• Elisabet Salmerón, science journalist

    Ageing caused by smoking

    12 May

    Is smoking pleasureable? It may well be. But smoking is also addictive and detrimental to the body. The more than 4,000 chemical compounds in cigarettes, many of which are toxic, have multiple adverse effects on the skin, which becomes fragile, poorly nourished, mottled and scored with narrow, deep wrinkles. And there is no corrective cosmetic treatment for this damage.


    “For more pure pleasure, have a Camel.” In the early 20th century, the tobacco industry made its mark on society through advertising campaigns that associated smoking with health benefits and values such as life and liberty. However, a study published in 1938 in the prestigious journal Science pointed for the first time to the high tendency for smokers to become ill.

    Since then the supposed benefits of smoking have been undermined and strong smoking control policies have been implemented under the leadership of the World Health Organization, accompanied by numerous campaigns. Lung cancer, heart attack and stroke are examples of the severe consequences of smoking, which, despite all efforts to the contrary, continues to be the leading cause of preventable deaths worldwide. But smoking is also detrimental to the skin.


    Doctor, what kind of face do I have?

    Are you familiar with the expression “smoker’s face”? This term was coined in 1985 to describe the facial characteristics of people who had smoked for ten or more years. Premature ageing, marked wrinkles (especially around the lips and eyes), deeper expression lines, prominent bones, greyish-yellow skin and mottled skin patches are the main signs of a smoker.

    These traits are likely to worsen in line with the number of cigarettes smoked daily and the time spent in the sun. A study by the Nagoya University Medical School (Japan) concluded that people who combined smoking and UV light were 11 times more likely to develop wrinkles than non-smokers who spent comparatively less time in the sun.


    Wrinkled skin

    Smoking implies ingesting more than 4,000 chemical compounds, many of them toxic, which reduce the ability of the skin to regenerate. Carbon monoxide (CO), for example, has greater affinity than oxygen with haemoglobin (carboxyhaemoglobin), which means that the CO displaces oxygen and prevents it from reaching the tissues through the blood vessels. The skin therefore fails to regenerate properly and instead becomes flaky in appearance and more prone to cracking.

    Nicotine, which is the best known compound due to its addictive properties, also restricts the supply of oxygen. It acts as a vasoconstrictor (that is, it narrows the arteries), making it more difficult for the blood to flow through the body.

    The outcomes are that the skin is prevented from absorbing essential nutrients like vitamin A, which is regenerative, or vitamin C, which destroys excess free radicals, produced in large quantities, incidentally, by cigarette smoke. These highly reactive radicals potentially interfere in cell division and so promote ageing of the skin. The result is that the skin of smokers turns a greyish-yellow.

    Nicotine-induced vasoconstriction also negatively affects the healing of wounds. The skin of smokers who have a facelift, for example, usually heals with more difficulty.

    Smoking also thins the skin, causing wrinkles to appear. The compounds in cigarettes also degrade the collagen and elastin that make the skin firm and elastic. This degradation, normal as we age but aggravated in smokers, is known as elastosis. It can lead to deeper wrinkles, the development of jowls and bags under the eyes, sagging skin and increased wrinkling around the lips.


    Smoking causes skin cancer

    Smoking is a risk factor associated with several kinds of cancer (lung, pancreatic, etc). However, until recently, there were doubts about its link to skin cancer.

    In 2001, researchers at the Leiden University Medical Centre (Netherlands) showed that the number of cigarettes smoked daily and the years during which a person smoked increased the risk of squamous cell carcinoma. In contrast, no link was encountered between smoking and malignant melanoma.


    What treatments exist?

    Creams, peelings, laser resurfacing and antioxidant treatments based on vitamins A and C are some of the solutions proposed to alleviate the effects of smoking on the skin. Do they work? Not always, and not to the required degree.

    Scientists at Tel-Aviv University (Israel) analysed moisture and lipid levels in the skin of 576 women who received cosmetic treatment, reporting that smokers had levels of both well below those of non-smokers.

    How can the effects of smoking be reversed once and for all? Experts say that the one essential prerequisite is to quit smoking. Blood flow would improve and the skin would oxygenate and absorb the nutrients it needs, producing a healthy looking skin again.



    Virtual Medical Center

    Sociedad Española de Medicina Estética