9 Ways Smoking Damages Your Skin

Smoking Causes More Than Wrinkles

What is the first smoking effect on skin that comes to mind for you? Most of us probably think of wrinkles, and it's true.  Some of the toxins in cigarette smoke damage collagen and elastin, which are fibrous components of skin that keep it firm and supple.  This damage speeds up skin aging, making smokers more prone to wrinkles on their face and body.

Cigarette smoke also damages skin in other ways that affect one's appearance and put smoker's lives at risk.

Premature Aging of Facial Skin

Elderly woman is smoking
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'Smoker's lines' are the vertical wrinkles around the mouth that come from pursing lips to draw on a cigarette over and over again.  

Crow's feet are a common type of wrinkling that develops at the outer edges of the eyes.  For smokers, this damage usually starts much earlier than it does for other people, who get crow's feet as they age.

As mentioned above, collagen and elastin damage is a big factor in premature aging of skin, but vascular constriction caused by smoking plays a role as well. Constricted blood vessels inhibit blood flow and oxygen from reaching skin cells, promoting skin aging as well. 

Sagging Skin

Senior woman with folded arms
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Smoking-related skin damage can cause sagging skin in other parts of the body.  In particular, breasts and upper arms are often affected by the loss of skin elasticity due to smoking.

Skin Cancer

Dermatologist inspecting melanoma
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If you smoke, your chances of developing squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) can be as much as 52 percent higher than if you didn't smoke.  SCC is the second most common form of skin cancer and often appears on the lips of smokers.

Researchers suspect that the increased risk comes from a lowered immune system due to the toxins in cigarette smoke. 

Smoking is not a known risk factor for the most common form of skin cancer, basal cell carcinoma. 


Psoriasis on female elbows
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Psoriasis is a skin condition that produces itchy, red scaly patches. Stress can bring it on, but smoking is also a risk factor.

Doctors think that the link between the disease and smoking may be the nicotine in cigarettes.  Nicotine affects the immune system, skin inflammation, and skin cell growth, all of which can contribute to the development of psoriasis.

Smoking just about doubles a person's risk of developing psoriasis, with the risk going up depending on the number of cigarettes smoked. 

Women who smoke 20 or more cigarettes a day are two and a half times more likely to get psoriasis than non-smokers.  For men, the risk is just over one and a half times that of non-smokers.

Smokers are more prone to a form of psoriasis called palmoplantar pustulosis.

Speculation that stress coping techniques smokers employ (cigarettes) might put smokers at additional risk of developing psoriasis.

Wound Healing

Scar on wrist, close up
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Vascular constriction caused by toxins in cigarette smoke has a negative effect on wound healing. Lack of blood flow slows the body's ability to repair itself. 

Most doctors will strong recommend, or even require smoking patients to stop before a surgical procedure because of the impact cigarette toxins have on healing.

Smoking also increases the risk of wound infection, skin graft failure, tissue death and blood clot formation.

Scars tend to be more pronounced as well, and there is evidence that smoking may increase the risk of stretch marks, which are also a form of scarring usually caused by rapid weight gain.

Acne Inversa

Doctor comforting patient in clinic
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Hidradenitis suppurativa, more commonly known as acne inversa, is a relatively common inflammatory skin disease that affects people in areas of the body where skin rubs against skin, like the armpits, groin and under the breasts in women.

Often misdiagnosed, acne inversa causes boil-like nodules that drain pus.  The condition is painful and can last months or even years.

Cigarette smoking is a risk factor for acne inversa.


Close up of woman's hands caressing bare feet on rug
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Smokers are at an increased risk of Buerger's disease, a form of vasculitis.  All types of vasculitis involve inflamed blood vessels in some part of the body.

Buerger's disease affects blood flow to the hands and feet.  Blood vessels in these areas become constricted or blocked, resulting in pain and tissue damage.  

Extreme cases of Buerger's disease can lead to ulcers on the skin of the fingers and toes. Ultimately, gangrene (tissue death) and loss of the appendage can occur.


Human Spider Veins on Leg Closeup
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Telangiectasia (tell-on-gee-oct-tasia)  is a condition in which small blood vessels in the body widen or dilate causing damage to capillary walls. They can happen anywhere but are most noticeable close to the surface of the skin, where you might see permanent purple blotches or traces of veins (also known as spider veins).  

Smoking is a risk factor for telangiectasia.  Nicotine in tobacco constricts blood vessels, and this action can cause damage that leads to this condition. 

Skin Tone/Staining

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The skin tone of smokers can be uneven and off, tending toward an orange or grey tone.  Lack of oxygen to skin cells no doubt plays a part in why this occurs, along with the negative effects of numerous other chemicals in tobacco.

Cigarette smoke is laden with over 7000 chemicals, including 250 that are poisonous and 70 that cause cancer.

Tar Stains

Years of holding cigarettes between the same fingers can lead to a yellowing of the skin from nicotine and other toxins in cigarettes commonly referred to as tar

This type of staining is nearly impossible to remove with soap and water.  The only way to really get rid of it is to avoid holding cigarettes (stop smoking!).

Bonus: How Quitting Tobacco Improves Your Skin

Smooth skin puts a smile on her face
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What improvements to your epidermis can you expect to enjoy once you stop smoking?

While wrinkles that have developed may not disappear entirely, the return of normal blood flow to skin cells will bring oxygen and nutrients where they need to go and your skin will begin to look healthy once again.

Collagen and elastin production will assist in that as well, as they're no longer being hindered by toxins in cigarettes.

Tar stains will disappear in time too.

Your risk of the health conditions that can impact skin will also be reduced once you stop smoking.

Friends and family will probably comment on the healthy glow you seem to taken on since quitting tobacco, because it is often that noticeable. It may take some time, but the benefits to your health and well-being will be tangible and worth the work it takes to quit.

If you're still smoking, throw those cigarettes away and get started with cessation.  

Use the resources below as a jumping off point.


National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. Types of Vasculitis. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/vas/types. Accessed June 2016.

U.S. National Library of Medicine. Telangiectasia. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003284.htm. Accessed June 2016.

American Cancer Society. Basal and Squamous Cell Skin Cancer Risk Factors. http://www.cancer.org/cancer/skincancer-basalandsquamouscell/detailedguide/skin-cancer-basal-and-squamous-cell-risk-factors. Accessed June 2016.

National Psoriasis Foundation. How Smoking and Alcohol Affect Psoriasis. https://www.psoriasis.org/advance/how-cigarettes-and-alcohol-affect-psoriasis. Accessed June 2016.

Skin Cancer Foundation. Smoking Boosts Skin Cancer Risk. http://www.skincancer.org/publications/sun-and-skin-news/winter-2012-29-4/smoking. Accessed June 2016.

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