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Pedestrians wear masks to protect themselves from the pollution on the street in Beijing.

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Pollution Affects the Poor Most of All, but Anti-Pollution Skin Care Is Expensive

The newest trend in skin care promises to battle the damages of pollution — if you can afford it.

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In early March of 2016, the Japanese cosmetic company Shiseido unveiled a massive billboard in Madrid. Awash in the company’s signature pinkish-red and featuring a towering image of the brand’s Ultimune serum, the billboard seemed like a typical skin care advertisement in every way but one — five lines in the lower left-hand corner that claimed that the billboard, filled with titanium dioxide, would help purify the air around the sign, removing pollutants from cars and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

That same year, researchers at the University of British Columbia published a study linking exposure to nitrogen dioxide — a pollutant that comes from things like car exhaust or power plant emissions — to the formation of dark spots on the skin. Then, in June of 2016, the New York Times published a guide to skin care products aimed at protecting skin from the impacts of pollution. Anti-pollution skin care, it seemed, was finally going mainstream. But is it actually getting into the hands of those who need it most?

The Shanghai Gaoqiao company refinery in Shanghai.
Photo: Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

Skin care has, in recent years, grown into a cultural and capitalist juggernaut. Since July of 2016, subscribers to Reddit’s skin care group, “SkincareAddiction,” have increased 100 percent. In 2017, skin care sales represented 45 percent of the US beauty industry’s annual gains. Globally, the skin care industry accounts for some $130 billion, and is expected to grow to over $135 billion by 2021.

At the same time, pollution — particularly air pollution, spewed daily by cars and power plants — has increased throughout both the developing and developed world. In 2016, a study from the World Health Organization found that air pollution had grown globally by eight percent in just five years. In major urban areas like Beijing and Delhi, particulate pollution — the kind of dangerous air pollution that can penetrate deep into lungs — regularly reaches hazardous levels.

In the United States, swiftly following the 2016 presidential election, the Trump administration began its systematic dismantling of environmental regulations, repealing the Clean Power Plan — which would have placed stricter emission limits on power plants — and pulling the United States out of the Paris climate agreement.

Taken together, the rise in pollution coupled with a growing global appetite in skin care products created a perfect marketing opportunity for cosmetic brands. In the fall of 2017, the Business of Fashion declared that “for beauty marketers, ‘anti-pollution’ is the new ‘anti-ageing.’” Suddenly, luxury skin care lines like Shiseido, Sunday Riley, Murad, and Kiehls debuted products explicitly labeled as anti-pollution, promising to boost skin health and protect one’s outer barrier from the insidious touch of pollutants like smog and ozone — while also hoping to capitalize on an emerging niche in the skin care market that, in the United Kingdom alone, brought in more than $4 million in the first half of 2017.

None of this is to say that anti-pollution skin care is a snake oil. There’s ample science connecting the ingredients most commonly found in anti-pollution products — antioxidants like vitamin C or vitamin E, or soothing compounds like those found in green tea — to real skin benefits. Those products have been included for years in products without carrying the promise of protecting against, or reversing the damage from, pollution, however.

Vitamin C, in particular, is often the primary ingredient in skin care products that brighten and even skin tone — which can have the associated benefit of reducing any discoloration or pigmentation caused by pollution. (There’s less evidence that products promising to create a barrier against pollution — creams that literally claim to keep particulate matter from getting into your skin — are actually effective in fighting skin damage.)

But while some anti-pollution skin care products come with a litany of scientifically supported ingredients like antioxidants, they also come with an unspoken message that, for the right price, you can buy your way out of pollution. While that may be attainable for a particular subset of the population, anti-pollution products — which can run in the triple digits for a few ounces — often leave out the people that need them the most: the low-income communities that historically have shouldered the burden of industrial pollution worldwide.

It is certainly not a coincidence that anti-pollution skin care, as an industry niche, was born in Asia, where cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Delhi are often cloaked in a thick layer of smog and ozone pollution. According to the United Nations Environment Program, some 70 percent of air pollution-related deaths each year occur in the Asia Pacific alone. That’s a problem that hasn’t gone unnoticed by the skin care industry — in 2016, for instance, more than one-third of all new anti-pollution skin care products launched were launched in the Asia Pacific market.

Most of these anti-pollution products are marketed explicit towards people who live in Asia’s cities, promising to protect the outer barrier from the barrage of urban pollution — largely ozone, which is formed when the sun’s rays hit exhaust from the cars, trucks, or buses that choke these cities’ dense, highly motorized streets. The Korean skin care brand Tony Moly, for instance, offers a product called Dust and the City, which acts as a physical barrier against pollutants, locking in makeup while promising to shield skin from fine particles in air pollution.

But marketing anti-pollution skin care to city dwellers leaves out millions of rural residents who still rely on indoor stoves for heating and cooking — which is associated with unhealthy indoor air pollution — and who tend to breathe a disproportionate amount of agricultural-related pollution. As of 2014, the average disposable income for a family in rural China was 10,489 yuan, or around $1,693 — a popular Chinese skin care product known from the company 5YINA, which promises to soothe inflamed and damaged skin, sells for $145 for 30 milliliters.

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But if marketing anti-pollution skin care in Asian countries leaves out millions of rural residents, marketing anti-pollution skin care in Western countries is an even more fraught business. Unlike Asia, where pollution is so pervasive that it’s less discriminatory in its impacts, Western populations have imbued both classism and racism into their pollution. In the United States, the best indicator of whether you live near dangerous pollution is your race, followed closely by your income.

According to a 2018 study from the Environmental Protection Agency, African-American communities are exposed to 1.54 times more fine particle pollution than the overall population, while nonwhite communities generally are exposed to 1.28 times more fine particle pollution. Communities that live below the poverty line, meanwhile, are exposed to 1.35 times more pollution than the overall population.

Against that backdrop, the emerging raft of anti-pollution skin care products takes on a more sinister tone. Of Sephora’s top five best selling anti-pollution products, the cheapest is a single-use sheet mask (for $6). None of the other four are less than $20, and the most expensive — Sunday Riley’s “C.E.O.” moisturizer — runs $65 for 1.7 ounces.

For someone living below the poverty line, exposed to more toxic pollution on average than a more affluent person, a $65 moisturizer is potentially an untenable expense. Moreover, anti-pollution skin care marketed to protect against the kind of everyday pollution that the average city-dweller is exposed to is hardly a salve for the air pollution near power plants, landfills, or highways — infrastructure that, in the United States, tends to be concentrated in low-income communities of color.

What’s most alarming in the rise in anti-pollution skin care marketing: The push isn’t so much concerned with combating the ills of pollution as it is with selling a product. It’s a niche that relies on the very problem it claims to solve — without pollution, companies wouldn’t be able to market anti-pollution products, meaning that skin care companies have little incentive to actually address the issue of pollution.

Perhaps that’s why companies like Dow are investing in anti-pollution skin care research while simultaneously pushing for looser environmental and chemical regulations in the United States. Anti-pollution skin care is a salve, not a solution — it’s a marketing trick for those who can afford it, and an often unattainable luxury for those who really need it.

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