Many of the old debates in clearing acne have been around for decades now. The likes of milk, chocolate and greasy food have been furiously debated by dermatologists since the 1960s. But one of the newer controversies in clear skin land is the exact nature of e-cigarettes.
Electronic cigarettes were invented and patented back in 1963. However the industry lay dormant until a heavy smoking addict from China created the modern form in 2003. New companies were born, and big tobacco fought back hard to start with, but then adopted an “if you can’t beat them, join them” policy. They bought up the smaller e-cigarette companies, and are finally raking in the cash again after years of heavy taxes and having an “evil” image.
According to one study, e-cigarette usage increased from 1.8% of the population in 2010 to 13% in 2013. E-cigarettes even come in thousands of different flavours, including vanilla, double chocolate, java, cherry, apple pie, pink champagne, mother’s milk and gingerbread.
E-cigarette companies are now utilising the classic 1930s marketing campaigns of old cigarettes. The adverts and dedicated stores feature the oldest trick in the book, giant images of smiling models holding e-cigarettes to create a glamorous image.
So successful is the marketing that even non-smokers are trying e-cigarettes. The main attraction of e-cigarettes, however, is that they supply the nicotine high without the tobacco, without the 600 chemical additives, and without the side effects…
…which leads us to this article. Smoking tobacco cigarettes is easily one of the worst habits for your acne. You ingest over 300 trillion free radicals per puff of a cigarette which has been lit for two minutes; they deplete many nutrients which are vital for acne, like vitamin E.
So our question today is – do the cleaner and safer qualities of e-cigarettes, when it comes to your lungs and heart, extend to your skin?
E-cigarettes and acne – the testimonials
The whole problem with answering that question is that e-cigarettes are such a new phenomenon. It took decades for scientists to notice that tobacco cigarettes correlated with lung cancer, and longer to prove it. E-cigarettes have been in mass usage for barely ten years.
Our first area to investigate then, is the testimonials from acne patients. In summary, quite a few people report large outbreaks from e-cigarettes, but just as many people report nothing. One user complained of certain e-cigarette juices breaking him out. Another complained of acne that persisted for at least two months.
However, after looking at countless testimonials related to acne, these results are not universal at all. There’s no common story, just anecdotal accounts…
…but there is one story which is more interesting. Significant numbers of people report that shifting the PG/VG ratio of their e-cigarettes towards vegetable glycerine soothes any skin outbreaks, whether its acne or irritation:
- “I found out that I was having a reaction to the pg. Got 100% vg. It cleared right up”.
- “I had pg sensitivities that gave me a rash, like razor bumps. Lowering the pg made all the difference”.
- “I switched to 100VG thinking that PG may have been an issue. Within a few days the rash went away and I have been happily vaping with 100VG since”.
If you’re a newcomer to e-cigarettes, or thinking of adopting them, then PG and VG stand for propylene glycine and vegetable glycerol. These two chemicals are the transportation agents used to deliver the nicotine which is incinerated in fluid form.
Both VG and PG produce different sensations as you inhale them. Propylene glycol provides a sharp throat hit, which is similar to the feeling of inhaling tobacco smoke. Vegetable glycerine, meanwhile, gives a thick sensation to the vapour, which many find satisfying. By default, most e-cigarette products come in a 50:50 ratio.
However, consumers can alter the proportion based on their preferred sensation, and that’s what these acne patients recommend, in favour of vegetable glycerine. So what is propylene glycol? It’s automatically suspicious in natural health circles since it’s a petroleum by-product. It’s a fluid with no colour or odour. Its common usage as an anti-freeze also helps to spread the fear.
The truth is that the FDA has deemed PG to be “generally recognised as safe” when used as a food additive. Inhaling PG, what we’re interested in, was deemed by a study back in 1947 to be harmless. PG’s main negative quality is some minor skin irritation when applied topically, according to this study and this study.
While Supernatural Acne Treatment is against the epidemic of artificial chemicals lurking in cosmetics and foods in general, propylene glycol is nowhere near on the same level of villainy as the likes of BPA or sodium fluoride.
But unless the testimonials were all wrong, something is afoot. One culprit could be stress from the withdrawal. E-cigarettes sometimes contain a mere 10% of the nicotine content of a tobacco cigarette per puff. This major downgrade is easily enough to spike stress hormones significantly.
Firstly, the normal users who experience a brief period of acne could just be adapting to their new nicotine intake.
Secondly, the opponents of propylene glycol could be the same. They might have spent two weeks on the standard ratio, and by the time they switched to pure vegetable glycerine, their stress levels might have only just adapted to the reduced nicotine. The real causes would thus be disguised. On the other hand, propylene glycol may have acne-causing properties which haven’t been discovered yet; it wouldn’t be the first time.
Are e-cigarettes packed with acne-causing chemicals?
Next we have the issue of chemical contaminants. The average tobacco cigarette contains over 600 contaminants. Electronic cigarettes, meanwhile, have merely a few base ingredients: nicotine, propylene glycol, vegetable glycerine, water, and flavourings.
Diacetyl is one artificial flavouring commonly used to flavour e-cigarettes. It adds a buttery taste to microwave popcorn, but the problem is that many workers inhaling the chemical have developed inflammation and permanent scarring of the airways, dubbed “popcorn lung”.
In one study Harvard researchers selected 51 different flavours of e-cigarette, to examine their contents. Interestingly for our investigation into acne, the flavours chosen were ones marketed towards youths. 47 out of the 51 contained artificial chemical flavours, and 39 contained the chemical diacetyl. It wasn’t just buttery flavours either; alcohol, fruit, and candy flavours all contained it. E-cigarette brands that didn’t disclose diacetyl as an ingredient were still found to contain it.
This study found that diacetyl caused its notorious respiratory problems by increasing oxidative stress. The threat to your skin? A depletion in bodily antioxidants in order to deactivate the free radicals.
This doesn’t ruin e-cigarettes completely but it’s our first provable flaw.
Next on our list is the heavy metals. You might know that toxic metals like mercury are one of the notorious acne-causing dangers in conventional cigarettes. Cadmium, for instance, comes from pesticides which are banned for usage on every crop in existence apart from tobacco.
But e-cigarettes contain these metals due to the presence of nickel, silver and tin in the cartridge and wires themselves. This study found that e-cigarettes actually contained higher levels of the aforementioned three metals than regular cigarettes. This study, meanwhile, discovered the presence of tin and cadmium.
All this gets sucked into your body as you unsuspectingly breathe. Luckily, the quantities of metals were considered to be nowhere near the safety limit. However, seeing as the average acne patient is also exposed to low doses of heavy metals from tap water, air pollution, conventional fruit and vegetables, and cosmetics, low doses are worse for acne than you might think. The same principle applies with many theoretically negligible contaminants across life.
How do heavy metals cause acne? By depleting antioxidants and increasing inflammation. Some like arsenic cause unique damage by increasing keratin and clogging pores.
Luckily, most heavy metals are found in higher quantities in tobacco cigarettes, but any heavy metals are a moderate negative. Next up for inspection is formaldehyde. This is one really controversial aspect. Over the last two years, formaldehyde has been the main vehicle for opponents of e-cigarettes to make their point.
It started with a January 2015 study, featuring the shocking claim that formaldehyde levels in e-cigarette vapour were high enough (higher than tobacco cigarettes) to increase the lifetime risk of cancer 5-15 fold. Formaldehyde is a probable carcinogen which is used as an insecticide and to preserve dead bodies.
Media chaos ensued, but it transpired that the puffing technique tested would never be used in real life. The electronic cigarette was turned up to a setting of 5 volts compared to the normal 3.3 volts, with short frequent puffs being taken. This high activity caused the machine to overheat – hence the production of this evil chemical. What they tested is called a “dry puff”; only smoking diehards enjoy those painful settings.
The findings were discredited, and in March 2016 a new study was revealed. But this cleared up nothing.
The reassuring results showed that even 350 daily puffs on an e-cigarette with normal settings would leave only traces of formaldehyde. The problem with the study was its funding source: big tobacco, in the smoky shape of the British American Tobacco company.
The results could still be accurate, but the clouds of mystery are still swirling.
For now we can say that e-cigarettes aren’t proven to contain massive amounts of formaldehyde, unlike normal cigarettes, which produce the chemical through burning of the sugar in tobacco leaves.
The bigger picture emerges
With such a confusing state of affairs it would be excellent if we had e-cigarette studies directly on acne. Unfortunately, we don’t, but we do have close proxies: namely studies on oxidative stress.
Higher oxidative stress simply means that your bodily antioxidants are lacking and free radicals are assuming control. The result is a nightmare: damaged skin cells and clogged pores.
This study compared tobacco cigarettes and electronic cigarettes, observing their effects on oxidative stress and vascular function. 20 smokers and 20 non-smokers were ordered to smoke traditional tobacco cigarettes for a week. Subsequently they were ordered to smoke e-cigarettes with the same nicotine content for a week.
Blood samples were taken before and after each change. With both types of cigarette, all measurements of oxidative stress increased. Vitamin E levels were decreased by identical amounts by both cigarettes. All other measurements of oxidative stress however, like 8-iso-prostaglandin F2a, deteriorated significantly more during the tobacco cigarette period.
This led the scientists to this conclusion: “our study showed that both cigarettes have unfavorable effects on markers of oxidative stress… after single use, although e-Cigarettes seemed to have a lesser impact”.
As suspected, e-cigarettes are still bad for your skin, but to a lesser extent than tobacco cigarettes. The analysis of contaminants like heavy metals and formaldehyde supports this.
Where e-cigarettes fall down is in the loss of vitamin E, but overall, they are superior.
Is nicotine itself an acne-causing villain?
Next we come to the common ingredient of both products, nicotine. Nicotine is the whole point of e-cigarettes – the continued supply of the addiction in a healthier form.
Therefore it’s good news that none of nicotine’s numerous physiological effects on the human body wind up affecting the skin. Nicotine is an alkaloid compound found not only in 0.6-3% concentration in tobacco leaves, but also other nightshade species like potatoes, tomatoes and eggplant. Its strongest effect on the human body is in the brain. Not only in creating an addiction, but also in enhancing cognition.
Nicotine increases memory, motor skills and alertness, at clinically significant levels. These effects are actually part of the nicotine high, although at a later stage, the “pleasure” is usually relief from the stress of addiction. Some businessmen are even dubbing nicotine the new “smart drug”.
Other benign effects include the release of serotonin (happiness), dopamine (motivation), and beta-endorphins (opioid style pleasure), neurotransmitters which are the main part of the high. Nicotine also prolongs the benefits of existing dopamine.
The main negative effects, apart from the obvious one, are minor cardiovascular problems and birth defects, with a possibility of tumour formation at high doses. None of those are particular linked to acne.
Therefore, it’s safe to say that the isolated compound nicotine is unlikely to cause acne except through the consequences of withdrawal from it, namely stress and anxiety. The contaminants and chemicals of e-cigarettes remain the threat.
Do nutritional e-cigarettes work?
One of the weirder products of recent times is the “healthy” e-cigarette.
Turning the old unhealthy cigarette mythology on its head, many manufacturers are loading their products with vitamins and minerals, supposedly turning them into a multivitamin you can smoke. Vitamin E, vitamin C, vitamin B12 and vitamin A are commonly included. Even herbs such as ginseng and rhodiola rosea get thrown in sometimes. It’s turning into a money-raking free-for-all just like with all the wacky flavours out there.
Is this yet another reason to ditch tobacco? Definitely not, because there’s no evidence that these vitamins are absorbed.
Firstly, vitamins are notoriously delicate compared to minerals. The likes of broccoli have to be cooked with special care to preserve the vitamin C (steaming is superior). If you vaporise the liquid mixture in the e-cigarette then very little will survive.
Secondly, the majority of the vitamins in the vapour will be lost as you exhale. Some will remain but it is simple luck as to whether it stays in your mouth or flows away forever.
Finally, vitamins are designed to be eaten and absorbed through the small intestine. Inhaling them is an inefficient way to get them inside your bloodstream; even topical application is superior. The molecules must make their way down to the lungs before the main contact with blood vessels is established.
Even considering those points, the quantities are tiny. In one brand, the vitamin C, B12, and E contents are 1000mcg, while the vitamin A content is 1IU. In a high-potency multivitamin with perfect absorption through the digestive tract, those quantities would still be laughed at.
1000mcg equals 1mg; the RDA for vitamin C is 60mg, and even that is considered too low. You can take well over 1000mg daily to improve your acne. The vitamin A content is 1/5000th of the daily allowance. The potency of vitamins is further diluted in vapour form compared to a food or supplement.
It seems that these wonder cigarettes are little more than an elaborate marketing ploy. Watch out!
Your e-cigarette strategy for clear skin
We probably won’t know the full story on e-cigarettes for another twenty years yet. But overall, if you’re addicted to tobacco cigarettes AKA, “death sticks”, then e-cigarettes certainly aren’t clear skin sticks, but they’ll be a big improvement.
They aren’t pure like the advertisers would have you believe, and still contain enough contaminants to cause moderate oxidative stress. This could explain the initial acne outbreaks in the testimonials, although the stress/withdrawal theory could still be true. Nevertheless, if nicotine is a must then take the vaping option any day.
What is an issue for acne is the vitamin E, however. Vitamin E is the most important vitamin for preventing clogged pores; in fact it’s the most important vitamin for acne full stop. It’s also fair to assume that e-cigarettes strongly deplete other acne vitamins like vitamin C, even though they haven’t been tested, because tobacco cigarettes also deplete them and in the study above they both depleted vitamin E equally.
The solution? If you are using e-cigarettes, for any reason, you must keep your vitamin E and vitamin C supplies higher than you would otherwise. You should also add in an extra serving of fruits, vegetables, herbs or spices. To keep acne at bay, you have to counteract the overall worsening of oxidative stress, even if it isn’t as severe.
Additionally, if you notice an outbreak of acne, then you can try shifting the PG/VG ratio towards vegetable glycerine. It’s not guaranteed to work but the more the merrier if you don’t care about the throat hit.
Ignore vitamins vapers, and I’d advise against particular fancy favours as well. The crazier the flavour whether its dragon’s blood or gummi bear, the more complex the chemical concoction. Get in, get your nicotine, and get out – if you want to enjoy some flavour stick to food.
Finally, stick to the standard lower voltage settings or the formaldehyde threat will surface.
Natural strategies for breaking the addiction
There’s another option available to you – bypass e-cigarettes by quitting nicotine entirely.
It’s easier said than done, but if you’re embarking upon a renewed attempt, or considering it, there’s many natural strategies for manipulating your mood and brain which you may not know about. Remember that if you’re 30, 40, or even 50, it’s never too late to kick your addiction out:
Exercise intensely – a release of beta-endorphins is one of the main sources of the nicotine high. Pushing yourself to the limit in the gym, running up a mountain, or even cycling in the garage on an exercise bike is another way to release them. Replace one source of a high with another.
Even better, set a specific goal in your exercise. Why? Success of any kind stimulates dopamine. The exhilaration from selling your stocks on a high, winning a videogame, or watching your favourite football team win, all comes from dopamine. So for example, decide to do 15 minutes on your exercise bike on the second highest setting, and achieve it.
Eat dark chocolate – stressed out people tend to flock to chocolate. It’s been proven in studies as well. Cocoa powder and hence dark chocolate contains anandamide, a cannabinoid mimic which produces feelings of bliss.
Dark chocolate also contains a stimulant called theobromine, which is structurally related to caffeine. If you’re burnt out on caffeine, then very dark chocolate is an alternative way to get fired up.
Correct your magnesium levels – magnesium is by far the mineral with the biggest deficiency rates. As much as 80% of the US population may be moderately deficient or worse. It happens that magnesium is a precursor to numerous neurotransmitters, and luckily, serotonin is one of them.
Basically, you are near guaranteed to lack a mineral which creates pleasure through the exact same mechanism as cigarettes. This is one strategy I definitely recommend. An article on magnesium can be found here.
Get sunlight – the sunlight high is a real phenomenon. Once again, you can replace the endorphins of nicotine with those from humanity’s trusted ally the sun. This study found that exposing mice to UV rays elevated their endorphin levels by 30-50% during the same day.
You probably know of this first hand; after a day on the beach you feel great, regardless of whether the day you had was particularly fun. This feeling is believed to be nature’s way of encouraging us to get vitamin D.
Vitamin D – speaking of which, vitamin D is like the magnesium of vitamins. 1) 50% of people are deficient in it, and 2) it manufactures neurotransmitters including serotonin.
Low vitamin D levels are strongly linked to depression, including the worldwide phenomenon of winter depression. Get the strategy here.
It will still be a fight to quit nicotine, but the strategies above will improve your chances.
If you’ve got to be addicted to something you might as well make it something that improves acne. Here are the best addictions, which you should aspire to have: exercise, dark chocolate, sunlight, coffee, fruits and vegetables, and success.
Thanks for reading!