Vaping has become a popular alternative to smoking in recent years, but concerns have been raised about its potential effects on the skin, particularly acne. Some recent studies suggest that vaping may be a contributing factor to acne.
Acne is a condition when hair follicles become clogged or infected and cause pimples.
The two main ingredients in vape pen cartridges are vegetable glycerin and propylene glycol. Both can irritate the skin.
There are different ingredients in a vape pen; however, the main contributing factor to acne is caused by the nicotine itself.
Vaping nicotine products can also cause skin concerns such as aging skin, delayed wound healing, and infections on the skin.
What is acne?
Acne is a skin condition that occurs when the hair follicles become clogged with oil and dead skin cells. This leads to the formation of pimples, blackheads, and whiteheads. Many factors can contribute to acne, including genetics, hormones, diet, lifestyle habits, and, quite possibly, vaping.
What is an e-cigarette or vape pen?
An e-cigarette is a device that simulates tobacco smoking. However, the user inhales vapor instead of smoke. Originally released to help smokers quit smoking, this device is now widely used by teens and adults as a recreational device.
A vape pen or e-cigarette typically consists of a battery, a heating element (also known as an atomizer), a cartridge that holds the liquid, and a mouthpiece that allows the user to inhale the vapor. The user refills the e-cigarette device with a small cartage containing addictive chemical properties that are then inhaled as a vapor.
Vaping & acne – breaking it down:
While there is limited research on the effects of vaping on the skin, some studies suggest that vaping may contribute to acne. Different components within the vape pen, such as the heating element and vapor itself, can irritate the skin, leading to acne.
Although there are numerous chemicals in the vaping liquid cartage that can irritate the skin and lead to acne, the two main components are:
- Propylene glycol. This chemical is widely used in nicotine products and is a clear, colorless liquid with a slightly sweetened taste. This chemical produces the vapor inhaled from a vape or e-cigarette. Propylene glycol makes up 80% to 92% of the total component contained in the vape liquid.
- Vegetable glycerin. Known to produce thicker vapor clouds in vape pens, this product is a sweet, oil-like substance mainly used in larger vaping devices.
Although propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin are non-comedogenic, meaning they do not clog pores, they are still known to cause skin irritation and sensitivities, leading to acne and bacterial skin infections.
Another commonly added ingredient in the e-cigarette cartridge is flavoring. Flavoring chemicals (called aldehydes) are used in vapes to produce different flavors when inhaling the vapor. Flavors can range from vanilla to raspberry and aid in the overall taste of the product. There is no scientific data that says aldehydes cause acne breakouts; however, it is known that this, too, can cause irritation, sensitivity, or allergic reaction in some users.
Nicotine and vaping
Nicotine is the primary source, found in e-cigarettes, known to cause acne.
The standard amount of nicotine contained in a vape is generally around 0.3% to 5% of the total volume contained in the liquid. Nicotine is a naturally produced product grown worldwide and used as a stimulant. This product is highly addictive and typically used recreationally.
One study found that nicotine in e-cigarettes can constrict blood vessels and reduce blood flow, increasing oil production in the skin and leading to clogged pores and acne. Nicotine is also known to cause an inflammatory response, which can promote bacterial growth on the skin’s surface.
Nicotine is known to be absorbed through the skin’s surface through third hand smoke (THS). THS is the nicotine product that settles on skin, clothing, and even surfaces of walls and countertops after smoking or vaping has stopped. This is thought to be absorbed through the skin’s surface and can cause inflammation, irritation, and acne.
Other factors to consider
Vaping can cause numerous, long-lasting side effects to the skin's surface, including:
- Premature skin aging. Nicotine can cause premature skin aging due to constricting blood vessels and reducing the amount of oxygen and nutrients delivered to the skin cells. This causes wrinkles, discoloration, and other signs of aging.
- Delayed wound healing. Nicotine has been found to inhibit the growth of new blood vessels, which is essential for healing. Nicotine also has been shown to suppress the immune response, which can also slow down the healing process.
- Increased chance of infections. Nicotine has been shown to suppress the immune response, making the body less likely to fight infections effectively. This can increase the risk of developing severe infections, especially in those with compromised immune systems.
- Dry skin. Nicotine can lead to dry skin due to vasoconstriction properties. This means it can narrow the blood vessels in the skin, reducing blood flow. This reduces the amount of moisture and nutrients that reach the skin cells.
Men and women are equally at risk of acne caused by vaping. However, the prevalence of vaping amongst men is higher. Research shows that men are more likely to use vaping as a method to quit smoking and vape longer than women. Women are more likely to be influenced by their friends and family to start vaping; however, they do not smoke as often or as much as men.
It's important to note that more research is needed to confirm that vaping does cause acne. However, research does conclude that the nicotine and other chemicals found in e-cigarettes does cause acne and irritates the skin’s surface.
Quitting smoking or vaping altogether is always a good idea for the overall health of your skin and body.
- American Journal of Physiology. Lung Cellular and Molular Physiology. Short halt in vaping modifies cardiorespiratory parameters and urine metabolome: a randomized trial.
- Atmosphere. Nicotine Affects Multiple Biological Processes in EpiDermTM Organotypic Tissues and Keratinocyte Monolayers.
- Addictive Behaviors. Gender differences in use and expectancies of e-cigarettes: Online survey results.
- JAMA Pediatrics. Association of 1 Vaping Session With Cellular Oxidative Stress in Otherwise Healthy Young People With No History of Smoking or Vaping - A Randomized Clinical Crossover Trial.