.

The benefits of doing so daily are fewer brown spots, fewer wrinkles, and less sagging skin. An environmental factor that many researchers believe causes the skin to age faster than normal is pollution.

Sunscreen Isn’t Enough

One of the major external causes of skin aging, aside from the sun (and smoking), is pollution, which includes a broad range of factors. Without question, pollution is a global danger. Some pollution includes carcinogens (cancer-causing agents), and some pollution has other detrimental effects on our organs, especially our lungs and eyes.

When it comes to skin, research is mounting on how long-term exposure to pollution plays a major role in premature signs of aging. Sunscreen isn’t enough, because simply protecting the skin from sun exposure (daylight) is not also going to protect it from the effects of pollution.

Protecting the skin from the aging effects of pollution can be accomplished (at least to some extent) with antioxidants, and, just to make sure you know: The SPF-rated products we recommend contain these beneficial antioxidant ingredients. However, antioxidant protection doesn’t begin and end with sun protection.

Skin Care for Pollution Defense?

In terms of skin care, antioxidants are one of the most powerful anti-aging ingredients because they can intercept or block free-radical damage caused by pollution (as well as by the sun and the very air we breathe, as oxygen also causes free-radical damage).

Regardless of the source of the free-radical damage, the answer to slowing its skin-damaging effects is antioxidants, both from skin care and from eating healthy, antioxidant-rich foods—and lots of them!

Given the increasing awareness about pollution’s destructive effects on the skin, many people are wondering if it requires special antioxidants to block the damage. Certainly, many cosmetics companies will try to convince you with their impressive charts and claims that the ingredients they use are unique and can protect your skin 100% from pollution. It isn’t true. Keep reading for what you need to know to protect your skin and not waste your money.

Is There a “Best” Antioxidant for Protecting Skin from Pollution?

While the research is limited on this topic, what is known is that there are dozens of potent, stable antioxidants that can slow pollution’s assault on the skin. No single ingredient can do the job, though, not any more than one food can protect your body from pollution, so don’t get caught up in pursuit of the “best” antioxidant—it doesn’t exist. Instead, there are lots of good ones, so the more, the merrier!

There are a few studies showing that specific antioxidants work against pollution, but they are not truly objective because the studies often are carried out or paid for by the manufacturer of the antioxidant or the company that includes that antioxidant in its products. Plus, those studies do not actually compare the benefit (or lack of benefit) derived from the antioxidant they are testing with the benefits from other well-established antioxidants, such as vitamin C, green tea, resveratrol, and many others.

In one way or another, many different types of antioxidants can help protect the skin from the aging effects of pollution. Again: The more, the merrier!

Pollution Isn’t Just a Daytime Problem

You may be wondering if you need antioxidants at night, too. The answer is an unequivocal: Yes! You need antioxidants during the day and the night. Free radicals from environmental pollution know no boundaries or time zones, or light from dark. The same way you need to eat healthy at every meal—breakfast, lunch, and dinner—you need to apply potent antioxidants topically on your skin, whether the sun is out or the stars are shining.

Rural Life versus City Life

Regardless of where you live, sun exposure and oxygen still cause free-radical damage, which over time results in collagen destruction, production of abnormal skin cells, and other skin health issues that affect how your skin looks and acts. Antioxidants protect against those sources of free-radical damage, too, whether you live in the country or in an urban high rise.

Many skin-care companies claim that their formulas are designed to address skin problems associated specifically with city living. Again, it isn’t true. All the products you use should be loaded with antioxidants, regardless of where you live (and there is not a shred of research to the contrary).

From our own research of thousands of products, we’ve yet to see any “city pollution–protecting” products that really do contain special or unique antioxidants or that contain more antioxidants than skin-care products that aren’t making that claim.

Doesn’t Skin Protect Itself Against Pollution Without Any Help?

Skin is indeed a good barrier and, when we’re young, it is naturally loaded with antioxidants, providing a built-in defense against the environment. But our repeated, cumulative exposure to pollution and to the sun over the years breaks down these protective substances in the skin, exponentially increasing the level of, and our susceptibility to, skin damage.

A healthy diet is critical, but it can do only so much; it doesn’t eliminate the need to resupply the layers of skin with pollution-fighting ingredients. In reality, the more antioxidants you eat AND apply to your skin, the better.

Given what we now know about the damage from unprotected sun exposure, smoking, and (now) pollution, it’s never too early to start using antioxidant-loaded products morning and night. Really, you can’t start too soon, and it’s a myth that if you start using anti-aging antioxidants too soon they won’t work when you really need them.

That’s like saying if you start eating healthy now it won’t work to eat healthy later in life—that’s nonsense! For many reasons, including pollution, your skin needs antioxidants right now!

Your skin does not “get used to” or stop benefiting from these types of ingredients, so make these free-radical defenders a permanent part of your AM and PM skin-care routines. Of course, these ingredients do help repair some amount of the skin damage you already have, but, without question, it’s better to start sooner rather than later.

Paula’s Choice LOVES Antioxidants

For years, Paula and her product development team have formulated their leave-on products with the most advanced, stable, and potent antioxidants available. Paula’s Choice has long known that antioxidants are one of the major ways to fight wrinkles, build collagen, and help heal the skin. Antioxidants also can even help reduce breakouts because of their strong anti-inflammatory properties.

As proud as we are of our moisturizers, serums and other products loaded with antioxidants, no matter which you settle on the take-home message is that in the fight against pollution’s effects on the skin, antioxidants have earned a bona fide badge of honor!

The Best Skin of Your Life Starts Here: The same type of research used to create this article is also used to formulate Paula’s Choice Skincare products. You’ll find products for all skin types and a range of concerns, from acne and sensitive skin to wrinkles, pores, and sun damage. With Paula’s Choice Skincare, you can get (and keep) the best skin of your life! Learn more at Shop Paula's Choice.

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About the Experts

Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books on skin care and makeup. She is known worldwide as the Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula's Choice. Paula's expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international television including:

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The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to busting beauty myths and helping you solve your skincare frustrations with research-supported expert advice—so you'll have the facts you need to take the best possible care of your skin.

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