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The Harmful Effects of Smoking on Skin Aging

Kristie Leong M.D. is a family practitioner who believes in the power of nutrition and a healthy lifestyle to prevent and fight illness.

Smoking is unhealthy for your lungs, but it’s also harmful to your skin and is one of the top causes of premature skin aging, second only to sun exposure. Have you ever wondered what impact smoking has on your skin and why smokers have skin that looks older than their non-smoking counterparts?

Let’s look at some of the surprising effects smoking has on skin aging and why dermatologists tell smokers to kick the habit.

The Visible Effects of Smoking on Skin Aging

What does the typical face of a smoker look like? Smokers may have a pale, pasty-looking complexion that’s an unhealthy gray color. That’s because nicotine reduces blood flow to the surface of the skin. The skin of a smoker is usually dry and rough in texture, and they often have more prominent facial wrinkling than a non-smoker of the same age.

Wrinkles in smokers are particularly prominent around the mouth and lips since smokers contort their mouths and lips to take a drag of a cigarette. These repetitive movements etch lines around the mouth. Mouth wrinkles from smoking are so common they have a name – smoker’s lines. The skin changes related to smoking affect women and people with a fair complexion more than they do males and those with more melanin in their skin.

Smokers Age Faster

Skin wrinkling occurs earlier in smokers and is related to how long and heavy a person smokes. Light smokers and those who smoke for less than 15 years are less likely to have premature skin aging than long-term and heavy smokers.

Even when you control for other factors that affect wrinkling such as sun exposure, smokers still age faster and have more pronounced signs of skin aging than non-smokers.

How Does Smoking Accelerate Skin Aging?

No one knows exactly why smoking is so bad for the skin, but there are theories. Research shows smokers have higher levels of enzymes that break down skin collagen, the protein that gives skin firmness and resistance to wrinkles.

Tobacco smoke contains more than 4,000 chemicals, including many that are known to be toxic. These chemicals directly damage the collagen and elastin in the skin, which leads to wrinkles and sagging skin.

Nicotine also reduces blood flow to the skin surface by constricting blood vessels. This deprives the skin of the oxygen and nutrients necessary for healthy skin and skin repair. According to Mayo Clinic, smoking can lead to puffiness around the eyes, an uneven skin tone, lines and creases on the forehead, and thinning of the lips.

Smoking Causes Oxidative Stress That Contributes to Skin Aging

In addition, smoking boosts oxidative stress, and the formation of free radicals, a known cause of skin wrinkling and aging. When you combine smoking with sun exposure, you’re almost guaranteed to have skin that looks older than it should.

Some 40-year-old smokers have skin quality that’s more typical of a non-smoking 60-year-old. Sun exposure further activates enzymes that break down collagen and contribute to skin laxity and aging.

Even if a smoker gets an anti-aging procedure such as laser resurfacing or a facelift to correct the damage, the outcome is poorer. Smoking delays skin healing because it reduces blood flow to the skin.

Time to Kick the Habit?

It’s not what most smokers want to hear but kicking the smoking habit could save their skin. Smoking contains hundreds of chemicals, some of which contribute to oxidative stress and skin aging.

The damage from smoking is cumulative, so the sooner you quit, the better your skin will look. Combine a smoke-free life with a good sunscreen product for maximal protection against premature aging.

Is there any way to undo the damage caused by smoking? Topical retinoids such as Retin-A can reduce some of the skin changes because it stimulates collagen production.

Eating an antioxidant-rich diet that includes lots of fruit and vegetables may help too. But the best way to ward off smoking-related damage is to ditch the smoking habit for good.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.