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Girl Interrupted smoking skincare cigarette angelina jolie
Girl, Interrupted (1999). Film still

A guide to skincare for cigarette smokers

Cigarettes are terrible for your health and your skin – here are some skincare tips to help you minimise the damage done until you are ready to quit

Wellness is out, sleaze is in – at least in some grungy corners of pop culture. On the one hand, we are still a society very much obsessed with achieving skin so hydrated it resembles a dewy glazed donut. However, the past year has seen a kickback against the infatuation with optimised health that the age of wellness ushered in: trends like indie sleaze, and the controversial “return” of heroin chic. An unmistakable smell of smoke is also in the air, as cigarettes seem to be back. Celebrities are smoking in real life and on-screen, from Jenna Ortega, Kylie Jenner and Anya Taylor-Joy, to Lily-Rose Depp’s Jocelyn in The Idol. Last year, The New York Times declared that “smoking is back”, after cigarette sales increased in 2020 for the first time in two decades.

Smoking is terrible for you. It’s bad for your lungs, bad for your mouth and bad for your skin. The best thing you can do for your health is to quit smoking. But if you are a smoker, you can do a few things to help minimise the impact on your skin until you finally quit.


But first, we need to understand why smoking is bad for your skin. “Smoking affects the blood supply to our skin leading to poor wound healing and causes wrinkles, skin sagging, sallow pigmentation, skin, lip and mouth cancers, and can flare conditions like psoriasis,” explains dermatologist Dr Cristina Psomadakis. When you smoke a cigarette the blood vessels near the skin’s surface constrict, reducing blood flow and consequently depleting the skin of oxygen and other essential nutrients transported in blood. This interruption to your blood flow leaves the skin more vulnerable to broken capillaries and veins which can lead to scarring and discolouration.

Tobacco smoke is also extremely toxic and contains over 3,800 chemical components that produce free radicals like lipid peroxide and deplete our natural antioxidant defences. Exposure to tobacco smoke decreases fibroblasts’ production of collagen and elastin (responsible for the skin’s plump and youthful appearance) whilst simultaneously increasing the production of a collagen-destroying enzyme called metalloproteinase (MMPs). Combine this lack of collagen with repetitive eye squinting from the smoke and the sucking motion to inhale, it’s little wonder that, according to the NHS, smoking prematurely ages your skin by between 10 and 20 years and makes it three times more likely you’ll get facial wrinkling.


The only thing worse than smoking for accelerated skin ageing is UV exposure (and smokers typically spend more time outside for smoke breaks), so Dr Psomadakis’ key skincare advice centres around sun safety. “Reduce exposure to other things that speed up skin ageing, such as UV exposure and pollution by wearing broad-spectrum sunscreen SPF 50 every day,” she says, and follow other sun safety measures such as wearing a hat and taking breaks in the shade. 

Aesthetician and skincare influencer Tiara Willis also emphasises the importance of SPF for smokers and encourages the use of a sun cream lip product. “Smoking causes oxidative stress which damages cells and accelerates ageing,” she explains, which can contribute to “hyperpigmentation and darkened lips.” Her favourite lip protection product is Paula’s Choice SPF50 Lipscreen.


But for Willis, the most essential element in a smoker’s skincare routine is the antioxidants. “These are important in your diet and your skincare,” she says. “Antioxidants quench free radicals by donating an electron to stabilise the molecule,” helping protect your skin’s collagen production and youthful appearance. This means using creams or serums with ingredients like vitamin A, C and E. Dr Psomadakis echoes this advice, also suggesting the routine use of a good daily moisturiser to combat any dryness from smoking-related vitamin depletion.


Paparazzi photos of glamorous young celebrities smoking cigarettes, whether that’s  Lily-Rose Depp or Cindy Kimberly, and the increased representation of smoking in films and TV have the counter-effect of those scary images you find on the cigarette pack. Teenagers who are exposed to smoking in movies are two to three times more likely to start smoking themselves. Young people see gorgeous, glowing figures who can have it all – cigarettes and clear skin and think surely they can too. Of course, this is just as fictitious as the plot.

“All the money and good looks in the world will not make you immune to the damage caused by long-term smoking but there is just no way to realistically compare ourselves to celebrities,” warns Dr Psomadakis. “They have access to the best products, facialists, make-up artists, dermatologists, surgeons, etc. and the time and money to visit these services regularly to maintain and repair their appearance. Part of their job is to look their best at all times.” She lists injectables (Botox or filler), radio frequency ultrasound, micro-needling, laser and even facelifts as “anti-ageing” procedures celebrities might turn to counter the effects of smoking. Add all of this to the ever-rising cost of tobacco and you’re looking at a very expensive habit.

The good news is, it only takes a few weeks for your complexion to brighten after quitting smoking. And (though this varies from case to case) it can take just a few months for collagen and vitamin C production to resume at a normal rate and return your skin’s vitality. So if you quit now you’ll be glowing by Christmas.

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