Anti-pollution creams, cleansers, serums target Chinese millennials who want to protect their skin from harsh city environments – but do they work?

While brands are eager to serve demand from China’s young urban professionals to protect their skin, a lack of official standards, and wide-ranging claims, make it difficult to know which products are effective

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 August, 2018, 10:17am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 August, 2018, 7:58pm

It wasn’t long after moving to Beijing from the north of France that Michel Alarcon started using a face mask to protect his skin from the city’s air pollution.

But the mask isn’t quite what one might expect: it’s eco-friendly and vegan, composed of mud and paired once or twice weekly with a baking soda scrub.

Top Chinese beauty blogger’s advice: shop at British pharmacy Boots

“The pollution definitely changed my skincare routine,” he says, explaining how his skin took a turn for the worse and looked more tired the more time he spent in the Beijing. “Now after washing my face, I splash on some pure water, rose water or marine hyaluronics before applying a basic but efficient moisturiser.”

As air pollution continues to be a major issue in Beijing and cities around the world, consumers are demanding protective skincare products. More than half of Chinese consumers wanted “to learn more about how to protect themselves from pollution” in 2016, according to a report by Mintel, a UK-based market research firm. Mintel’s latest research shows that two-thirds of Chinese consumers believe lifestyle factors, including stress and lack of sleep, have a huge impact on their skin, while 45 per cent believe pollution to be a major factor. 

Asian brands have been listening. In 2016, of all the new beauty products launched worldwide that came with anti-pollution claims, 38 per cent were launched in Asia-Pacific, up from 28 per cent the year before. New products such as Allies of Skin’s 1A All-Day Pollution Repair Mask and Drunk Elephant’s D Bronzi Anti Pollution Sunshine serum are popping up all the time.

“Anti-pollution ingredients are especially attractive to young urban professionals who are more environmentally conscious than previous generations and willing to make lifestyle changes to look healthier and younger for longer,” says Maria Coronado Robles, a senior ingredients analyst at Euromonitor International.

A lack of standardisation, however, such as the guidelines that consumers are used to seeing in sun protection products, means it can be difficult to determine whether the products with anti-pollution claims actually make a difference, Robles says.

“Technically, anything containing antioxidant ingredients can be claimed to have some kind of environmental protection,” Robles said. “Many cosmetics already contain botanical ingredients with antioxidant properties and these ingredients have been used for years in products without carrying the anti-pollution claims. Some brands aiming to jump onto the anti-pollution bandwagon have reformulated their skincare products by adding plant extracts and vitamins to make anti-pollution claims. As a result, consumers find it difficult to distinguish between simple marketing strategies and real anti-pollution products.”

One of the more recent strategies, Robles says, is brands using more specific environmental language to target consumers, such as the Chinese brands Hua Niang and Fumakilla, which released products marketed as “anti-PM2.5” (PM2.5 refers to a certain size of harmful particulate matter in the air).

“This clever strategy has inspired international companies such as Pond’s, which has jumped on the PM2.5 bandwagon, to carry this claim on the labels of its Pure White cleansing line,” she explains.

I believe the Chinese customer wants it all – they want their products to work hard for them and check every box
Nicolas Travis, founder, Allies of Skin

However, the rise of beauty review platforms such as Xiaohongshu and an increase in education and sophistication has led some Chinese consumers to be more sceptical of marketing claims in general. A recent Euromonitor Beauty Survey of consumers in Asia-Pacific shows that one-fifth of university graduates understand that the formulation of ingredients plays an important role in choosing a skincare product.

“There are many different anti-pollution ingredients carrying a wide range of claims, which make consumers not easily understand which of these ingredients claiming to fight the effects of pollution are most effective or suited to them,” Robles says. “This opens up opportunities for brands to rethink their communication strategy and give clear messages about the benefits of their anti-pollution ingredients to avoid losing consumers’ trust in their products.”

Some brands in China have steered clear of explicit anti-pollution language in their marketing in favour of more personalised messages.

German skincare brand Babor, which started an official sales channel on Chinese e-commerce platform Tmall in March, might describe its “ampoule concentrates” products on its English-language website as having “anti-pollution” effects, but it’s not the key message for its Chinese market, says Klaus Redomske, president and COO of Babor Asia-Pacific.

“In general, Chinese consumers are more focused on addressing their specific skin issues or needs – i.e. the impact that the environment and their lifestyle has on their skin, such as skin ageing, or dull or dry skin,” Redomske says. “Thus [we are] more focused on communicating the relevant skin benefits to our consumers rather than [just saying] ‘anti-pollution’.”

Others, like Singapore-based Allies of Skin, have completely embraced the anti-pollution message.

“I believe the Chinese customer wants it all – they want their products to work hard for them and check every box,” founder Nicolas Travis, a Forbes 30 Under 30 winner in 2018, tells the Post. “I believe they are also a lot more educated about the harmful effects of pollution and how it can affect the skin barrier. Strengthening the skin’s delicate barrier is a fundamental goal for every Allies of Skin product. A weakened barrier makes the skin susceptible to inflammation and we know that inflammation is the root cause of every concern – acne, premature ageing, dark spots, etc. Pollution has been proven to damage and weaken the skin’s barrier, so it is a key focus for a lot of our customers globally.”

In Beijing, anti-pollution marketing is starting to extend past skincare brands. The Four Seasons Hotel Beijing worked with French skincare brand Biologique Recherche to create a “pollution solution” for its spa-goers. The hotel became the first to debut the French brand’s VIP O2 facial treatments that, according to the press release, “work to purify, detoxify and protect the skin by thoroughly cleansing pollutants from the surface, neutralising pollutants present in the skin and creating an anti-pollution shield to protect skin from penetrating pollutants.”

The hotel’s general manager, Andrew De Brito, says he believes his guests are aware of the need to protect their skin from pollution.

“We’ve consistently gotten feedback from our spa members and hotel guests about their preferences, and we do see now people have a more comprehensive mentality when it comes to beauty,” he says. “Our spa keeps updating our products and services to make sure we stay ahead of the market.”

The spend now, save later millennials of China’s moonlight clan

There’s little question brands will continue to invest in meeting consumer demand for improved skin health as long as pollution remains an issue. But even as shoppers have more options at their disposal, not everyone buys into the hype.

“I noticed some brands launched anti-pollution cleansing products,” Alarcon says. “But I think any good basic care can do that.”