When it comes to convincing smokers to quit, warning of health dangers is commonplace… but appealing to smokers’ vanity might be equally effective. So what exactly are the cosmetic claims against cigarette smoke?
We spoke to Dr. Milton Moore, a Houston-based dermatologist, and dermatologist Dr. Dina Yaghmai, Co-Director of the Physicians Laser and Dermatology Institute in Chicago, to find out just what this addictive habit is doing to our skin. Spoiler alert: The answer’s just as bad as you thought.
Yes, cigarettes do cause your skin to age faster…
When you take a puff of a cigarette, you may feel a sense of calm relief. But that action has the opposite effect on your blood vessels, which immediately become thinner and spasm. This reduces circulation and decreases the oxygen level in your blood. “Anything that decreases the oxygen in your blood is going to affect your skin as well,” says Dr. Moore.
This decrease of oxygen and circulation causes — you guessed it — premature aging and wrinkles, which are particularly pronounced around the mouth. The constant act of pursing your lips when you smoke exacerbates what Dr. Yaghmai calls “cigarette lines” — lines that extend from the mouth — so called because they’re a dead giveaway that someone’s a smoker. She also says that, with this reduced circulation, you can expect poor wound healing, one of the most obvious short-term side effects of smoking.
Another direct result of smoking is the release of free radicals in the body, which impair collagen production and break down proteins that maintain the skin. “A majority of our anti-aging products are designed to help remove these free radicals,” says Dr. Yaghmai. The natural aging process involves the formation of free radicals and oxidative damage to the cells, she says, adding, “By smoking, you’re releasing higher levels of free radicals in your body that are further increasing the oxidative damage to cells and accelerating the aging process of the skin.”
…and smoking can dull your “healthy glow.”
Smoking decreases the production of red blood cells, says Dr. Moore, adding, “When you have decreased red blood cells, it’s like when you have anemia and you become paler, which in some skin tones can appear grayish.” The actual smoke also affects the texture, smoothness and glow of your skin, especially in the upper lip and chin area where those “cigarette lines” appear.
“The skin really has this lack of glow, lack of softness that you see in a healthy non-smoker,” adds Dr. Yaghmai. This manifests as rougher skin texture and an overall unevenness to the pigmentation, she says.
You’d have to undergo some major dermatological procedures to even begin to reverse smoking’s effects.
If you think water, vitamins and some topical creams will fix the harm caused by cigarettes, think again. “Once that damage is visible, there’s no quick fix,” Dr. Yaghmai says. While both Dr. Yaghmai and Dr. Moore recommend a complete skin regimen of cleansing, moisturizing and hydrating with water for all patients, you’ll need to make some investments in your skincare if you want to reverse the effects of smoking.
Simple, more economical procedures like microdermabrasion, Botox injections or light chemical peels are helpful, but Dr. Yaghmai advocates laser treatments, which can be pretty pricey, to remove the top layers of dead skin and improve collagen production.
But there are also small tweaks smokers can make to reduce the damage.
While you can’t reverse the effects of smoking without the help of a good dermatologist, you can minimize the damage made by making some lifestyle adjustments. Avoiding alcohol and sun exposure as well as staying active can help maintain better circulation and keep your skin appearing healthier.
“People that are more active are going to do better with smoking and have less side effects than someone who’s more sedentary who’s a smoker,” says Dr. Moore.
So can your skin bounce back if you quit?
“There’s some damage that really can’t be undone,” says Dr. Moore. The longer you smoke, the longer it takes for your skin to recover and the more profound the damage, he says. Once you quit smoking, it takes about 20 to 30 days for your red blood cell count to increase. After that, you can start seeing a difference in the quality and texture of your skin. But don’t expect those wrinkles and fine lines to ever go away naturally.
“If you make the decision to stop, you are doing something great for your skin and you will see improvements,” says Dr. Yaghmai, “but reversing the damage that was already caused will require intervention.”