SEPTEMBER 26, 2018 / IN QUITTING SMOKING / 5 MIN READ
Many of us struggle to accept the long-term health risks of our smoking habits. We try to ignore the usual threats of lung cancer and heart disease. The effects are largely invisible and part of a future we do not want to think about.
Traditionally, research has focused on smoking as a risk factor for internal damage. However, more recent developments indicate the detrimental effects of tobacco smoke on the skin are considerable – extending to skin aging and skin cancer. And that’s before we even think about nicotine!
Unlike most organs, the skin is external, visible, tangible, and absolutely all over us. So, if the prospects of clear lungs and a healthy heart are not quite enough to motivate smoking cessation, the visible benefits for skin tone and skin health certainly can be!
We have compiled this article to give our readers a lay-down of the links between smoking and skin damage. Look no further than here for solid, observable reasons that smoking cessation is totally worth the struggle.
If not for health, many people consider quitting smoking for vanity. As a species, we are obsessed with skin as a symbol of youth and vitality. Saggy skin is abhorred. Crow’s feet (eye wrinkles) are universally dreaded. Smokers are likely to experience both these phenomena as well as an uneven skin tone. Skin may appear yellow or grey in colour and more prominent blood vessels draw red, spidery lines on the surface of the skin.
The beauty industry bombards us with adverts for lotions and potions that promise to improve skin tone and reverse the deep lines of premature aging. On top of pricey cigarettes, smokers may spend a fortune trying to undo the damage that cigarettes are doing to their skin. And that’s before the health costs!
Why not save yourself the expense and simply quit smoking? I say ‘simply’ – smoking cessation is not simple or easy. However, it is worth bearing in mind that many successful quitters have found it motivational to watch their skin regain its tone and elasticity just weeks after smoking cessation.
So why does cigarette smoking do terrible things to your skin? As always, the research points to a number of causes with a number of effects. However, the toxic effect of cigarette smoke on the skin can be largely summarised in two words: free radicals.
Free radicals are unstable atoms, created under conditions of oxidative stress. When oxygen molecules (O2) split into unpaired electrons (O), they become free radicals, which scavenge our cells for their missing electron. They break up the paired electrons in our skin cells, which leaves behind more unstable atoms and means not enough oxygen is supplied to the skin. This causes skin damage, skin aging, and too often – skin cancer.
Oxidative stress can occur as a result of exposure to tobacco smoke and other pollutants, as well as prolonged sun exposure. In Taiwan, high levels of water pollution have led to elevated incidences of skin cancer among the population.
We hear skin cancer, we think melanoma. But there are many types of non-melanoma skin cancers such as basal and squamous cell carcinomas. These are actually more common than melanoma. They result from the accumulated action of free radicals over time, whereas melanoma is typically associated with brief and intense sun exposure.
Squamous cell carcinoma affects the surface of the skin and is the most common skin cancer in smokers. Even exposure to secondhand smoke can cause oxidative stress and increase the risk of this disease.
As if cancer was not enough, smoking may exacerbate a number of other skin conditions. When free radicals prevent adequate oxygenation of skin tissue, essential healing and cell regeneration processes are inhibited. Wound infection and delayed wound healing are common in smokers.
The other thing with skin is that it is part of a big integumentary system of hair, nails and gums that are designed to protect the skin from the environment. When free radicals disrupt the functioning of this system, smokers may experience increased risks of gum disease, hair loss and even oral cancer.
Despite all of this frightening research, there is some controversy about whether the effects of smoking on the skin are entirely negative. Although nicotine is thought to have inflammatory properties that exacerbate some skin conditions, it confusingly has also been implicated as anti-inflammatory for other skin diseases. Smoking has even been associated with the prevention of acne in some populations!
A useful summary of the conflicting evidence regarding nicotine and the skin is provided here. In the meantime, we can maintain that smoking is largely detrimental for the skin. A good diet is a far better way to control acne than an addictive substance like nicotine is – especially when that nicotine is part of a toxic tobacco cigarette!
Speaking of a good diet, it is comforting to know that there are things that can be done to heal and restore your skin (from the effects of previous smoking or otherwise). Antioxidants are your friend and can be found in foods rich in Vitamin A (carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach, mackerel) and Vitamin C (broccoli, tomatoes, mango, citrus fruits).
Antioxidants neutralise free radicals and stop them stealing the electrons from your cells. This can help fight skin damage. However, these home remedies cannot replace the ultimately life-saving move of quitting smoking altogether. Research shows that oxidative stress may not be significantly reversed by the use of antioxidants in patients with a history of skin cancer.
The effects of smoking on the skin are currently understated. The risks clearly go far beyond a few eye wrinkles and extend to skin cancer, wound infection and gum disease. Choosing to quit smoking now will reduce these risks and award you with clear and healthy skin.
Smoking cessation can seem like an overwhelming challenge, but many people manage it with the right support. Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) has been shown to be highly effective in enabling individuals to quit smoking. This step-by-step approach allows individuals to set goals and address triggers in order to stop smoking.
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