Snow is white. Coal is black. Ally McBeal was the product of a pact with Satan. Smoking is bad for you. All of these statements are irrefutable facts, particularly the penultimate one. But as regards smoking, when most people think about the undoubted harm caused by cigarettes, they focus on really scary things like cancer, heart disease, and emphysema. Yet it’s the effect of smoking on the health of skin that’s often ignored and little understood.
THE SCIENCE BIT
Dermatologists, or skin specialists as they refer to themselves when having a pre-match pint in the pub, tell us that the whole problem starts off with what is called ‘free radicals.’ Think of these as the raging lefties of your body’s ecosystem. Instead of selling copies of Socialist Worker outside Camden Town tube station on Saturday morning, these highly agitated molecules march around your body, stirring up trouble. And just like Private Eye’s bonkers Bolshevik Dave Spart[NE1], it doesn’t take much to trigger them off.
Cigarette smoke, for example, makes them go absolutely potty. As soon as you take a drag, the free radicals start to cause damage to your skin’s DNA cell structure, greatly speeding up the aging process of your skin.
Now, this is where it all gets rather icky. First of all, smoking will make your skin go all wrinkly. You see, the skin needs a lot of TLC in the form of essential nutrients to keep it looking healthy. Each time you light up, you deprive the skin of these nutrients as well as oxygen. Skin is the largest organ in the human body, and like all other organs need a regular flow of oxygen to remain in tip-top condition. So without a steady supply of the big O2, your skin will gradually start to shrivel like a slug at the seaside.
As the skin gets older, the level of collagen it contains naturally starts to diminish. But this process is greatly accelerated by smoking. Why? Well, because smoking creates an enzyme that breaks down the collagen, causing your skin to become more rigid, and less elastic. So after a few years of regular smoking what you’re left with is a grotesque mask that makes you look like the hideous love child of Keith Richards and a Shar-Pei.
IT’S DIFFERENT FOR GIRLS
Sorry, ladies, but there’s no easy way to say this: smoking isn’t an equal opportunity addiction. In fact, it’s a veritable male chauvinist pig of a craving, taking a much heavier toll on your health than on members of the opposite sex. With regard to skin, the main problem is that smoking helps bring about the onset of early menopause. Scientists reckon that this is caused by smoking restricting the supply of blood (and therefore, oxygen) to the ovaries. That, combined, with the lack of oxygen supply to the skin, helps make female smokers‘ skin look baggier scraggy than men’s (the example of Keith Richards notwithstanding).
THE GOOD NEWS AND THE BAD NEWS
First, the bad news. The effects of smoking on the skin are irreversible. So, if you’ve been puffing away merrily for years then you can chuck out all those tubs of skin cream you’ve acquired, ‘cos they ain’t going to do much good.
But have no fear, because there is a tiny chink of light at the end of the tunnel. If you stop smoking now, then as well as the usual health benefits, your skin can at least begin a lengthy healing process. Throw in regular supplies of water and a diet rich in nutrients and you’ll soon be on your merry way. You may never regain your salad days, but at least you won’t look like an old lettuce leaf.