So why does cigarette smoking do terrible things to your skin? As always, the research points to a number of causes with a number of effects. However, the toxic effect of cigarette smoke on the skin can be largely summarised in two words: free radicals.
Free radicals are unstable atoms, created under conditions of oxidative stress. When oxygen molecules (O2) split into unpaired electrons (O), they become free radicals, which scavenge our cells for their missing electron. They break up the paired electrons in our skin cells, which leaves behind more unstable atoms and means not enough oxygen is supplied to the skin. This causes skin damage, skin aging, and too often – skin cancer.
Oxidative stress can occur as a result of exposure to tobacco smoke and other pollutants, as well as prolonged sun exposure. In Taiwan, high levels of water pollution have led to elevated incidences of skin cancer among the population.
We hear skin cancer, we think melanoma. But there are many types of non-melanoma skin cancers such as basal and squamous cell carcinomas. These are actually more common than melanoma. They result from the accumulated action of free radicals over time, whereas melanoma is typically associated with brief and intense sun exposure.
Squamous cell carcinoma affects the surface of the skin and is the most common skin cancer in smokers. Even exposure to secondhand smoke can cause oxidative stress and increase the risk of this disease.