Do anti-pollution hair care products really work?

Anti-pollution hair care products claim to remove dust and toxins from your hair. But are they worth the hype – and expense?

By Melanie Hearse

Clean hair act

A growing number of companies are developing anti-pollution hair care products that claim to remove dust, toxins and pollutants from your hair. But do they work? And are they any better than regular shampoo?

In this article:

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Do anti-pollution haircare products work?

The effects of pollution on our skin are well established – we're talking dry, dull, irritated or flaky faces, premature ageing and even acne. Likewise, pollutants can have an effect on our hair and scalp and may lead to dandruff, scalp irritation and even hair loss.

But Rodney Sinclair, dermatologist and spokesperson for the Australian Hair and Scalp Foundation, says simply smacking 'anti-pollution' on a label is basically marketing spin.

"Yes, there is pollution, yes folk living and walking through areas with more pollution are more prone to its effects on their hair, and yes, washing your hair is the only real way to remove pollutants," he says.

Pollution is really just a new buzzword

"But this is the function shampoo has always, and will always serve – so choosing a product purely based on such claims is pointless; pollution is really just a new buzzword driven by growing industry and consumer awareness and increased pollution in built-up areas. However, the science behind developing a shampoo hasn't specifically changed to address this."

What about products claiming to shield or ward off pollution?

"In short, [these] are conditioning products that provide a barrier – so yes they work in that when you rinse the product out at the end of the day, the debris will slide off with them. Any leave-in conditioner will do this – whether it has anti-pollution claims on the label or not."

What does pollution do to my hair?

  • A walk down the street can put you in contact with particulate matter, dust, smoke, heavy metals, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, ammonia or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) (chemicals released from rubbish, tobacco, wood and grilling meats), all of which settle on the scalp and hair.
  • Staying indoors is no solution, as air-conditioned environments carry VOCs (volatile organic compounds) – gases which are emitted from certain solids or liquids such as household cleaning products and glues used in furniture production. 
  • Personal care products themselves emit VOCs, and are becoming a major contributor to air pollution. 
  • Styling products can add a stickiness to the hair that may act as a magnet for airborne pollutants.

All of these pollutants can cause harm when they settle on the scalp and hair, where they migrate into the dermis and through the hair follicle conduit. 

This may lead to oxidative stress, excessive sebum production, dandruff, scalp irritation, damage to the hair cuticle, loss of shine or dullness – or even hair loss.

But do you need a separate product to combat this?

One 2017 discussion paper highlights the difficulties in creating anti-pollution products that work for a broad range of people and circumstances. It notes the wide variety in ethnicities, hair types and the skin on our scalps as well as the added complications created by the products we already use and how often we use them.

The paper also notes the difficulties presented by the range of pollutants and environmental hazards that affect people from different parts of the world – wide variations can even be found within a small country – and then there are the variations in weather that influence pollution levels and how we react to them.

Market research boffins Mintel have tipped products that claim to protect hair from pollution as an emerging hot seller – one that a growing number of companies are investing in. It's unsurprising given a 2016 report from the World Health Organization stated that 92% of the global population lives in places where air quality levels exceed Ambient Air Quality guidelines, making products that can repair or reduce the impact highly attractive to consumers.

Vivienne Rudd, a director of global insight and innovation at Mintel, believes pollution will be up there with UV as an environmental concern for people who use beauty products. "Brands will have to make anti-pollution claims a standard element of their skin and hair care products in the future," she predicts.

In short, there is some evidence that exposure to pollution is an issue many of us face, but we should also remember that cosmetic companies are keen to exploit any new opportunity to sell us a product. Some early adopters in the Aussie market have brought out products that claim to 'cleanse and lift toxins from the scalp', to 'provide a shield to minimise build-up, as well as detoxify the hair and scalp', and 'renew hair quality by repairing damaged areas'.

How can I protect my hair from pollution?

Buy good shampoo

Sinclair says using the best product you can afford (this doesn't always mean the most expensive) that's designed for your hair type will best protect the health of your hair, making it better able to withstand the effects of any pollution.

"In short, any shampoo works by stripping some of the fatty layer off the outside of the hair shaft, taking dirt and debris – and pollutants – with it," he says. 

"Cheaper shampoos are closer to a detergent, washing it away in a similar fashion to how we get grease and dirt off dishes. Better quality shampoos will more gently strip, but then replace the fatty layer with additional conditioners in their formulation."

Speak to a hairdresser

"My best advice for those concerned with the effects of pollution on the hair [and who are] planning to invest money in products is to spend the money instead on a consult with a good hairdresser and ask them to recommend a good quality product that suits their hair type and their budget for the long run."

This is because most of us are often unskilled at accurately diagnosing their hair type, while hairdressers have examined hundreds of heads and have professional knowledge of what's on the market and what works. 

They can also advise on how often a person should wash their hair to avoid damaging it, while meeting their lifestyle needs and hair habits.

If you're happy with your current products, buying new products simply because you've read about the effects of pollution is a waste of money.

"It's all really an individual balancing act," says Sinclair. "You must weigh up how often you need to wash your hair to remove pollutants, based on where you live and what you may be exposed to, but then consider that against factors like straightening or colouring (constant washing can reduce the lifespan of both treatments)."

Sinclair says other factors that play a part include odours or sweat, flaky scalp, how often you dry your hair and use styling products, and the quality of your blow dryer.

Ditch the sticky styling products

You can also help your hair by avoiding styling products that promote stickiness – as they can better 'grab' airborne pollutants and trap them (not to mention contain nasty chemicals of their own) – and go without when possible. And if you're especially concerned, cover up. Hats and headscarves may well be the future of pollution-proofing your hair with style.

Anti-pollution skincare

As for skincare that makes the same anti-pollution claims? "Again, consider the word pollution as the same as dirt or debris," says Sinclair.

"Choose a product that meets all your skincare needs – so skin type, other product use, lifestyle, for example, and if you have concerns, consult a dermatologist for a regime that works for you. Specifically looking for an anti-pollution product is not the best selection process."

Want to know if the company that makes your shampoo is ethical? Check out our guide to the most ethical shampoos.