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Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Ancient air pockets changing the history of Earth’s oxygen

Ancient air trapped in rock salt for 813 million years is changing the timeline of atmospheric changes and life on Earth.

Defining past atmospheric compositions is an important yet daunting task for geologists. Most methods for determining past Earth surface conditions rely on indirect proxies gleaned from ancient sedimentary rocks. Further complicating matters, sedimentary rocks are notoriously difficult to date because they contain remnants of other rocks formed at various times.

As a result, oxygenation, or the rise of oxygen in the Earth's atmosphere, has been presumed to occur about 550 million years ago near the boundary between the Precambrian and Paleozoic geologic periods.

The Earth seeen from Apollo 17. By NASA/Apollo 17 crew; taken by either Harrison Schmitt or Ron Evans [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
West Virginia University geologist Kathleen Benison is part of a research team using new direct methods to measure the Earth's oxygenation.

The team's study identifies, for the first time, exactly how much oxygen was in Earth's atmosphere 813 million years ago - 10.9 percent. This finding, they say, demonstrates that oxygenation on Earth occurred 300 million years earlier than previously concluded from indirect measurements.

"Diversity of life emerges right around this time period," Benison said. "We used to think that to have diversity of life we needed specific things, including a certain amount of oxygen. (The findings) show that not as much oxygen is required for organisms to develop."

Fluid inclusions, the microscopic bubbles of liquids and gases in rock salt, can contain trapped air. Analysis of this trapped air allows researchers to understand past surface conditions and how oxygen has changed over the course of geologic history.

The team used a quadrupole mass spectrometer to study the air pockets. Carefully crushing minute rock salt crystals released water and gases into the mass spectrometer, which then analyzed for various compounds of oxygen and other gases.

"There are a lot of different environmental conditions specific from the past that we can find occurring in modern samples," Benison said. "This tells us about the range of conditions on Earth and also has implications for Mars."

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Wednesday, 24 August 2016

On this day in science history: Mount Vesuvius erupted

In 79, the long-dormant Mount Vesuvius erupted in Italy, burying the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in volcanic ash. An estimated 20,000 people died. When discovered, the sites became astonishing archaeological time capsules. Official excavations began on 6 Apr 1748 of behalf of the Italian king's interest in collecting antiquities.

Pompeii, with Vesuvius towering above. Qfl247 CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), via Wikimedia Commons
Scientific knowledge of the geologic history of Vesuvius comes from core samples taken from a 2,000 m (6,600 ft) plus bore hole on the flanks of the volcano, extending into Mesozoic rock. Cores were dated by potassium–argon and argon–argon dating. The mountain started forming 25,000 years ago. Although the area has been subject to volcanic activity for at least 400,000 years, the lowest layer of eruption material from the Somma mountain lies on top of the 40,000‑year‑old Campanian Ignimbrite produced by the Campi Flegrei complex, and was the product of the Codola Plinian eruption 25,000 years ago.

It was then built up by a series of lava flows, with some smaller explosive eruptions interspersed between them. However, the style of eruption changed around 19,000 years ago to a sequence of large explosive plinian eruptions, of which the 79 AD one was the most recent. The eruptions are named after the tephra deposits produced by them, which in turn are named after the location where the deposits were first identified:

  • The Basal Pumice (Pomici di Base) eruption, 18,300 years ago, VEI 6, saw the original formation of the Somma caldera. The eruption was followed by a period of much less violent, lava producing eruptions.
  • The Green Pumice (Pomici Verdoline) eruption, 16,000 years ago, VEI 5.
  • The Mercato eruption (Pomici di Mercato) – also known as Pomici Gemelle or Pomici Ottaviano – 8000 years ago, VEI 6, followed a smaller explosive eruption around 11,000 years ago (called the Lagno Amendolare eruption).
  • The Avellino eruption (Pomici di Avellino), 3800 years ago, VEI 5, followed two smaller explosive eruptions around 5,000 years ago. The Avellino eruption vent was apparently 2 km west of the current crater, and the eruption destroyed several Bronze Age settlements of the Apennine culture. Several carbon dates on wood and bone offer a range of possible dates of about 500 years in the mid-2nd millennium BC. In May 2001, near Nola, Italian archaeologists using the technique of filling every cavity with plaster or substitute compound recovered some remarkably well-preserved forms of perishable objects, such as fence rails, a bucket and especially in the vicinity thousands of human footprints pointing into the Apennines to the north. The settlement had huts, pots, and goats. The residents had hastily abandoned the village, leaving it to be buried under pumice and ash in much the same way that Pompeii was later preserved. Pyroclastic surge deposits were distributed to the northwest of the vent, travelling as far as 15 km (9.3 mi) from it, and lie up to 3 m (9.8 ft) deep in the area now occupied by Naples.

The volcano then entered a stage of more frequent, but less violent, eruptions until the most recent Plinian eruption, which destroyed Pompeii.

The last of these may have been in 217 BC. There were earthquakes in Italy during that year and the sun was reported as being dimmed by a haze or dry fog. Plutarch wrote of the sky being on fire near Naples and Silius Italicus mentioned in his epic poem Punica that Vesuvius had thundered and produced flames worthy of Mount Etna in that year, although both authors were writing around 250 years later. Greenland ice core samples of around that period show relatively high acidity, which is assumed to have been caused by atmospheric hydrogen sulfide.

The mountain was then quiet (for 295 years, if the 217 BC date for the last previous eruption is true) and was described by Roman writers as having been covered with gardens and vineyards, except at the top which was craggy. The mountain may have had only one summit at that time, judging by a wall painting, "Bacchus and Vesuvius", found in a Pompeiian house, the House of the Centenary (Casa del Centenario).

Several surviving works written over the 200 years preceding the 79 AD eruption describe the mountain as having had a volcanic nature, although Pliny the Elder did not depict the mountain in this way in his Naturalis Historia:

  • The Greek historian Strabo (ca 63 BC–AD 24) described the mountain in Book V, Chapter 4 of his Geographica as having a predominantly flat, barren summit covered with sooty, ash-coloured rocks and suggested that it might once have had "craters of fire". He also perceptively suggested that the fertility of the surrounding slopes may be due to volcanic activity, as at Mount Etna.
  • In Book II of De architectura, the architect Vitruvius reported that fires had once existed abundantly below the mountain and that it had spouted fire onto the surrounding fields. He went on to describe Pompeiian pumice as having been burnt from another species of stone.
  • Diodorus Siculus (ca 90 BC–ca 30 BC), another Greek writer, wrote in Book IV of his Bibliotheca Historica that the Campanian plain was called fiery (Phlegrean) because of the mountain, Vesuvius, which had spouted flame like Etna and showed signs of the fire that had burnt in ancient history.
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Tuesday, 16 August 2016

What are Olympic medals made of?

So, the Olympic medals are made of gold, silver and bronze right? Wrong! Pure gold medals would cost an awful lot, so what are the medals really made from? 

The graphic below looks at the different metals used.

Graphic: Compound Interest

So, what of real gold? Let’s find out more:

Gold is a chemical element with the symbol Au (from Latin: aurum) and the atomic number 79. In its purest form, it is a bright, slightly reddish yellow, dense, soft, malleable and ductile metal. Chemically, gold is a transition metal and a group 11 element. It is one of the least reactive chemical elements, and is solid under standard conditions. The metal therefore occurs often in free elemental (native) form, as nuggets or grains, in rocks, in veins and in alluvial deposits. It occurs in a solid solution series with the native element silver (as electrum) and also naturally alloyed with copper and palladium. Less commonly, it occurs in minerals as gold compounds, often with tellurium (gold tellurides).

Gold's atomic number of 79 makes it one of the higher atomic number elements that occur naturally in the universe. It is thought to have been produced in supernova nucleosynthesis and from the collision of neutron stars and to have been present in the dust from which the Solar System formed. Because the Earth was molten when it was just formed, almost all of the gold present in the early Earth probably sank into the planetary core. Therefore, most of the gold that is present today in the Earth's crust and mantle is thought to have been delivered to Earth later, by asteroid impacts during the Late Heavy Bombardment, about 4 billion years ago.

Gold resists attack by individual acids, but aqua regia (literally "royal water", a mixture of nitric acid and hydrochloric acid) can dissolve it. The acid mixture causes the formation of a soluble tetrachloroaurate anion. It is insoluble in nitric acid, which dissolves silver and base metals, a property that has long been used to refine gold and to confirm the presence of gold in metallic objects, giving rise to the term acid test. Gold also dissolves in alkaline solutions of cyanide, which are used in mining and electroplating. Gold dissolves in mercury, forming amalgam alloys, but this is not a chemical reaction.

Gold is a precious metal used for coinage, jewellery, and other arts throughout recorded history. In the past, a gold standard was often implemented as a monetary policy within and between nations, but gold coins ceased to be minted as a circulating currency in the 1930s, and the world gold standard was abandoned for a fiat currency system after 1976. The historical value of gold was rooted in its relative rarity, easy handling and minting, easy smelting and fabrication, resistance to corrosion and other chemical reactions (nobility), and distinctive colour.

The world consumption of new gold produced is about 50% in jewellery, 40% in investments, and 10% in industry. Gold's high malleability, ductility, resistance to corrosion and most other chemical reactions, and conductivity of electricity have led to its continued use in corrosion resistant electrical connectors in all types of computerized devices (its chief industrial use). Gold is also used in infrared shielding, coloured glass production, gold leafing, and tooth restoration. Certain gold salts are still used as anti-inflammatories in medicine.

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Monday, 8 August 2016

Researchers reduce climate-warming CO2 to building blocks for fuels

Turning carbon dioxide into stored energy sounds like science fiction: researchers have long tried to find simple ways to convert this greenhouse gas into fuels and other useful chemicals. Now, a group of researchers led by Professor Ted Sargent of the University of Toronto's Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering have found a more efficient way, through the wonders of nanoengineering.

Drs. Min Liu and Yuanjie Pang, along with a team of graduate students and post-doctoral fellows in University of Toronto Engineering, have developed a technique powered by renewable energies such as solar or wind. The catalyst takes climate-warming carbon-dioxide (CO2) and converts it to carbon-monoxide (CO), a useful building block for carbon-based chemical fuels, such as methanol, ethanol and diesel.

The frozen version of CO2, small pellets of dry ice sublimating in air. By Richard Wheeler (Zephyris) at en.wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons
"CO2 reduction is an important challenge due to inertness of the molecule," says Liu. "We were looking for the best way to both address mounting global energy needs and help the environment," adds Pang. "If we take CO2 from industrial flue emissions or from the atmosphere, and use it as a reagent for fuels, which provide long-term storage for green energy, we're killing two birds with one stone."

The team's solution is sharp: they start by fabricating extremely small gold "nanoneedles" - the tip of each needle is 10,000 times smaller than a human hair. "The nanoneedles act like lightning rods for catalyzing the reaction," says Liu.

When they applied a small electrical bias to the array of nanoneedles, they produced a high electric field at the sharp tips of the needles. This helps attract CO2, speeding up the reduction to CO, with a rate faster than any catalyst previously reported. This represents a breakthrough in selectivity and efficiency which brings CO2 reduction closer to the realm of commercial electrolysers. The team is now working on the next step: skipping the CO and producing more conventional fuels directly.

Their work is published in the journal Nature.

"The field of water-splitting for energy storage has seen rapid advances, especially in the intensity with which these reactions can be performed on a heterogeneous catalyst at low overpotential - now, analogous breakthroughs in the rate of CO2 reduction using renewable electricity are urgently needed," says Michael Graetzel, a professor of physical chemistry at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne and a world leader in this field. "The University of Toronto team's breakthrough was achieved using a new concept of field-induced reagent concentration."

"Solving global energy challenges needs solutions that cut across many fields," says Sargent. "This work not only provides a new solution to a longstanding problem of CO2 reduction, but opens possibilities for storage of alternative energies such as solar and wind."

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Tuesday, 2 August 2016

On this day in science: the first nylon toothbrush

In 1938, the first nylon-bristle toothbrush in the U.S. was described in a New York Times business report. Dr. West's Miracle-Tuft toothbrush, a new product from the Weco Products Company, was the first to use synthetic DuPont nylon bristles instead of natural hog bristles. It had four guarantees: “No bristle shedding, 100 per cent waterproofed, longer life, greater cleansing power.” Its price was to be 50 cents (with a fair-trade minimum of 47 cents). The report said an intensive national advertising campaign for the new toothbrush was to be launched in about six weeks. Competition came in May 1939, as Johnson & Johnson began advertising their new Tek toothbrush.

The predecessor of the toothbrush is the chew stick. Chew sticks were twigs with a frayed end used to brush against the teeth, while the other end was used as a toothpick. The earliest chew sticks were discovered in Babylonia in 3500 BC, an Egyptian tomb dating from 3000 BC, and mentioned in Chinese records dating from 1600 BC. The Greeks and Romans used toothpicks to clean their teeth and toothpick-like twigs have been excavated in Qin Dynasty tombs. Chew sticks remain common in Africa; the rural Southern United States - and in the Islamic world the use of chewing stick Miswak is considered a pious action, and has been prescribed to be used before every prayer five times a day. Miswak has been used by Muslims since 7th Century AD.

A selection of toothbrushes. By Jonas Bergsten, via Wikimedia Commons
The first bristle toothbrush, resembling the modern toothbrush, was found in China during the Tang Dynasty (619–907) and used hog bristle. The bristles were sourced from hogs living in Siberia and northern China because the colder temperatures provided firmer bristles. They were then attached to a handle manufactured from bamboo or bone, forming a toothbrush. In 1223, Japanese Zen master Dōgen Kigen recorded on Shōbōgenzō that he saw monks in China clean their teeth with brushes made of horse-tail hairs attached to an ox-bone handle. The bristle toothbrush spread to Europe, brought back from China to Europe by travellers. It was adopted in Europe during the 17th century. The earliest identified use of the word toothbrush in English was in the autobiography of Anthony Wood, who wrote in 1690 that he had bought a toothbrush from J. Barret. Europeans found the hog bristle toothbrushes exported from merchants in China too firm, and preferred softer bristle toothbrushes manufactured from horsehair. Mass-produced toothbrushes, made with horse or boar bristle, continued to be imported to England from China until the mid-20th century.

In Europe, William Addis of England is believed to have produced the first mass-produced toothbrush, in 1780. In 1770, he had been jailed for causing a riot; while in prison he decided that the method used to clean teeth – at the time rubbing a rag with soot and salt on the teeth – was ineffective and could be improved. To that end, he saved a small animal bone left over from the meal he had eaten the previous night, into which he drilled small holes. He then obtained some bristles from one of his guards, which he tied in tufts that he then passed through the holes in the bone, and which he finally sealed with glue. After his release, he started a business that would manufacture the toothbrushes he had built, and he soon became very rich. He died in 1808, and left the business to his eldest son, also called William, and it stayed in family ownership until 1996. Under the name Wisdom Toothbrushes the company now manufactures 70 million toothbrushes per year in the UK. 

By 1840 toothbrushes were being mass-produced in England, France, Germany, and Japan. Pig bristle was used for cheaper toothbrushes, and badger hair for the more expensive ones.

The first patent for a toothbrush was granted to H. N. Wadsworth in 1857 (US Patent No. 18,653) in the United States, but mass production in the United States only started in 1885. The rather advanced design had a bone handle with holes bored into it for the Siberian boar hair bristles. Unfortunately, animal bristle was not an ideal material as it retains bacteria and does not dry well, and the bristles often fell out. In addition to bone, sometimes handles were made of wood or ivory. In the United States, brushing teeth did not become routine until after World War II, when American soldiers had to clean their teeth daily.

During the 1900s, celluloid handles gradually replaced bone handles in toothbrushes. Natural animal bristles were also replaced by synthetic fibers, usually nylon, by DuPont in 1938. The first electric toothbrush, the Broxodent, was invented in Switzerland in 1954. As of the turn of the 21st century, nylon had come to be widely used for the bristles, and the handles were usually molded from thermoplastic materials.

Johnson & Johnson, a leading medical-supplies firm, introduced the "Reach" toothbrush in 1977. It differed from previous toothbrushes in three ways: First, it had an angled head, similar to dental instruments, to reach back teeth; second, the bristles were concentrated more closely than usual to clean each tooth of potentially carigenic (cavity-causing) materials; and third, the outer bristles were longer and softer than the inner bristles, to clean between teeth. The Reach toothbrush was the first to have a specialized design intended to increase its effectiveness. Other models, from other manufacturers, soon followed; each of these had unique design features intended to be, and promoted as being, more effective than the basic toothbrush design that had been employed for years.

In January 2003 the toothbrush was selected as the number one invention Americans could not live without according to the Lemelson-MIT Invention Index. 

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Tuesday, 26 July 2016

The chemistry of ice cream

Who doesn’t love ice cream? Especially when the sun is shining! But what is the science that lies behind ice cream making? Have a look at this graphic which takes a look at some of the ingredients that go into ice cream, and the important role they play in creating the finished product.

Graphic: Compound Interest 
Before the development of modern refrigeration, ice cream was a luxury reserved for special occasions. Making it was quite laborious; ice was cut from lakes and ponds during the winter and stored in holes in the ground, or in wood-frame or brick ice houses, insulated by straw. Many farmers and plantation owners, including U.S. Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, cut and stored ice in the winter for use in the summer. Frederic Tudor of Boston turned ice harvesting and shipping into a big business, cutting ice in New England and shipping it around the world.

Ice cream was made by hand in a large bowl placed inside a tub filled with ice and salt. This was called the pot-freezer method. French confectioners refined the pot-freezer method, making ice cream in a sorbetière (a covered pail with a handle attached to the lid). In the pot-freezer method, the temperature of the ingredients is reduced by the mixture of crushed ice and salt. The salt water is cooled by the ice, and the action of the salt on the ice causes it to (partially) melt, absorbing latent heat and bringing the mixture below the freezing point of pure water. The immersed container can also make better thermal contact with the salty water and ice mixture than it could with ice alone.

The hand-cranked churn, which also uses ice and salt for cooling, replaced the pot-freezer method. The exact origin of the hand-cranked freezer is unknown, but the first U.S. patent for one was #3254 issued to Nancy Johnson on 9 September 1843. The hand-cranked churn produced smoother ice cream than the pot freezer and did it quicker. Many inventors patented improvements on Johnson's design.

In Europe and early America, ice cream was made and sold by small businesses, mostly confectioners and caterers. Jacob Fussell of Baltimore, Maryland was the first to manufacture ice cream on a large scale. Fussell bought fresh dairy products from farmers in York County, Pennsylvania, and sold them in Baltimore. An unstable demand for his dairy products often left him with a surplus of cream, which he made into ice cream. He built his first ice cream factory in Seven Valleys, Pennsylvania, in 1851. Two years later, he moved his factory to Baltimore. Later, he opened factories in several other cities and taught the business to others, who operated their own plants. Mass production reduced the cost of ice cream and added to its popularity.

The development of industrial refrigeration by German engineer Carl von Linde during the 1870s eliminated the need to cut and store natural ice, and, when the continuous-process freezer was perfected in 1926, commercial mass production of ice cream and the birth of the modern ice cream industry was underway.

In modern times, a common method for producing ice cream at home is to use an ice cream maker, an electrical device that churns the ice cream mixture while cooled inside a household freezer. Some more expensive models have an inbuilt freezing element. A newer method is to add liquid nitrogen to the mixture while stirring it using a spoon or spatula for a few seconds; a similar technique, advocated by Heston Blumenthal as ideal for home cooks, is to add dry ice to the mixture while stirring for a few minutes. Some ice cream recipes call for making a custard, folding in whipped cream, and immediately freezing the mixture. Another method is to use a pre-frozen solution of salt and water, which gradually melts as the ice cream freezes.

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Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Air pollution causes wrinkles and premature ageing, new research shows

Air pollution is prematurely ageing the faces of city dwellers by accelerating wrinkles and age spots, according to emerging scientific research.

The effects of toxic fumes on skin are being seen in both western cities, such as London and New York, as well as in more visibly polluted Asian cities and in some cases may be the primary cause of ageing. The pollution is also being linked to worsening skin conditions such as eczema and hives.

The scientific discoveries are now driving the world’s biggest cosmetics companies to search for solutions, including medicine-like compounds that directly block the biological damage. But doctors warn that some common skin care routines, such as scrubs, make the damage from air pollution even worse.

Poisonous air is already known to cause millions of early deaths from lung and heart diseases and has been linked to diabetes and mental health problems. But perhaps its most visible impact, the damage caused to skin, is just beginning to be understood.

“With traffic pollution emerging as the single most toxic substance for skin, the dream of perfect skin is over for those living and working in traffic-polluted areas unless they take steps to protect their skin right now,” said Dr Mervyn Patterson, a cosmetic doctor at Woodford Medical clinics in the UK.

“Unless people do more they will end up wearing the pollution on their faces in 10 years’ time. It is definitely something people now need to take seriously.”

Nitrogen dioxide diffusion tube for air quality monitoring.By Etan J. Tal, via Wikimedia Commons.
Prof Jean Krutmann, director at the Leibniz Research Institute for Environmental Medicine in Germany, said: “UV [damage from the sun] was really the topic in skin protection for the last 20-30 years. Now I think air pollution has the potential to keep us busy for the next few decades.”

Air pollution in urban areas, much of which comes from traffic, includes tiny particles called PMs, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and chemicals such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). “What is very clear is that PMs are a problem for skin,” said Krutmann, whose work has shown PMs increase age spots and wrinkles.

But one of the his newest studies showed NO2 also increases ageing. They studied people in both Germany and China and discovered that age spots on their cheeks increased by 25% with a relatively small increase in pollution, 10 microgrammes of NO2 per cubic metre. Many parts of the UK have illegally high levels of NO2, with London breaking its annual limit in the first week of 2016, with levels reaching over 200 microgrammes of NO2 per cubic metre.

Krutmann said other factors, such as UV exposure, nutrition and smoking contribute to ageing: “But what we can say is that, at least for the pigment spots on the cheeks, it seems air pollution is the major driver.”

“It is not a problem that is limited to China or India – we have it in Paris, in London, wherever you have larger urban agglomerations you have it,” he said. “In Europe everywhere is so densely populated and the particles are being distributed by the wind, so it is very difficult to escape from the problem.”

The accelerated skin ageing was seen in relatively young people and Patterson said: “If you are seeing these changes in middle age, these are worrying trends.”

Other recent research is summed up in a review paper in the journal Frontiers in Environmental Science, which concluded: “Prolonged or repetitive exposure to high levels of these [air] pollutants may have profound negative effects on the skin.”

Understanding exactly how air pollution causes the skin damage is at an early stage, according to Krutmann: “We are just now dipping into the mechanisms.” But many of the pollutants are known to pass easily through the skin and cause a variety of impacts.

“These agents have a very irritating effect and once they get into the skin, they activate multiple pathways of inflammation,” said Patterson. “Some pathways ignite the melanocytes, which create far too much pigment and end up giving you unwanted sun spots.”

“Other pathways ignite messengers that make blood vessels grow, that’s what results in increased redness and potentially rosacea,” he said. “Also, if you damage skin, it goes into repair mode and excites enzymes which re-adsorb damaged collagen. When you have too much chronic inflammation, these enzymes remove more collagen than your skin can create. This produces skin laxity and that’s where fine lines and wrinkles come in.”

Dr Debra Jaliman, a skin expert based in New York City, says her patients are now worrying about the impact of air pollution on their skin, which she said can cause darkening of the skin and acne-like eruptions, as well as ageing.

“At the moment, there are not many products for prevention [of air pollution damage], however it may be a trend in the coming years as it becomes a much bigger issue,” she said.

Major beauty companies have begun their own research and are launching the first products formulated to battle skin damage from toxic air. Dr Frauke Neuser, senior scientist for Olay, a Procter and Gamble brand, has run studies showing significantly lower skin hydration in people living in polluted areas and lab studies showing that diesel fumes and PMs cause inflammation in skin cells.

Her team then screened for ingredients that could counteract some of the damaging effects. “We found niacinamide - vitamin B3 - to be particularly effective,” she said. “We have recently increased its level in several products by as much as 40%.”

Frauke’s work has also shown direct correlations between spikes in PM air pollution in Beijing and an increase in hospital visits by people with skin conditions including hives. “This indicates that not only skin ageing but also skin health are affected by air pollution,” she said.

L’Oreal, another cosmetics giant, published a medical study in 2015 showing that eczema and hives were more common in people in Mexico exposed to higher levels of air pollution, a conclusion supported by separate research in Canada. “The next step is to understand more deeply the environment-induced damages, in order to develop skin ageing prevention routines and products,” said Dr Steve Shiel, scientific director at L’Oreal.

Clinique, a big makeup brand, has already launched a sonic face cleansing brush it claims better removes pollution. “This [air pollution] is not going to go away. This is not a problem that is easily fixed,” said Janet Pardo at Clinique.

However, researchers are now working on medicine-like compounds that block the damage from air pollution from occurring in the first place. Krutmann’s lab helped Symrise, one of the world’s biggest suppliers of cosmetics ingredients, identify one, though the lab has no commercial stake in the product, which is called SymUrban.

“We found one molecule that can do the job,” he said, and it is now being registered as cosmetic ingredient. “In a few years from now I expect we will see cosmetic products that can specifically protect against skin ageing from air pollution.”

Patterson said it is possible for people to give themselves some protection now. “You don’t have to sit back passively and put up with it. You can take sensible, easy steps that will make a difference.”

“If your skin is really healthy, it is quite a good barrier,” he said, explaining that the top layer is like a roof - flattened cells like tiles separated by protective lipids.

“Certain skin care products are very disruptive to the surface of the skin,” he warned. “So a darling of the industry is retinoids, but these have a very profound negative effect on barrier function. Another darling of the industry is glycolic acid, but it is also very disruptive to the external skin barrier. People think these are good skin care, making the skin look smoother, but they are not helpful for the overall health of the skin barrier.”

Patterson is also dismissive of face scrubs: “The skin is trying its damnedest to make this wonderful defence mechanism and what do women and men do? They scrub the hell out of it. It just doesn’t make sense.” He said products that help repair the skin barrier, by delivering the pre-cursor lipids the cells need, are beneficial, as are ones that tackle inflammation.

“You can also put on a very nice physical shield in the form of good quality mineral makeup,” he said. “That produces an effect like a protective mesh and probably has some trapping effect, protecting against the initial penetration of particles. But you also need always to try to remove that shield in the evening, washing the slate clean every night.”

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