It is well known that cigarette smoking affects the health of individuals by increasing the risk of life-threatening diseases like cancer, lung and heart disease. There are many other harmful effects of cigarette smoking, including damage to the body's largest organ, the skin.
The addictive nature of smoking can make it difficult for individuals to quit, even though they are aware of links to diseases like cancer. Some individuals believe it would not happen to them. However, when some smokers can actually see the harmful effects of smoking on their skin, it can help encourage them to quit.
Cigarette smoking has been shown scientifically to double the risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma, which is a type of skin cancer. Cigarette smoking is also a major cause of premature ageing. We all undergo natural ageing as we get older. However, in addition to this, some people age faster than others and develop premature ageing as a result of their lifestyle and the environment.
Sunlight is the most common cause of premature ageing; however cigarette smoking has been shown by some studies to result in even more premature ageing than sunlight.
The more one smokes, the greater the risk. In fact, one study showed that smoking more than 20 cigarettes a day can age the skin by almost 10 years! Women also seem to be at greater risk than men. Some of the manifestations of a 'smoker's face' include increased facial wrinkling, an ashy grey or reddish orange appearance (more so in fairer individuals), puffiness and gauntness. The skin can also develop coarseness, dryness, uneven skin complexion and dilated blood vessels.
Even though the relationship between smoking and skin wrinkling was shown from 1856, the exact mechanisms by which smoking causes ageing are not fully understood. It is believed that smoking reduces the amount and quality of collagen and elastic fibres, which the skin needs to maintain firmness and elasticity. It causes a narrowing of blood vessels in the skin, reducing the blood supply to these vital fibres.
The smoke itself can also have a toxic effect on skin cells and the heat can directly burn the skin. In addition, smoking reduces the levels of vitamin A in the skin and leads to dryness of the skin.
Smoking also slows down the skin's ability to heal itself after skin injury and surgery. It can affect the healing of leg ulcers, and skin grafts. The risk of certain viral infections is also greater in smokers. For example, it increases the risk of genital warts and of cancers like cervical cancer and penile cancer developing from those warts. Smoking also increases the risk of getting skin conditions like psoriasis, diseases of blood vessels in the skin, skin lupus, hidradentis suppurativa, and oral diseases.
Smokers can consult their doctors and other health-care workers for more information about quitting smoking. Dermatologists can also help treat the skin conditions caused by smoking. However, as the saying goes, 'prevention is better than cure'.
Dr Arusha Campbell-Chambers is a dermatologist and founder of Dermatology Solutions Skin Clinics & Medi-Spas; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.