By Eva Lam
Ever wondered what you would look like 30, 40 years down the road? Now, what about if you threw long-term smoking into the equation? My intrepid colleague Jessica (a non-smoker, by the way) agreed to find out, using a nifty digital imaging technology known as “smoke-aging.” Voila! the before-and-after images are to the left.
This flash-forward technology supplemented the release of a recent survey from Angus Reid on behalf of Nicoderm and Nicorette, which found that the majority of female smokers are not aware of many immediate and long-term health risks of lighting up. The survey asked which health concerns female smokers associated most with smoking. Not surprisingly, lung cancer came in first among respondents (83%). Next was premature aging of the skin (62%), followed by dental problems such as yellowing of teeth or tooth loss (61%) and heart disease (60%).
But, fewer than two in 10 respondents were aware of the link between puffing away and increased risks of developing other health issues including infertility, early onset of menopause, menstrual irregularities, osteoporosis, baldness, premature greying of hair, weight gain, hearing loss and incontinence.
Toronto-based dermatologist Dr. Lisa Kellett says it’s worrying that so many women aren’t aware of the full effect of smoking on their bodies beyond lung cancer and heart disease. “There hasn’t been a lot of education around smoking and these health issues,” she tells Lifestyle. “Whoever has been responsible for looking at smoking prevention, they take two or three of the biggest ones.”
The implications? It could mean the difference between deciding to quit and not, says Kellett. “It’s funny how people are – they think about it a bit more when you relate it to their appearance,” she says. “It’s a lot like when we counsel young adults and staying out of the sun. When we counsel them we can say, ‘If you go out in the sun you’re going to get skin cancer.’ And they say, ‘Whatever, I’m going to continue to tan.’ When you say, ‘If you go out in the sun, you’re going to get lines on your upper lip, you’re going to get brown spots, you’re going to get wrinkles around your eyes, then people, especially young women, start to say, ‘Well, hold on, maybe [it] isn’t such a good thing.’”
Just like the sun, smoking can wreak havoc on your appearance. Kellett refers to Jessica’s smoke-aged image as an example. “So if you look at the skin, the first thing you notice is the colour. It kind of has that brawny colour to it, and that has to do with it not reflecting light uniformly so you get some brown spots. The light doesn’t bounce off the skin as well as when you’re young. You get pigment change. The quality and texture of your skin changes; it becomes more coarse, and thicker. The next thing you notice is the wrinkles – the upper lip line wrinkles, the lower face wrinkles… the prominent folds in the forehead [and] an accentuation of the nasolabial folds on the lower face.”
These are all characteristics associated with aging, which can occur prematurely in smokers due to lack of oxygen, says Kellett. “When you smoke you decrease oxygen flow, and when you decrease oxygen flow then you decrease basically the amount of oxygen your skin uses to repair itself. If it can’t repair itself as quickly then you get premature aging.”
Kellett says she often encounters women who are smokers and have these kinds of issues in her work as a dermatologist. Anti-smoking campaigns, she believes, should shed more light on the lesser-known effects of smoking including these skin effects. “The skin is the largest organ in the body and it’s also one of the most visible organs of the body. So it’s not like a lung where if you smoke you can’t really see the impact on the lung unless you go in and actually cut someone open and take a look at it,” she says. “You can see the effects of what you do on the skin. And it’s just another way of telling people [they] have to stop smoking… The hope would be that it gives some people who might be sitting on the fence that extra little push.”