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Skin Conditions Aggravated by Smoking

Smoking tobacco products is enormously harmful to your health. Some of the consequences are just cosmetic, such as yellow teeth or wrinkles, but others can cause serious harm to many of the body’s vital organs. One of the lesser known consequences of smoking is the harm it can cause to your skin. Smoking largely affects the skin of the face and hands, especially the mouth, eyes and fingernails. However, some of its effects on the skin can be even life-threatening.

Smoking restricts the blood flow to the skin, depriving it of sufficient supply of oxygen and essential nutrients. In turn, toxic products begin to accumulate in the skin. Moreover, research demonstrates that smoking causes a reduction in the production of collagen, a protein needed for skin regeneration. Smoking can also damage another protein in the skin called elastin. Like collagen, elastin is responsible for the skin’s elasticity and strength. However, it is not yet fully understood why some smokers show signs of premature aging of the skin while others do not. It is also not clear yet whether secondhand smoke can negatively affect the skin.

Research clearly shows that women are more likely to develop skin problems from smoking than men because their skin is thinner. People with lighter skin are more prone to skin damage from smoking either because lighter skin is thinner and more susceptible to damage. Other common factors that may contribute to the development of smoking-related skin problems include:

  • Age and sex of patient
  • Amount of sun exposure by patient
  • Decreased hormone production in women
  • Family history and genetics
  • General health status
  • Length of smoking habit
  • Quantity of cigarettes smoked

It is hard to say how many years of smoking it takes to start showing its effects on the skin as it is very individual. Changes in the skin caused by smoking have been observed in young adults with only a ten year smoking history. However, studies show that light smokers are less likely to be wrinkled than heavy smokers.

Typical characteristics of smoker’s face include:

  • Increase in wrinkles, particularly around the eyes and mouth
  • Gauntness (extreme leanness)
  • Puffiness
  • Skin appearance that is ashen, gray or pale

Wrinkles at the outer edges of the eyes called crow’s feet and sallow, pale skin around the eyelids are also associated with smoking. This may be due to constricted blood flow to the eyelids and to certain extent also due to squinting to protect the eyes from the smoke released from a cigarette.

Skin Conditions Associated with Smoke Exposure

Smoking is believed to be associated with several skin conditions, though scientists are still researching the actual effects of smoking on the skin. Some of the most likely skin conditions related to smoking include:

Wrinkles. Studies have demonstrated that most smokers experience more premature wrinkling than non-smokers. Although wrinkles are not a health issue, many other effects of smoking are.

Palmoplantar pustulosis. This skin condition, characterized by tiny, fluid-filled blisters on the palms of the hand and the soles of the feet, affects mainly smokers. The blisters often fill with a small amount of pus, turning brown and scaly.

Hidradenitis suppurativa. Smoking may contribute to this chronic disease marked by clogging of the sweat glands in the armpits and groin. Moreover, toxic substances from tobacco may be excreted into the sweat.

Psoriasis. There seems to be a link between smoking and psoriasis, a chronic condition marked by frequent episodes of itchy, red skin which later develops thick, dry, silvery scales. Besides being a risk factor for psoriasis, smoking may also worsen the severity of this condition.

Skin cancer. Smokers are at an increased risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma of the skin. However, smoking has not been shown to contribute to developing of another type of skin cancer known as melanoma.

Poor wound healing. Smoking interferes with skin regeneration and constricts blood flow to the wound and thus impairs the body’s ability to heal from wounds. Many patients are therefore instructed to stop smoking prior to cosmetic surgery in order to improve their skin’s healing ability.

Stains and discoloration. Heavy smokers often develop yellow and brown stains on their fingers and nails as well as yellow or brown discoloration of the hairs of their moustache.

Treating and Preventing Skin Problems Related to Smoking

Several products and therapeutic techniques can be used to reduce the wrinkles and other skin problems linked to smoking. Patients may purchase non-prescription products or may have a treatment prescribed by their dermatologist. Possible treatments include:

Anti-wrinkle creams and lotions. There is a number of over-the-counter creams and lotions available that are aimed at improving wrinkles.

Topical retinoids. These substances, e.g. tretinoin, are chemically related to vitamin A and work by increasing the production of new collagen. They can be used to treat a variety of skin conditions including wrinkles. However, non-prescription retinoids may not be as effective as tretinoin when it comes to reducing wrinkles.

Bleaching creams. Over-the-counter bleaching creams can be used to treat areas of discolored skin.

Alfa-hydroxy acids. Some fruit acids have the ability to keep moisture in the skin and reduce wrinkles.

Skin peels. In this procedure the top layer of skin is removed using a chemical solution. By removing the top layer, the skin regenerates and the result is improved, smoother appearance.

Dermabrasion. During this procedure, the patient’s skin is frozen and a surgeon “sands” the skin (removes the upper layers of the skin) with a wire brush or a diamond wheel until a new layer replaces the damaged tissue. Dermabrasion is especially suitable for treating wrinkles around the mouth.

Plastic surgery. Procedures, such as a facelift or browlift, may improve the appearance of wrinkles in many patients.

Laser resurfacing. This technique directs a powerful light beam at irregular skin, removing its upper layers and thus changing the surface texture and appearance of the skin. Laser resurfacing can be best used to treat wrinkles around the mouth.

Although the aforementioned treatments may help improve cosmetic problems brought on by smoking, the healthiest way to prevent smoking-related premature aging of the skin is to quit the habit. Smokers who suspect that they may have developed a more serious skin condition linked to smoking, such as skin cancer, should speak to their doctor.

Where to Get More Information: DermNet NZ