Smoking increases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by 57%, the risk of a hip fracture by 40%, and chronic back pain by 79%. Then there’s the classic problems; cigarettes give you lung cancer and constant breathing difficulties due to carbon monoxide driving the oxygen from your red blood cells.
Some data even suggests that the 21% of people who smoke in the US will die 13 to 14 years earlier than non-smokers. Even second-hand cigarette smoke kills 42,000 non-smokers in the United States each year…
…and tobacco cigarettes are also one of the commonest causes of acne.
On this website we’ve covered the broad dangers of cigarettes in an article already. Cigarettes deplete vitamin C and vitamin E and are a huge source of free radicals. At peak cigarette ignition time, you can ingest 100 trillion free radicals per puff.
However we didn’t discuss one giant issue: the mind-bogglingly large amount of chemical additives stuffed into nearly all tobacco cigarettes sold on the market.
Consider these facts: there’s a total of 599 chemicals approved for usage in cigarettes. That total includes up to 69 carcinogens and over 20 poisons. The ingredients range from standard ones like tar, tobacco, and the ammonia gas used to enhance the addictiveness of nicotine, to the truly crazy like butane, arsenic, and polonium-210. Chemicals in cigarettes have other uses such as poisoning rats, preserving dead bodies, and as rocket fuel.
Unlike processed foods, companies don’t have to display ingredients on a cigarette packet; they are exempt by law. It’s no longer like the 1950s where adverts said that cigarettes were good for you and 75% of US adults were smokers with no worries. These days, the average smoker knows his habit is rotting his body from the inside out.
Cigarettes are not a health product and hence so-called “big tobacco” has no issue with stuffing in tons of fillers, flavourings and combustion agents to push the profit margin as high as possible.
Regardless of the causes, cigarettes are full of acne-causing villains. That’s both the freshly cultivated tobacco leaves and the paper and ignition substances.
Heavy metals in cigarettes
The main reason why tobacco leaves themselves are toxic these days is the contaminated soils they’re grown in. That leads us to the first menace found in cigarettes – heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, arsenic and aluminum.
Heavy metals are metals which the human body has no biological usage for, unlike healthy minerals such as zinc, magnesium and selenium. Heavy metals are known for their toxic effects like lowered IQ, autism, cancer, leukaemia, and much more.
Importantly for acne patients, almost all heavy metals can deplete your antioxidant levels and many have unique powers; arsenic causes hyperkeratosis, mercury causes insulin resistance, and aluminum inhibits the enzymes responsible for manufacturing glutathione.
That’s why its bad news that the average cigarette sold today is full of these heavy metals. It begins with the tobacco plant itself. The fertilisers used in tobacco fields are notoriously unhealthy; they contain radioactive sludge, polluted water, and pesticides with arsenic and cadmium as additives.
They even contain radioactive elements like the polonium-210 used to kill British MI6 agent Alexander Litvinenko back in 2006. The heavy metals slowly accumulate in the soil, and the tobacco plants take them up through the roots.
Scientists have tested high cadmium soil vs low cadmium soil and found a close correlation with the levels in the tobacco plants grown there (study). Air pollution can increase heavy metals further; for instance, if the tobacco plants are grown near an industrial factory spewing out aluminium fumes all day. Again, it boils down to a lack of care about the safety of the product; cigarettes are already deadly inventions, so why bother making them clean?
In recent years, the usage of arsenic and cadmium-containing pesticides has dropped due to health fears, but the fields remain contaminated after decades of use. The heavy metal content of cigarettes varies wildly, but most contain at least some.
Consider the individual metals. Firstly, there’s the famous lead from paint and formerly children’s toys, which worsens acne via oxidative stress and inflammation.
One survey of middle-aged men in 24 British towns showed a strong association between cigarette smoking and blood lead concentrations. 2-6% of the lead in cigarettes is vaporised and then inhaled by the smoker, and the result is that smoking 20 cigarettes per day creates an inhalation of 1.5ug of lead on average, ranging from 0.97–2.64ug (study).
In fact, some scientists theorise that the behavioural problems often observed in teenagers who smoke cigarettes, like hyperactivity, poor impulse control, and reduced intelligence scores, might be because of the lead in them.
Then there’s the acne-causing arsenic, a carcinogen which over-accelerates your skin’s production of keratin, the protein that binds dead skin cells together and clogs the pores.
Arsenic naturally occurs in low safe levels in many foods; it’s a natural element of the earth’s crust. However, tobacco contains far more than average, because many arsenic-containing pesticides remain in usage. According to one study, smokers breathe in an estimated 0.8 to 2.4 micrograms of arsenic per 20 cigarettes they smoke.
Cadmium is another heavy metal which cigarettes are notorious for (study). Cadmium is non-corrosive and used in batteries and is a by-product of industrial metal smelting. It’s used for plastic, metal plating, and textile manufacturing.
The two most common sources of cadmium exposure among the general public are 1) foods like fruit juice and rice, and 2) cigarette smoke. The average citizen of western countries eats about 30 micrograms (mcg) of cadmium per day from foods, and the average cigarette contains 1-3mcg of which 40-60% is absorbed.
Hence, by smoking a pack of cigarettes daily you are doubling your cadmium exposure, and a study confirmed that cigarette smokers have twice as much cadmium in their bodies than average.
Cigarettes are the main source of cadmium for the average smoker. The presence of cadmium might be due to old fashioned pesticides that have been discontinued nearly everywhere else. Additionally, compared to other heavy metals, cadmium accumulates especially in the leaves of the tobacco plant rather than the roots or stem.
Finally, there’s aluminum. Studies have confirmed that the aluminum content of fresh tobacco is high, as much as 0.37% by weight. This 2006 study found that active and passive smoking of tobacco can increase the body burden of aluminum and contribute to “respiratory, neurological and other” diseases. This study analysed a ton of different metals, concluding that smokers have higher blood levels of arsenic, aluminum, lead and nickel. This recent 2016 study found that smokers have higher blood levels of aluminum than average.
All in all cigarettes are a significant source of heavy metals which you should avoid as much as you possibly can.
Deadly cigarette additives
Firstly, tobacco crops rank as the sixth most sprayed agricultural crop in the United States by pesticides per acre. More than 25 million pounds of agrochemicals are applied to them each year. One major example is the fungicide glyphosate which, as we discussed in my eBook Annihilate Your Acne, can decimate your healthy gut flora.
Again, the quantities of pesticides are badly regulated. For tobacco, the EPA only regulates the specific pesticides that may be used and the circumstances in which they can be applied, not the amount of them. Only organic cigarettes are free from agrochemical contamination.
Then there’s the various additives. The chemicals in cigarettes are endless; they include carbon monoxide, hexamine (found in barbecue lighter fluid), methanol, ammonia, napathalene, methoprene (insecticide), ethyl furoate and many more.
Only a tobacco industry insider could know the true purpose of all those additives – most likely the manufacturers can’t even remember why they’re pouring them in. You could write a whole book about them all.
Additionally, I said earlier that 599 different chemicals are approved for usage in cigarettes. Well, that’s only the approved ones – over 4000 can be created accidently during the combustion of permitted ingredients.
Most deadly are the various combustion agents, one of which is benzene, a colourless flammable liquid. Benzene is a chemical which is used as a starting material for plastics, lubricants, rubbers, drugs, and pesticides. It’s so abundant in industry that it’s among the top 20 chemicals produced in the US.
More importantly, benzene is the main chemical behind tobacco smoking’s ability to cause leukaemia. At least three studies (study, study, study) on humans and two on animals (study, study) have found that higher doses of benzene, the type of doses you inhale when smoking cigarettes, can cause leukaemia. Clearly this is a deadly substance then, and as for acne, it’s no surprise to hear benzene can strongly deplete levels of the acne antioxidant glutathione (study, study).
About half of total exposure to benzene in the United States comes from tobacco smoking or second hand exposure to cigarette smoke. The average smoker smoking 32 cigarettes per day inhales about 1.8 milligrams of benzene per day, which is 10 times the average daily intake of benzene by non-smokers.
Another combustion agent found in cigarettes is butane, which is again used for ignition fuel in cigarette lighters. It’s also found in campsite ovens. Butane is actually used as a legal high by many teenagers since inhaling it can induce extreme euphoria. It’s believed that big tobacco adds it to cigarettes for that reason; people already go to cigarettes for stress relief and butane makes smoking them feel even more pleasurable.
The problem is that inhaling butane can also lead to memory loss, drowsiness, cardiac problems, asphyxia, and a condition known as sudden sniffer’s death syndrome. Butane was responsible for 52% of UK solvent related deaths in 2000. Yet this is a chemical routinely added to cigarettes, completely legally. It’s something you want to stay well away from.
Perhaps the single worst chemical for acne in cigarettes is formaldehyde. Unlike butane and benzene, formaldehyde is not purposely added; it is a combustion by-product produced when saccharides (sugars) in the tobacco leaves are ignited. It’s responsible for a large portion of the eye and throat irritation you get from smoking, because it’s a strong inflammatory agent.
That means that formaldehyde wafting all around you after you ignite a cigarette can badly inflame your skin as well; this study, this study, and this study found increased levels of inflammatory chemicals in human and rat skin when exposed directly to formaldehyde.
Formaldehyde can trigger an immune system response on the skin within minutes of exposure. The chemical can also cause acne by triggering an increase in substance P within 2 hours of exposure (study, study, study). Substance P is a big focus of recent acne research as it regulates skin inflammation, sebum production and keratin production. It’s considered to be the big cheese controlling all the topical villains involved with acne.
Formaldehyde is also used as a germicide, insecticide, and industrial disinfectant, to preserve dead bodies, to make plastics and glue, and in nail polish. It was deemed to be a probable human carcinogen in 1995, but upgraded to a known carcinogen in 2004. The daily tolerable limit was gradually slashed from 3ppm per day to 0.75 as its deadly effects became clear.
Formaldehyde is something no acne-clearing enthusiast should want near their body or skin, but if you smoke, you are exposed every time you light up.
Other deadly chemicals added to cigarettes include…
- Hydrogen cyanide, a chemical once used as a genocidal agent in the World War 2 Nazi gas chambers. It’s not as deadly in small cigarette doses as the name cyanide suggests, but like formaldehyde, it’s a known eye and skin irritant. Produced as a by-product from the burning of cigarette materials.
- Toluene, a caustic solvent used to dissolve all the additives in cigarettes together. Linked to mild skin inflammation. Another chemical which people inhale to get high, but is linked to neurotoxicity. Toluene can deplete glutathione according to this study and this study. Acetone is another solvent used in cigarettes.
- Polonium-210. A radioactive compound added to tobacco fields in the industrial fertilizers. 250,000 times more toxic than hydrogen cyanide. Polonium-210 was used to assassinate British agent Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. Scientists discovered polonium in cigarettes in the 1960s. They tried for decades to remove it, but for some reason they never succeeded. Polonium-210 is thought to be one major factor behind the massive lung cancer risk from cigarettes. Polonium-210 is found in the human body at low levels, but nevertheless, too much extra will cause problems. Avoid!
- Vinyl chloride, a common industrial chemical, which is linked to cancer with continued exposure. It’s highly flammable, so vinyl chloride is most likely used in cigarettes as a combustion agent.
Many cigarette brands are also contaminated with pathogenic species of bacteria, according to some studies.
One study found that common cigarette brands are “widely contaminated”. This included strains such as Acinetobacter (causes lung and blood infections), burkholderia (respiratory infections), clostridium (food borne illnesses), klebsiella (lung and blood infections), unhealthy varieties of bacillus (many different problems), and Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which causes 10% of all hospital-acquired illnesses in the US. Hundreds of bacterial species were found in each cigarette.
Smoker’s respiratory tracts are also known to contain higher levels of disease causing bacteria. If this overgrowth could migrate to your gut, it would be bad news for acne since too many unhealthy microorganisms in the gastro-intestinal tract can lead to leaky gut syndrome and impaired acne nutrient absorption.
Tobacco specific nitrosamines (TSNAs)
These free radical inducing compounds are formed during the burning of nicotine and natural alkaloids in the tobacco leaf and during the curing of tobacco in commercial preparation. They have strong links to many types of cancer, including lung cancer, pancreatic cancer, and liver cancer.
Hence, they’re considered to be the main cancer-causing agents in cigarettes. Nitrosamines are one reason why processed meat causes cancer; the artificial nitrites in bacon and ham are converted to nitrosamines by gut bacteria in your body. The nitrosamines in tobacco, however, are unique. The two most carcinogenic types of all are called nicotine-derived nitrosamine ketone (NNK) and N-nitrosonornicotine.
When it comes to acne, nitrosamines are known for their power to generate free radicals and deplete acne antioxidants as that’s partially how the types in ham and bacon cause cancer. This review commented that the mechanisms behind TNSAs are not well understood but that nevertheless, this study, this study, and this study showed that they could increase oxidative stress levels strongly.
Tobacco nitrosamines are very strong. Furthermore, skin exposure through the billowing smoke has other problems for acne; this study found that TNSAs could increase their skin’s photosensitivity, or decrease its resistance to harm and acne from UVB rays in sunlight.
Depending on where you live in the world, the acne risk from TSNAs may be greater; US cigarettes are especially high in TSNAs, 20% higher than Australian cigarettes.
Curing practises are one big factor that determines nitrosamine content. Foreign cigarettes often use a cured variety of tobacco known as “bright tobacco”, which is lighter in colour and contains less nitrosamines, whereas American cigarettes tend to contain “burley tobacco,”, which contains more. Different fertilisers and different strains of the plant all affect the nitrosamine content.
What’s certain is that if you’re a United States based smoker you may be inhaling three times as many cancer-causing chemicals with each puff compared to a smoker in Australia or Canada. This phenomenon also applies to other acne-causing chemicals; US cigarettes contain more than the rest of the world.
There’s a risk of ingesting tobacco-specific nitrosamines from nearly all tobacco products, not just dirty cigarettes. Firstly, chewing tobacco contains them at lower levels because of the curing process.
Secondly, there’s a subset of cigarette brands around that boast of being “nitrosamine free”, but scientists are now investigating whether nitrosamines may form inside your body after you ingest tobacco. That’s a plausible scenario because that’s what happens with nitrites from processed meat. In that case no tobacco product on earth would be entirely free from TSNAs and their acne damage.
So as well as cigarettes being full of chemicals that are deadly for acne, remember that if you’re a non-US citizen who is travelling to America, the cigarettes will be even worse for acne there. If you live in the US, don’t buy any old foreign brand, because ones from Asia are drenched with heavy metals due to all the industrial pollution from their rapidly developing economies.
Your best option is to either 1) buy an organic brand to minimise some of the harm, or 2) buy some imported Canadian or Australian cigarettes. These will combine the reduced TSNA content with freedom from the pollution of third world products. The ultimate option, of course, is to quit smoking entirely.
The amount of harmful chemicals found in common cigarettes is enormous. They’re so polluted that cigarettes are perhaps the most concentrated source of toxin exposure in the modern world. Smoking is probably the worst habit or vice for acne, much worse than drinking alcohol.
Let this article be a reminder of exactly what you are holding in your fingertips the next time you’re about to puff on a cigarette. These chemicals are another good reason to stop smoking. The billions of free radicals covered in this article are the main reason. Those free radicals are why smokers age so fast, and generally have bad skin.
Think about it: have any of the people with truly glowing and gorgeous skin you’ve met in your life been smokers? The average smoker’s skin is dull, grey and lifeless. Smokers don’t necessarily have severe acne but their skin is frequently covered with smaller, red pimples.
Therefore, I advise you to stop smoking cigarettes completely. It’s one of the best acne strategies you can follow.
Clearly, it’s not the easiest strategy, but cutting your intake in half will still eliminate a decent chunk of free radicals and chemicals and make a big difference to your acne. You can also avoid these deadly chemicals by dodging second hand cigarette smoke, or you can just hold your breath when you walk through it.
Don’t start worrying though. If all else fails, there’s always e-cigarettes. It’s better not to be addicted to any nicotine but e-cigarettes are much lower in contaminants despite containing a few heavy metals.
Thanks for reading!