It is pretty common knowledge that smoking and skin health are connected, with earlier signs of skin ageing seen in smokers compared to their peers. How does smoking affect the skin? Largely through oxidation, but there are also considerations of circulation, cellular health and elasticity when thinking about naturally healthy skin and smoking.
Skin Elasticity and Tone
Smoking tobacco triggers the breakdown of elastin, the key fibre that makes the skin stretchy, supple and strong. Not only is elastin vital for the skin’s elasticity, it also supports the proper distribution of pigmentation, which is why smokers’ skin is often more wrinkled and discoloured than non-smokers’ skin. Skin pigmentation is also affected by compromised circulation in smokers as haemoglobin enriched with oxygen is what gives the skin a healthy reddish-pink hue or otherwise healthy tone.
Smoking and Broken Blood Vessels
The damaging effects on the lungs from inhaling tobacco smoke can lead to poor respiratory health and compromised tissue oxygenation. Cells that do not receive adequate oxygen, as well as other nutrients, become dysfunctional and die. Over time this causes the skin to thin and become more susceptible to fine lines and wrinkles.
The chemicals taken in by smokers, including carbon monoxide, have the effect of constricting blood vessels and further reducing tissue oxygenation. As a response, the smaller blood vessels and capillaries near the.skin’s surface become permanently dilated in a desperate attempt to get enough oxygen through increased blood flow. This weakens the capillaries and creates broken blood vessels visible on the surface of the skin. The effect can be similar to rosacea, and the flushed appearance seen in alcoholics.
Toxic Build-Up in the Skin
Poor circulation to the skin means that waste products and dead cells cannot be removed at the optimum rate, creating tired and lifeless skin. While damaged and dysfunctional connective tissue remains present the skin does not begin building new collagen or elastin and this reduces the skin’s elasticity and tone.
Smoking and Skin Cancer
Smoking also increases the risk of developing a form of skin cancer, squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), which can be fatal if it metastasises to the rest of the body, such as into the lymph nodes. SCC is the second most common form of skin cancer in the United States, after basal cell carcinoma and many smokers do not realise that their habit, as well as increasing the risk of lung cancer, can also cause skin cancer.
Impaired Wound Healing in Smokers
All of the compromising effects of smoking add up to an impaired ability to heal the skin when it becomes damaged in any way. Smokers with unhealthy-looking skin may think that a facelift, laser skin resurfacing or chemical peel will help but these procedures may not actually be available to them. This is because anyone undergoing these procedures is required to have a strong immune system and naturally healthy skin in order to heal from the tissue trauma. Smokers are often not considered eligible for other types of surgery, including spine surgery, despite being at an increased risk of having back pain as a smoker.
As well as being less able to heal from surgical interventions, smokers often notice that even minor blemishes may leave scarring, that stretch marks will likely be more pronounced and visible, and that smoking-induced abnormalities in pigmentation can cause a splotchy skin appearance.
Along with the effects on respiratory health, cardiovascular and circulatory health, and collagen and elastin production, the actual act of smoking leads to wrinkle formation around the mouth as the lips are pursed when drawing on a cigarette. ‘Smoker’s face’ is a real phenomenon, and the effects of smoking on the skin are easily preventable.