Sweat-inducing humidity one day, ageing sunshine the next and a drying air conditioner in between, Hong Kong's summer is a challenge for our complexions. You would have to have been on another planet not to know about protection for the skin, but are you protecting it from the correct threats and using the right weapons?
"Everyone should be aware of sun protection," says Dr Henry Chan Hin-lee, specialist in dermatology at the Hong Kong Dermatology and Laser Centre. He's stating the obvious but there are still far too many people aware of it yet doing little or nothing about it. Chan names photo damage as one of the three major factors responsible for causing skin ageing, alongside getting older and smoking. "Protection is universally important," he says.
Freckles, then age spots, are signs that skin has spent too long in the sun, but over and above being unsightly, pigmentation caused by the sun is a sign of accumulative damage, which also indicates a depletion of collagen in the dermis leading to wrinkles and a lack of skin elasticity.
"The sun initially affects the superficial layers of the skin but over time, as the melanin absorbs the UV [ultraviolet rays], pigmentation can increase," Chan explains. "If exposure persists, this can lead to melanoma skin cancer."
Sunblock is most people's first line of defence, and Chan recommends using one with titanium dioxide, especially when playing sports. Most mineral sunscreen offerings, such as those from Coola and BareMinerals, include a blend of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide (another physical sunscreen).
However, its rather greasy, heavy texture can cause problems for those with oily skin that is prone to acne.
Newer technologies include lighter, hi-tech UV barriers, but Chan warns that they can create an allergic reaction in some patients. "When UV interacts with the products it can cause a photo-chemical reaction, in which case you should change to a different type," he says.
Case in point, Lancôme's UV Expert, whose new XL-Shield claims to give 12 hours of protection against UVB, and shielding the skin from UVA and pollution. UVA rays are more penetrative than the more intense but short UVB rays. While UVB is the main culprit when it comes to sunburn and the development of skin cancer, more research has been uncovering the part UVA plays.
"UVA rays play a major part in skin ageing and wrinkling," says Dr Gavin Chan, specialist in dermatology at Skincentral. "Studies have also shown that UVA damages skin cells called keratinocytes in the basal layer of the epidermis, where most skin cancers occur."
According to Lancôme, even more penetrative than UVA and UVB, longer XL UVA rays cause dull, dry and compromised skin, and XL-Shield has been specifically designed to block them.
And they're not alone. Biotherm's new UV Supreme boasts new UV filters that claim to defend against long UVA rays and damage-inducing particulate matter in the air. Chantecaille's Ultra Sun Protection SPF50 PA+++ is said to increase the skin's innate ability for protection from UVA and UVB by 50 times. Clinique has brought out their new Even Better Dark Spot Defense SPF 45 / PA++++ that's lightweight and prevents dark spots using a medical grade film barrier of finely milled titanium dioxide resulting in breathable protection against UVA and UVB.
While the true efficacy of these new products and their grandiose claims remains to be seen, Chan is an advocate of certain skincare products and retinol, a modification of vitamin A, in particular. "There is good evidence to support that this can reverse ageing to some degree," he says.
Naturally, each patient's skin is different, requiring different courses of treatment, with skin types categorised as 1, very light and burns easily, needing strong protection, while dark skin is classified as a 6, and Asian skins tend to fall in the middle at 3 and 4.
"In addition, oily skin types should look for gels or lotions as compared with dry skin types who can use more cream- or oil-based products," Chan says, adding that antioxidant-rich skincare products and supplements can help boost the skin's ability to protect itself but should not be used in place of sunblock.
If only the sun were our only enemy. There are pollutants all around us, and Thalgo's international training manager Joanne Mazzitelli cites the elements without which we couldn't live as the ones our skin needs the most protection against: oxygen, carbon and nitrogen.
"It is known that 30 per cent of the population suffer from respiratory allergies, compared with 3.8 per cent in 1968," she says. "Did you know that an adult breathes up to 15 cubic metres of air a day? Seven per cent of the air we breathe passes through our skin."
Thalgo's Oxygen Anti-Pollution Skincare Range has been designed to fight damage caused by three specific types of free radicals that attack cells membranes and DNA. It uses a lipo-peptidic protector shield in the Oxygen Anti-Pollution 3-Defence Cream/Fluid, which Mazzitelli calls a "next-generation" ingredient with "the most powerful free radical protection ever seen in cosmetics".
The Oxygen SOS Serum also boasts moringa grain, an ingredient used by African tribes to purify water.
"Reduced to a powder these seeds from an exotic tree in Africa attract all polluting particles and impurities like an ultra-powerful little magnet," Mazzitelli says.
Thalgo isn't the only company concerned with the ageing effects of pollution. Fresh's newly launched Peony Brightening UV Shield Sunscreen contains a shea extract that provides antioxidant protection against pollution-induced damage, according to in vitro tests, while Clarins' UV Plus Day Screen has a patented antipollution complex to defend against environmental aggressors.
While living in Hong Kong undoubtedly exposes us to atmospheric pollution such as exhaust fumes and industrial emissions, those who live outside cities are not immune.
Ozone and hydro-carbon clouds, and indoor pollution like paint, glue-to-glue furniture, air conditioning, central heating, computers, and in addition, daily stress, can all trigger free radicals, Mazzitelli warns.
Blending pampering with protection, one of the most popular facials at Flawless indicates consumers are beginning to worry about pollution and the skin.
The Pollution Lift cleanses and brightens the face with anti-bacterial high frequency and galvanic currents, while reducing blemishes.
The urban spa's skin specialist, Sandra Grau, adds to Mazzitelli's list of skin irritants. "The seasonal changes the skin encounters draw out moisture and natural oils, then the skin becomes dehydrated, fine lines and wrinkles begin to appear. At the same time the skin will feel dry, taut and may become flakey," she says.
"Try to replenish the skin with a serum, moisturisers and the correct face oil, which will add more natural oils so the skin cells can stay plump and try to keep the moisture within instead of losing it during the day."
Grau adds that the constant exposure to air conditioning is another cause of dehydration. "We need to maintain the skin with a lighter moisturiser, while still keeping the skin hydrated with enough moisture and lipids so we are feeding the skin cells internally to stay healthy," she says.
Humid days can also be a problem - although sweating is essentially good as it helps to rid the body of toxins - and Grau suggests Aromatherapy Associate's Rose Hydrating Mist to help cool and refresh the skin. The spa's medik8 face serums are also ideal, she says.
"They are lightweight and will easily penetrate to the base layer of the skin, where it will protect the skin from moisture loss and against the external environment."
Armed with the right products and protection, there's no reason why your complexion can't win the battle against another Hong Kong summer.