How Smoking Causes Early Aging and Premature Wrinkles

Close up of a wrinkled, aged hand tapping ash into an ashtray

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Smoking negatively affects almost every organ of your body, and this includes the largest organ: your skin. Cigarette smoke contains toxins that affect the quality of your skin, leading to wrinkles, premature aging, and potentially even skin conditions.

Among other health concerns, becoming aware of the effects smoking has on the skin is important, and it can even help with the motivation to quit smoking.

Signs of Aging

Tobacco smoke contains thousands of toxic chemicals that can damage the cells of your skin and lead to signs of premature aging. Smoking can cause deeper wrinkles on the face, particularly between the eyebrows, around the eyes, and around the mouth and lips.

Nasolabial folds, which are the skin creases that extend from the bottom of the nose to the edges of the mouth, have been found to be deeper in a group of people who smoked versus those who didn't smoke.

People who smoke have fewer elastin and collagen fibers in the skin compared to those who don't smoke. Without enough of these fibers, the skin becomes harder and less elastic.

Research finds that smoking narrows blood vessels, reducing the amount of oxygen your skin gets. Smoking also increases the production of free radicals and lowers levels of vitamin A in the skin. All of these factors play a role in aging skin prematurely.

Smoking cigarettes may also cause other skin-related concerns, including:

  • Yellowing of the fingers
  • Baggy skin under the eyes
  • Sagging skin at the jawline
  • Uneven skin pigmentation

People who smoke may be more likely to develop dark spots on their faces as well. One study found that people who smoked had higher levels of melanin in their skin compared to those who didn't smoke.

Skin Conditions

Smoking doesn't only affect the appearance of your skin—it can damage your skin in other ways, too. Smoking tobacco decreases blood flow and inhibits inflammation, which increases the risk of skin infection. Your skin might not be able to heal properly from cuts and scrapes, which could lead to scarring.

If you have an existing skin condition, smoking could exacerbate the symptoms. Smoking cigarettes may worsen the following conditions:

  • Hidradenitis suppurativa (small, painful lumps on the skin)
  • Oral conditions (such as cold sores)
  • Palmoplantar pustulosis (inflammatory disorder)
  • Psoriasis (red, scaly patches)
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus (autoimmune disease)
  • Vascular skin conditions (such as rosacea)
  • Oral conditions (such as cold sores)

Smoking is also a risk factor for atopic dermatitis (the most common form of eczema) as well as hand eczema. People exposed to secondhand smoke also face a greater risk of developing hand eczema.

Skin Cancer

Cigarette smoke contains carcinogens, which are cancer-causing substances. Smoking increases your risk of developing many types of cancer, including skin cancer. Studies find that people who smoke are at a greater risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma, which is a type of skin cancer.

Squamous cell carcinoma might look like rough or scaly red patches, raised lumps, open sores, or wart-like growths on your skin. Let your doctor know if you notice these or any other irregular textures on your skin.

Using tobacco is also the most common risk factor for oral squamous cell carcinoma, a type of oral cancer. Oral cancer can develop from both cigarettes and chewing tobacco.

There are many potential signs of oral cancer. Be sure to reach out to your doctor if you notice any of the following symptoms:

  • A sore or lump on the lip or mouth
  • Mouth pain
  • White or red patch on the gums, tongue, tonsil, or lining of the mouth
  • Sore throat
  • Difficulty swallowing

Mental Health Effects

As a person's physical appearance changes with aging, it's not uncommon that their mental health is affected—especially with the link between cultural beauty standards and youth as well as the social stigma associated with older adults' physical appearance.

When your skin ages prematurely, you may experience feelings of stress or sadness related to the change in your appearance.

One study found that the risk of premature aging from smoking might be an effective way to motivate young people to quit. Young people between the ages of 17 and 24 expressed concerns about smoking affecting their skin.

Researchers believe that age-progression technology, which can show people how smoking might damage their skin over time, could motivate some people to quit smoking.

People with skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis often experience mental health concerns as well. They might experience low self-esteem, extreme self-consciousness (especially in public settings), anxiety, depression, and even suicidal ideation.

If smoking causes a new skin condition or worsens a current one, you may experience these or other mental health effects. A mental healthcare professional can help you learn healthy coping mechanisms so that you can manage these symptoms and feel comfortable living life with your condition.

Getting Help

If you are currently smoking, remember you have options to help you quit. You can start by talking to your doctor about your desire to quit smoking. They can help you figure out your best options.

Some doctors might recommend nicotine replacement therapy (NTR). NRT administers small doses of nicotine without the other toxic chemicals found in cigarettes and may help you ween off of nicotine. It comes in lozenges, patches, and gum.

You can also reach out to a support group. Support groups can be effective for fueling the motivation to quit smoking and to stay smoke-free. Or, try a quit smoking app on your phone.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

A Word From Verywell

There are many health consequences of smoking. If you're concerned about the damage you may be doing to your skin as a result of smoking, be sure to talk to your doctor. There are plenty of resources that can help you quit. Getting support from a group or from a quit smoking app can help keep you motivated.

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