Does Nicotine Cause Acne?

Acne: for some of us, it’s nothing more than a pubescent inconvenience. In some cases, though, acne can follow us into adulthood and plague us with feelings of frustration, low-self esteem, and depleted confidence. 

Our face is our first hello and our first impression when we enter a room. If you’re suffering from acne, you may be reluctant to put yourself out there and embrace life. 

If you smoke or vape nicotine, you may have noticed those pesky spots appear a little too often. Is there a direct correlation between your nicotine consumption and acne flare-ups? Or is it just a coincidence? 

Vaping: The Risks

Let’s talk about vaping. 2010 is considered the year of the ‘vaping boom’: since then, the mass market availability of vape products has soared, and millions of us have jumped on the bandwagon. From juuls to vape tanks, there are plenty of devices to satisfy our cravings. 

As popular as it is, vaping hasn’t come without controversy. Vaping is a relatively new phenomenon, and as a result, the research on its side effects is ongoing.

However, emerging data is showing links between vaping and various health conditions, such as: 

  • Chronic lung disease
  • Headaches
  • Weight loss
  • Increase risk of cancer
  • Dry/sore mouth 

Vaping And Skin Health

Although vaping is considered a safer alternative to smoking, it can still produce some undesirable side effects. But what is it about vaping that’s so bad for us, and is there a link between vaping and acne? 

Without the decades of research to contradict your vaping habits, you may be unaware of the links between vaping and poor skin health. Unfortunately, recent studies suggest there’s reason to take caution. 

A 2019 study in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology reviewed numerous studies examining the links between dermatological conditions and e-cigarette use.

Researchers discovered a link between the number of contact dermatitis cases associated with e-cigarette use; however, the evidence between vaping and other skin conditions isn’t conclusive. 

When you smoke a cigarette, you’re decreasing the oxygen supply to your body. When you vape, you’re doing the same thing. This suffocation can lead to blemishes, lines and wrinkles, and even deep wrinkles under the eyes. 

These are all pretty nasty side effects. The truth is, though, we simply don’t know enough about vaping and acne at this point.

There’s also a flurry of mixed reports out there – some people have reported a reduction in their acne from vaping, while others have documented an increase. However, you shouldn’t take this information to use vaping as a cure for your acne.

We simply don’t know whether vaping is the main cause, but there’s reason to believe it may cause breakouts. This is enough reason to take caution. 

Smoking And Skin Health

If you smoke cigarettes, we have some bad news. The correlation between cigarette smoking and acne is pretty well documented, so if you’ve been noticing more flare-ups recently, your smoking habits may be the cause. 

One study from Italy’s San Gallicano Dermatological Institute was one of the first to suggest the link between smoking and a specific type of acne called post-adolescent acne (APAA).

APAA breakouts can occur anywhere on the body, but they’re usually most common on the cheeks. They don’t show up as the red or inflamed pimples we expect from ‘traditional’ acne.

Instead, APPA appears as blackheads and even skin-colored bumps. Are you wondering what produces these outbursts? Well, smoking has been found to trigger two physiological responses associated with acne – reduced vitamin E production and increased sebum peroxidation.

Sebum is naturally found in our pores; when the pores are blocked, non-inflamed blackheads can occur. Vitamin E is a natural antioxidant that prevents free radicals from causing the oxidation process. When our production of Vitamin E is reduced, oxidation occurs, encouraging the promotion of APAA. 

The San Gallicano Dermatological Institute study discovered the following: 

  • The 42% of participants with acne were smokers, compared to only 10% of non-smokers. 
  • Out of the smokers with acne, 91% had the non-inflammatory form. 
  • 81% of participants with severe non-inflammatory acne were smokers 

There is also a link between smoking and another skin condition called Acne Inversa, or hidradenitis suppurativa). This chronic disorder is notorious for leaving scars, and it’s most commonly documented in middle-aged female smokers. 

This form of acne looks similar to ‘traditional acne.’ However, it occurs only in certain areas of the skin, such as around the apocrine glands (or sweat glands).

Unfortunately, unlike APAA, this form of acne is inflammatory and will appear much darker and redder than APAA. Although this condition is called ‘acne,’ it’s slightly different from traditional acne.

This condition causes chronic inflammation of the glands, which appears as acne-like bumps. It can sometimes look similar to boils, and these may require treatment to avoid tissue damage. 

Nicotine Withdrawal And Acne

The links between smoking and acne are well observed. However, the increase of acne in smokers is likely due to the thousands of chemicals found in cigarettes, rather than just the nicotine. However, nicotine can cause acne, but not in the way you might think. 

If you’ve ever tried to wean off the nicotine, you may have noticed an increase in skin breakouts. This is because nicotine withdrawal is one of the most common causes of acne breakouts. 

Nicotine withdrawal is certainly not for the faint-hearted. The process can cause a myriad of undesirable side effects, including irritability and frustration, mood swings, and, to top it all off, acne. 

When you quit nicotine, you’re giving up a drug. As this drug starts to leave your system your body puts itself into ‘stress mode’.

This is what causes most of the nasty side effects of quitting nicotine, including acne. Your body will physically react to the absence of nicotine because it may have become so used to receiving a dose multiple times a day.

You probably know this as ‘the quitter’s flu.’ It also comes with some other nasty side effects, including: 

  • Insomnia
  • Headaches
  • Poor concentration
  • Postnasal drip
  • Sore throat
  • Tight chest
  • Irritability
  • Dry mouth
  • Cough
  • Cravings

Due to its vasoconstriction of the blood vessels, nicotine can hide underlying illnesses. When the toxins are rinsed from your system, these health conditions may become more apparent.

Acne is one of them. Although your breakouts are most likely your body’s reaction to stress, it could be a symptom of another condition, such as an endocrine disorder, polycystic ovary disease, cushing syndrome, or acromegaly. 

So, if you’re a smoker, you may be MORE likely to develop acne after you quit. You shouldn’t use this as an excuse to keep smoking, though.

Smokers are still more likely to develop anti-inflammatory acne, but the evidence on vaping is currently too meager to suggest any direct correlation. 

Final Thoughts

Nicotine may not be causing your acne. If you’re a smoker, your breakouts are likely due to the thousands of chemicals found in your morning smoke. If you’re a vaper, well… we’re just not sure. 

If your acne is getting worse, there are several options. First, quit vaping or smoking, which will help your health long-term. Also, eat more nutrient-rich foods and avoid processed foods; especially those with high oil content. 

Jonie Dean
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