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How smoking affects your skin

23 Nov 2022 • 5 min read

Puffing on cigarettes can damage the largest organ in your body – here's how Did you know that lighting up isn’t just bad for your health, but for your skin too? Smoking deprives your skin of valuable oxygen and nutrients, and can lead to the formation of wrinkles. But what exactly is happening to your complexion every time you have a cigarette?

Which chemicals damage skin?

The average cigarette contains a toxic cocktail of over 5000 chemicals and nasty substances.1,2 Those thought to sap your skin include:
  • Nicotine– the best-known of the cigarette baddies, this addictive stimulant – naturally present in tobacco leaves – narrows our tiny blood capillaries, reducing blood flow to skin.3
  • Carbon monoxide – this poisonous gas blocks oxygen in the body; it binds with haemoglobin in red blood cells in place of O2, attaching faster than oxygen can. The result? Less oxygen for your body's tissues, including skin.4
  • Free radicals – these unstable molecules, found in cigarette smoke and tar, attack healthy tissues around them, including collagen that gives skin its natural bounce.5,6
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What happens to your skin when you smoke

There are several ways that smoking causes skin problems:

1. Wrinkles

You’re three times more likely to develop wrinkles on your face if you smoke, particularly round the eyes and mouth.7 But your face isn’t the only part of your body affected – smoking also causes wrinkling on other parts of your body, like the inside of your arms.8 A 2013 US study of identical twins, published in the journal Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, found smokers looked older and more wrinkled than their non-smoking siblings.9 Scientists think it’s because smoking damages and reduces levels of collagen, a structural protein that keeps skin strong and elastic. When there isn't enough collagen in our skin, wrinkles form. And while collagen naturally drops as we age, smoking speeds up this deterioration, zapping production of new collagen and degrading what we already have.10 

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2. Dull skin

An unhealthy grey or sallow complexion is another smoker's giveaway. This is because inhaling tobacco smoke reduces blood flow to cells, depriving them of oxygen and essential nutrients.11 A 2004 study, published in Nutrition Journal, reported that smokers have lower levels of free radical-busting antioxidants in their bodies. This may be because their diets include fewer fruit and vegetables, but also because any antioxidants they do consume could be busy combatting damage from cigarette fumes.12 Glow-inducing nutrients sapped by smoking include vitamin A, which encourages new skin cell growth.13 

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3. Psoriasis

You can develop psoriasis without ever touching a cigarette, but researchers think you’re more at risk of contracting this auto-immune disease – that causes raised, red patches of inflammation on the skin – if you smoke. A study of 78,500 women by researchers at Harvard Medical School found that after 10 years of smoking, your risk of having psoriasis increased by 20%.14 It’s thought that toxic chemicals in cigarette smoke confuse the immune system, leading to an over-production of infection-fighting white blood cells and causing unnecessary inflammation.15 

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4. Delayed wound-healing

Any scars, cuts, wounds and broken bones tend to take longer to heal in smokers because their bodies are receiving less oxygen – essential for cell repair.16 A Scandinavian study of 120 women, each having the same operation, found that their surgery scar was nearly three times longer afterwards if they smoked.17

5. Dry skin

Parched skin may be another side effect of puffing – lighting up more than 10 times a day reduces moisture levels in your skin.18 Scientists think one reason is that chemicals in cigarettes destroy hyaluronic acid, a substance that helps our skin cells hang on to moisture.19,20

6. Adult acne

No longer a teenager? You’re more likely to develop a spotty skin past puberty if you smoke. In a study of 1050 women, aged between 25 and 50 years, published in Dermato Endocrinology, dermatologists found 40% of smokers had adult acne – but only 10% of the non-smokers.21 The researchers suggested that nicotine and other nasties in cigarette fumes cause changes that increase oil production deep within the skin, which means greater oiliness and more breakouts.22

When do you see the damage?

Initially, you might not notice those lines creeping up on you but the longer you smoke, and the more cigarettes you puff on, the greater the impact. It’s thought you can usually start spotting the damage after 10 years of smoking.23 But the good news is that your circulation improves within two to 12 weeks of quitting – meaning more oxygen and antioxidants for your skin cells.24 It’s time to stub out that habit and say hello to better skin!




  1. Cancer Research UK. What’s in a cigarette? Available from: http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/causes-of-cancer/smoking-and-cancer/whats-in-a-cigarette
  2. American Cancer Society. Harmful chemicals in tobacco products. Available from: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/tobacco-and-cancer/carcinogens-found-in-tobacco-products.html
  3. Benowitz NL and Burbank AD. Cardiovascular Toxicity of Nicotine: Implications for Electronic Cigarette Use. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4958544/
  4. Medical News Today. The reasons why smoking is bad for you. Available from: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/10566.php
  5. Church DF and Pryor WA. Free-radical chemistry of cigarette smoke and its toxicological implications. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1568603/
  6. Monboisse JC and Borel JP. Oxidative damage to collagen. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1333311
  7. NHS Smokefree. How smoking affects your body. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/smokefree/why-quit/smoking-health-problems
  8. Mayo Clinic. Is it true that smoking causes wrinkles? Available from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/quit-smoking/expert-answers/smoking/faq-20058153
  9. Okada H, et al. Facial changes caused by smoking: a comparison between smoking and non-smoking identical twins. Available from: https://journals.lww.com/plasreconsurg/Abstract/2013/11000/Facial_Changes_Caused_by_Smoking___A_Comparison.10.aspx
  10. Morita A, et al. Molecular basis of tobacco smoke-induced premature skin ageing. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19675554
  11. As Source 6
  12. Bashar SK and Mitra AK. Effect of smoking on vitamin A, vitamin E and other trace elements in patients with cardiovascular disease in Bangladesh: a cross-sectional study. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC524516/
  13. As above
  14. Setty AR, et al. Smoking and the Risk of Psoriasis in Women – Nurses’ Health Study II. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2696351/
  15. As above
  16. NHS. The Clinical Case for Smoking Cessation for WOUND CARE. Available from: http://www.ncsct.co.uk/usr/pub/interventions-in-secondary-care-june-10-wound-care-factsheet.pdf
  17. Siana JE, Rex S and Gottrup F. The effect of cigarette smoke on wound healing. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2617221
  18. Wolf R, et al. The effect of smoking on skin moisture and on surface lipids. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19272101
  19. McDevitt CA, et al. Cigarette smoke degrades hyaluronic acid. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2512457
  20. Victoria Hall. The science of skincare: what is hyaluronic acid? Available from: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/beauty/skin/what-is-hyaluronic-acid-beauty-by-the-geeks/
  21. Capitanio B, et al. Acne and smoking. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2835905/
  22. As above
  23. As Source 7
  24. NHS Choices. What happens when you quit? Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/smokefree/why-quit/what-happens-when-you-quit
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