How Smoking Causes Early Aging and Premature Wrinkles

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

Gilbert Laurie / Getty Images

If you’re a heavy smoker, you may have noticed signs, such as premature wrinkles, that your skin is aging more dramatically than your peers who don't smoke. Researchers have documented the aging effects of smoking on skin and have even coined the phrase "smoker's face." So, why does this happen?

Smoking and Your Body

Tobacco’s effects on your heart, lungs, and overall life span are well-known. Smoking has been described by the World Health Organization as the single greatest preventable cause of disease, disability, and death globally. In fact, long-term smokers are robbed of as much as a decade of life, according to large-scale studies on women and men. Tobacco smoke contains more than 3,800 different chemical components, many of which can damage tissues directly or interfere with chemical processes necessary to keep those tissues healthy. The same chemicals can cause wrinkles and other premature aging of your skin.

Smoking and Your Skin

Premature wrinkling was first documented in smokers in the early 1970s, in the Annals of Internal Medicine. In a study of more than 1,100 subjects, University of California researcher Harry W. Daniell noted that the severity of wrinkling—after accounting for factors like age and sun exposure—was most apparent in smokers of both sexes beginning around the age of 30. Smokers between the ages of 40 and 49, reported Daniell, were as likely to be “prominently” wrinkled as non-smokers who were 20 years older.

Later research published in the American Journal of Public Health found that women smokers were more likely than male smokers to be moderately or severely wrinkled when compared with non-smokers of the same age.

Tobacco’s Effects

Thanks to an estimated 4,000 or so chemical constituents, tobacco damages skin in a variety of ways, affecting its elasticity, texture, color and even its chemical makeup. These injuries leave skin more vulnerable to cancer such as squamous cell carcinoma as well as noncancerous psoriasis. What's more, smoking has been shown to impede wound healing and even worsen skin conditions like eczema. People exposed to second-hand smoke also face a greater risk of these skin problems.

Smokers also often have yellowish or grayish skin, which is referred to as “smoker’s melanosis.”

According to a 2009 study published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology Symposium Proceedings, smoking likely accelerates the rate of skin aging by producing more of an enzyme called matrix metalloproteinase (MMP). In healthy skin, this enzyme breaks down collagen fibers, so new collagen can be formed. The researchers, from Nagoya City University Medical School, discovered that skin cells exposed to tobacco smoke extract produce much more of the destructive enzyme. In addition, skin cells treated with the extract generated 40 percent less fresh collagen.

Collagen has been called the scaffolding that supports the outer layer of skin. When it’s destroyed or reduced, wrinkles result.

It’s hypothesized that damage to small blood vessels near the surface of the skin might contribute to color changes in the faces of people who smoke.

Future Faces and Anti-Smoking Campaigns

Some scientists and public health advocates believe that warnings about tobacco’s effects on the skin would be more effective than statistics on smoking, cancer and heart disease. This approach has been tried by some North American school boards, and a 2011 study suggests they’re on the right track. Published in the British Journal of Health Psychology, the research found that when young women were shown photos of what they’d look like after years of smoking, the subjects were shocked at the aging effects of their habit—and said they would quit.

The study used so-called “age-progression” software developed in conjunction with the Ontario Science Centre. Called “Aprilage,” the program uses visual aging data compiled from thousands of faces to alter a photograph—adding the effects of a long-term smoking habit or of photoaging caused by years of ultraviolet exposure to the sun.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Daniell HW. Smoker's wrinkles. A study in the epidemiology of "crow's feet". Ann Intern Med. 1971;75(6):873-80. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-75-6-873

  2. Ernster VL, Grady D, Miike R, Black D, Selby J, Kerlikowske K. Facial wrinkling in men and women, by smoking statusAm J Public Health. 1995;85(1):78–82. doi:10.2105/ajph.85.1.78

  3. Morita A, Torii K, Maeda A, Yamaguchi Y. Molecular basis of tobacco smoke-induced premature skin aging. J Investig Dermatol Symp Proc. 2009;14(1):53-5. doi:10.1038/jidsymp.2009.13

  4. Grogan S, Flett K, Clark-carter D, et al. Women smokers' experiences of an age-appearance anti-smoking intervention: a qualitative study. Br J Health Psychol. 2011;16(4):675-89. doi:10.1348/2044-8287.002006