Smoking’s effect on the skin might not be the most pressing of the reasons to quit smoking – since the risk of lung cancer and heart disease are much more serious – but the premature aging that occurs in smokers is yet another reason to make every effort to go smoke-free.
Smoking is the leading preventable cause of death in the U.S., but it has more effects than just being deadly. Smoking’s effect on the skin is widely-recognized, but isn’t often stressed because there are so many consequences of smoking that are much more serious. However, the fact that smoking prematurely ages your skin drives home the point that it has negative effects for your entire body, not just your lungs and your heart. If you’re hoping to remain youthful and beautiful for as long as you can, quitting smoking should be a priority.
Smoking and the Skin: How it Affects Your Appearance
The effect of smoking on your skin can be simply summarized by saying that smoking makes you look a lot older than you are. This is because smoking causes premature wrinkling, and gives you skin a grey, aged appearance. It also makes your skin sag more than it would otherwise, and it can give your face a gaunt look, with a “hollow” appearance to the cheeks being particularly noticeable in lower-weight smokers.
Overall, the result is that middle-aged smokers often have as many wrinkles as non-smokers who are 60 or older. It’s estimated that smoking 30 cigarettes a day could make your skin age an extra 14 years by the time you hit 70.
What Causes Smoking’s Effects on the Skin?
There are many potential explanations for smoking’s effect on the skin, and although there is still some disagreement on precisely what causes the premature aging from smoking, the following explanations are all likely to have a role to play.
One of the main effects of smoking on the skin is its impact on your skin’s supply of collagen. Collagen is the protein in your skin responsible for its elasticity. Smoking leads to increased production of an enzyme that breaks down collagen, so it reduces your skin’s elasticity and makes it look more aged, sagging and wrinkled.
Smokers have characteristic patterns of wrinkling of the skin, including lines around the mouth and “crow’s feet” around the eyes. The mouth-lines are assumed to be related to the motion of sucking on a cigarette, built up over a long period of time and with the added collagen-depleting effects of smoking. The wrinkles around the eyes are assumed to be due to increased squinting as smoke rises up towards the eyes.
Another important effect is the “vasoconstrictive” effect of smoking. This means it causes your blood vessels to constrict, which reduces blood supply to your skin and means it gets less oxygen and essential nutrients. Smoke released into the air also interacts with your skin, and dries it out. There is also the possibility of direct burns to the face from the heat of the cigarette. All of these factors contribute to what is called “smoker’s face” – the prematurely wrinkled, washed out and aged look of a smoker.
Other Issues With Smoking and Your Skin: Wound Healing and Psoriasis
Sadly, premature aging isn’t the only effect of smoking on your skin. Firstly, smoking generally delays the healing of wounds, both from injuries and surgery. As a smoker, you’re more likely to get an infection in the wound, have skin grafts or flaps fail to adhere, and you’re more likely to suffer blood clots.
These effects of smoking on wound healing are assumed to be related to the same issues that cause premature aging. The reduced supply of blood to the skin means that vital oxygen doesn’t reach the skin as quickly, and new blood vessels also don’t grow as quickly in smokers. The reduction in collagen production may also contribute to these issues.
Smokers are also two to three times more likely to suffer from psoriasis, which is an ongoing inflammatory skin condition. It isn’t really dangerous, but it can be very uncomfortable and can have a negative effect on your appearance. The risk of psoriasis is dependent on how much you smoke: if you smoke less, your risk will decrease, and if you smoke more, it will increase.
Quit Smoking if You Want to Look Your Best
Smoking’s effects on the skin aren’t life-threatening, but they’re definitely unpleasant and something you’ll want to avoid. The best way to avoid this is never to have started smoking, but the good news is that the second-best way to avoid it is to stop smoking as soon as you can. There are many effective treatments that can help you quit smoking, ranging from medicines like Zyban and Chantix through to alternative nicotine products like patches, gums, inhalers, e-cigarettes and smokeless tobacco.
Choose whichever approach appeals to you the most, and remember that none of these are “magic bullets” for quitting smoking. It takes willpower to be successful. However, if you want to stay looking your best for as long as possible – not to mention protecting your health – quitting smoking is definitely worthwhile.