Companies Want to Establish Whether Smog and Car Exhaust Lead to More Signs of Aging

In the dirty world of car exhaust, cigarette smoke and smog, the beauty industry sees its next big opportunity.
Air pollution’s suspected effects on the skin—increased signs of aging, dark spots and inflammation—are the latest problems major makers of personal care products want to solve.
New products and packaging are hitting U.S. store shelves with claims of removing pollution and enhancing the skin’s natural defense system. The hope is to attract new consumers and get existing customers to spend more. There are cleansing devices for all ages that claim to remove particulate matter, and anti-oxidant serums and creams aimed primarily at women in their 30s and beyond that promise to repair skin and defend it against further damage.
“It’s a huge opportunity,” says Marc Toulemonde, global general manager of SkinCeuticals, a high-end line sold primarily by dermatologists and owned by L’Oreal .
The world-wide trend stems from Asia, where air-quality concerns are widespread and time-consuming skin-care routines involving multiple products are commonplace. Two of the beauty industry’s recent major new product types, BB and CC creams, also originated in Asia. Not every product originating there is easily adopted in the U.S. But Mr. Toulemonde and others in the industry predict shoppers will come to understand the dangers of pollution much as they did the risks associated with sunlight, and spend more to protect against it..
“We believe that pollution is the next UV,” he said, referring to ultraviolet rays.
A steep learning curve lies ahead. People can see the effects of exposure to sun: Too much results in a sunburn. Pollution, though, isn’t usually visible or top of mind, making it a tougher sell—especially as air quality in the U.S. improves.
The skin-care industry needs a boost, as sales growth has slowed in recent years. U.S. sales rose 2.4% to surpass $12.5 billion last year, according to market-research firm Euromonitor International. Anti-aging products, which tackle many of the same skin-care concerns associated with pollution, last year made up 28% of skin-care products, up from 20% a decade ago.
The skin-care industry has zeroed-in on two forms of air pollution—ground-level ozone, formed when gases react with the sun’s ultraviolet rays, and particulate matter that is often coated in chemicals.
Particles are the industry’s more pressing concern. Until recently, they were thought to be too big to break the skin’s barrier, says Frauke Neuser, a senior scientist at Procter & Gamble’s Olay brand. More recent studies have found big particles can settle on the skin, where the attached chemicals can cause damage.
Tiny particles known as “PM 2.5″—which refers to particles smaller than 2.5 microns in size—are a new concern, as are particles that are even smaller. “The smaller they get, the more likely they are to be able to penetrate the skin,” Dr. Neuser says.
Levels of both gaseous and particle pollutants have improved in the U.S. in recent decades. “We’ve made tremendous progress at reducing emissions of these pollutants,” says Alison Davis, a senior policy adviser at the Environmental Protection Agency. Ground-level ozone decreased 25% in 2012 from its 1980 level, and PM 2.5 fell by 33% in 2012 from its 2000 level, the EPA says.
Still, the rise in some metropolitan populations and highway congestion in the U.S. means pollution remains a concern, product makers and pollution experts say. “This is not going to go away. This is not a problem that is easily fixed,” says Janet Pardo, senior vice president of global product development at Clinique, Estee Lauder Cos.’ big skin-care brand, which recently released a pollution-removing sonic cleansing brush.
A 2010 article in the Journal for Investigative Dermatology was a big moment in dermatologists’ and product makers’ understanding of what pollution does to skin. The study looked at women in urban and rural areas of Germany and found the urban women, who had more exposure to pollution, had higher instances of hyperpigmentation, also known as age spots, than the rural women.
Industry studies are under way to measure pollution’s effects on skin. It is widely accepted that particulate matter releases free radicals. They disrupt the skin’s barrier, damage its collagen and elastic tissues and speed up signs of aging, including wrinkles, says Debra Jaliman, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, and a member of the American Academy of Dermatology.
Air pollution also can cause acne-like eruptions or allergic reactions including inflammation, redness or eczema, Dr. Jaliman says. Antioxidants help fight air pollution’s effects, she says, and the best way to get antioxidants is a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables.
It also helps to wash your face at night to remove pollution—which makers of sonic-cleansing brushes have seized as a marketing claim. To prove its effectiveness, Clarisonic combined artificial sebum with carbon black to create a surrogate for PM 2.5 and put it on skin. Brushes on its sonic-cleaning device, using fluid forces and movement of the skin under the brush head, removed 30 times more pollution than manual washing, the company said. “I don’t know how you prevent your exposure except to live in a cave,” says Lauri Tadlock, a dermatologist and Clarisonic’s vice president of clinical research. “But at least at the end of the day, you can get it off.”
Product-makers are promoting the pollution-related benefits of some existing active ingredients. SkinCeuticals emphasizes antipollution benefits of its CE Ferulic antioxidant serum, which has concentrated vitamin C. Olay’s Total Effects line includes VitaNiacin, a combination of niacinamide and vitamins that the company says has antioxidative and barrier-strengthening properties.
Getting shoppers’ attention is challenging. Particle awareness, as it relates to skin care, remains low in the U.S. and Europe. In Asia, where pollution is visible, familiarity with PM 2.5 is high. A P&G survey found 94% of people in China knew what PM 2.5 was and, of those who knew what it was, 97% knew it can damage skin. “They experience this a lot more than we do,” Dr. Neuser says.
Earlier this year, Clarisonic took out full-page print ads in 20 U.S. cities to raise readers’ pollution awareness. “Houston, did you know: What’s in the air may be aging you,” read one headline. The campaign “resonated with some but not with a whole bunch of people,” says Robb Akridge, Clarisonic’s global general manager and co-founder. “If you can’t see it, then you don’t think it’s really attacking you.”