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Why vaping is so bad for your skin, according to dermatologists

The debate around whether vaping is better or worse than smoking is still raging. Stoking the flames (pardon the pun) is the UK government's new “swap to stop” scheme, whereby one million smokers in England will be given a free vaping starter kit to get smoking rates below 5% by 2030 – a move that surely sends out the message that vaping is a ‘safer’ alternative to smoking tobacco.

But there is mounting evidence that e-cigarettes – also known as vapes – have been proven to have a number of negative health effects, including complications that are life-threatening.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an outbreak of vaping-related illnesses in 2021 resulted in 39 deaths and 2000 lung injuries. And that's not to mention nicotine addiction, or the risks associated with unregulated e-cigarettes containing illicit fluids that can cause unforeseen health issues.

This is echoed by dermatologist Dr Sonia Khorana. “We only have data going back a few years for vaping. Due to this lack of information, e-cigarettes have not been proven to be completely safe. Recent evidence indicates that vaping may just prolong the smoking habit and carries its own risks, too. But as far as the skin is concerned – vaping may be as bad as smoking.”

We called upon the skincare experts to reveal exactly why.

Does vaping affect skin?

Yes, e-cigarettes contain toxins that damage the skin. According to Dr Mervyn Patterson, Cosmetic Doctor at Woodford Medical, there are no positive things to say about vaping - or smoking for that matter.

"Vaping, just like cigarette smoking, produces a huge surge of chemicals in the body," he explains. “Absorption of gases occurs easily through the delicate lung tissue and a ‘long drag’ produces a marked spike in hundreds of toxins.”

The potential list of inhaled ingredients varies depending on which variety of vape is being smoked. “The level of harm is also dictated by the length of inhalation and the number of times the device is used,” Dr Patterson adds. "Some potential chemicals in vaped gas are formaldehyde, nicotine and derivatives of nicotine, propylene glycol, toluene, acetaldehyde and trace metals such as cadmium, nickel and lead."

Inhalation of these toxic chemicals will inevitably effect the skin. "Skin tends to act as a reservoir for the body and much of these inhaled materials will end up being deposited in the skin," says Dr Patterson. “Overload the skin cells with toxins and it will impact on their normal functions such as repairing the essential skin barrier.”

Cue chronic inflammation, unwanted pigmentation, redness, loss of collagen and elastin and an increased risk of abnormal cell division and skin cancers, he adds.

Does vaping age your face?

The easy answer to this is yes. As well as the effect vaping can have on existing skin conditions, it also accelerates the formation of fine lines and wrinkles.

The nicotine and chemicals used in vaping can also cause the breakdown of collagen – a protein that helps to keep our skin firm and plump – which is why smokers and vapers often develop lines around the lips and have puffiness around their eyes."

“Nicotine acts as a vasoconstrictor, meaning it causes the narrowing of small blood vessels, which reduces oxygen supply and the flow of nutrients to the skin,” Dr Patterson explains. "Deprive key skin cells of oxygen and nutrition and the skin starts to sag and wrinkle prematurely. Pigmentation in the form of blotchy, uneven discolouration and sun spots is also accelerated in smokers."

Does vaping affect skin healing?

If you smoke or vape regularly, your body may struggle to get enough oxygen and nutrients, which will interfere with its ability to heal.

“Vaping can affect wound healing just as much as smoking – recent evidence suggests that vaping may induce some of the same physiological changes as traditional cigarettes and may have a significant damaging effect on wound healing,” says Dr Khorana. This is not only due to the effects of nicotine, she notes, “but also to the humectants (glycerine and glycerol), different flavourings and other constituents of e-cigarettes, which have been shown to increase free radical attack and inflammation in the skin."

People who vape will also be at high risk of clotting problems, infections and poor cell regeneration, says Dr Khorana, adding that "in recent years, there has also been an increase in the number of contact dermatitis cases associated with vape use."

Does vaping inflame your face?

According to senior aesthetician, Bianka Michalekova from Young LDN, vaping can also exacerbate dryness and make inflammatory skin conditions worse. "Vaping contains lots of chemicals and nicotine, which come in contact with our skin. This may cause the skin to become dry or flaky," she says. “The chemicals in e-cigarettes can also cause skin sensitivity and irritation which can lead to rashes.”

Dr Patterson concurs; "Inhalation of toxins while vaping will impact the protection of the skin barrier and make the problem of chronic inflammation worse. Conditions such as acne, rosacea and psoriasis, that are closely linked to barrier abnormalities and inflammation, will tend to deteriorate."

Does vaping cause spots?

As mentioned above, vaping can cause your acne to get worse. “Vapes contain propylene glycol, which can be a skin irritant, while nicotine can increase sebum production, clog pores and lead to spots,” Dr Khorana explains. As if that's not bad enough, less effective wound healing as a result of vaping means these spots and scars will take longer to vanish.

Is skin damage from vaping reversible?

Put simply, if you stop vaping, your skin will improve. “Blood flow increases and carbon monoxide levels drop,” says Dr Khorana. “Your complexion will improve as oxygen, antioxidants and new skin cell production return to normal. You will also prevent any further damage from occurring.”

She recommends using an antioxidant vitamin C serum, followed by sunscreen by day to prevent yet more skin damage. “Then at night, apply a vitamin A serum, which is a skin superhero and can help with rebuilding collagen, fading pigmentation, textural irregularities and oil control,” says .

But you do have to be realistic if you have developed wrinkles or sagging as a result of years of vaping. “Even with the help of skincare, you can never completely reverse all the signs of damage,” says Dr Khorana, adding: “You may wish to explore in-clinic treatments such as microneedling, lasers and Ultherapy to help build collagen, dermal fillers to restore volume loss; Botulinum Toxin injections for dynamic wrinkles and CO2 lasers to resurface the deep smoker’s lines around the mouth."

This article was originally published on Glamour UK.

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