How Does Smoking Marijuana Affect Our Skin?
Everybody and their mum knows how bad smoking cigarettes is, not only for our health, but also our skin. With a single puff on a cigarette you can ingest 100 trillion free radicals, which can cause acne by depleting antioxidants, which are needed to protect your skin. In addition to its high addiction potential, tobacco is also associated with over 400,000 deaths annually in the United States, and has a significant negative effect on health in general. More specifically, over 140,000 lung-related deaths in 2001 were attributed to tobacco smoke.
But is the same true of that wonderful herb, marijuana? What do we know about weed, and the effects of inhaling it on our skin? Is it safe to smoke weed if you're acne-prone? Can we still smoke weed and be blemish-free?
Let's step into some research, shall we?
Cannabis and Carcinogens
First of all, while chemically very similar, there are fundamental differences in the pharmacological properties between cannabis and tobacco smoke. Cannabis smoke does contain over 50 carcinogens like nitrosamines, reactive aldehydes, and polycylic hydrocarbons. It contains free radicals that release when the leaves heat up and hit the combustion rate of 230 degrees Celsius/446 degrees Fahrenheit. Now, when you're smoking weed, the leaves usually do reach this temperature, meaning these free radicals are released.
However, cannabis also down-regulates immune system cytokines in your body which generate free radicals, such as neutrophils. It also contains THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (Cannabidiol), two of of at least 113 active cannabinoids identified in cannabis, which can further reduce the harm from free radicals due to their antioxidant properties.
This study also found that cannabis is generally far less carcinogenic (cancer-causing) than tobacco. Why does this matter, we aren't necessarily talking about cancer, after all? Because in the case of cigarettes, almost all of its carcinogenicity is derived from its colossal quantities of free radicals, compared to cannabis.
However, it's also important to keep in mind the method of delivery: vaporizing heats the cannabis to 180 degrees Celsius - 200 degrees Celsius, which is below the combustion point where free radical generation kicks in, making all of these issues entirely obsolete.
“Using CO as an indicator, there was virtually no exposure to harmful combustion products using the vaporizing device. Since it replicates smoking’s efficiency at producing the desired THC effect using smaller amounts of the active ingredient as opposed to pill forms, this device has great potential for improving the therapeutic utility of THC”.
Vaporizers, which heat marijuana to a lower temperature than joints or bongs, are probably the best way of overcoming these drawbacks. However, bongs are believed to filter at least some of the harmful by-products of smoke, and so may be a better choice for those without a vaporizer.
Breakdown of Collagen
Marijuana smoke is high in hydrocarbons, which, upon contact with your skin, are known to damage the production of collagen. That’s bad news for acne patients, because collagen helps your old acne to fade away. Collagen also provides structural strength against air pollution, inflammation and even acne-causing chemicals in cosmetics. Damage to collagen can also age you prematurely by causing the emergence of winkles, sagging, and so on, and may lead to potentially irritating skin diseases like psoriasis and rosacea.
However, there's no evidence to suggest that marijuana smoke seriously damages your skin, plus the issue of smoke can be completely eliminated if you switch to an alternative method. Dabbing, vaping and even water bongs will help eliminate a lot of this potential for harm.
Chronic inflammation is the number one issue behind all types of acne, and THC is an emerging new treatment for inflammatory diseases. Research examining the anti-inflammatory properties of cannabis has found credible links between cannabis and inflammatory skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis, and rosacea—though it depends on the user, of course.
THC itself was found to inhibit interleukin-6 in this study, along with many other pro-inflammatory chemicals like interleukin-1B, interleukin-8 and TNF-a.
This review from 2009 analyzed cannabis and inflammation and concluded that cannabinoids could be a potential treatment for a variety of inflammatory diseases. Apparently, cannabis and its compounds can inhibit immune system pro-inflammatory (and pro acne) chemicals directly, and promote production of chemicals which regulate the immune system. The authors commented that “It is becoming increasingly clear that cannabinoid receptors… play a crucial role in the regulation of the immune system”.
Regular pot smokers were actually found to have less inflammation in this recent 2014 study. 9000 people were examined, 12% of whom said that they smoked pot on a regular basis, 40% of whom never did, and 48% who did so infrequently. Their levels of the inflammatory biomarker C – reactive protein were examined, and those who had smoked marijuana in the last month were revealed to have much lower levels. The evidence apparently “points towards possible anti-inflammatory effects of cannabis smoking”.
Studies on cannabis have found that the antioxidants found in THC have been linked to blocking harmful oxygen particles that can cause aging, even likening moderate cannabis use to drinking a glass of red wine.
One of the first studies to document these effects was a study published in 1998, which found that cannabinoids could protect neurons from exposure to toxic levels of glutamate.. The study compared cannabinoids head-to-head with antioxidant vitamins C and E and found cannabidiol to be 30-50% more effective than either of the vitamins. A follow-up trial published in 2000 showed similar results using animal models instead of cell cultures.
If you've forgotten how important antioxidants are for your skin and your health, check out my e-book.
What About Hormones?
There's a lot of speculation out there that marijuana inhalation can also affect your hormones, which would obviously spell trouble for anyone with hormonal acne. We are warned that THC, in excessive quantities, immediately increases testosterone (the main androgenic hormone in men) levels by 3-5%. An increase in testosterone could result in increased sebum production, which could lead to more breakouts, especially in those already sensitive to hormonal changes.
However, there's very little evidence of this. This study found that marijuana cigarettes with a 2.8% concentration of THC actually lowered the luteinising hormone, which is a precursor to testosterone. This study analysed testosterone levels directly, and found that smoking marijuana lowered testosterone and that the effect persisted for at least 24 hours. One review concluded that “chronic marijuana use showed no significant effect on hormone concentrations in either men or women”. In some in-vitro studies, marijuana has been shown to directly inhibit testicular enzymes needed to create testosterone in the first place.
Conversely, it’s well established that cannabis smoke contains non-cannabinoid compounds, which bind to estrogen receptors in the body, which might be bad news for male users (gynecomastia), but not for acne. Estrogen is beneficial for the skin - as anyone on birth control can tell you, those little estrogen pills generally do wonders for our complexion.
So it seems that if anything, marijuana may actually lower testosterone, as evidenced in how it affects male hormones.
What About Cortisol?
Cortisol is a bit of an interesting and debatable topic.
Many cannabis-users enjoy the herb because it helps them to relax - which I can certainly attest to. But there's also another group of people who marijuana makes their anxiety worse. So, what's the truth?
Well, the truth, as usual, isn't crystal clear. In one study patients smoked a joint containing THC at 2.8% concentration, and afterwards their cortisol levels spiked sharply. This study analysed 10 chronic cannabis smokers and found that their cortisol levels were significantly higher than people who didn’t smoke weed.
What does this mean, though? It means that, in some cases even though marijuana can help us feel relaxed, our stress hormones may still be affected. Perhaps the mental stress is activated by cannabinoid receptor stimulation which increases stress hormones, or perhaps the cannabinoids themselves directly stimulate the body to secrete cortisol, regardless of how good we feel.
However, it appears that the overall increase in stress hormones appears to be minuscule. The study cited above was also tested on chronic users (people who smoke weed all day long) - you know the people I'm talking about, the friend who is never not high, who needs to be high to feel "normal", usually the people with addictive personalities, which, in and of itself, could account for high cortisol levels in general.
Conversely, a 2013 study showed that the most common self-reported reason for using cannabis is "rooted in its ability to reduce feelings of stress, tension, and anxiety." A 2014 study from Vanderbilt University confirms that smoking weed can actually alleviate symptoms of anxiety: Researchers identified cannibanoid receptors in the amygdala, the area of the brain that regulates anxiety and the fight-or-flight response.
Its simple ability to make us feel better probably has more of a positive impact on our skin than we realize. THC receptors may actually lead to an increased production of neurotransmitters that make us feel better, like serotonin. By and large, aren't potheads some of the mellowest people you've ever met?
I, for one (anecdotal evidence - ick!) attest to the fact that marijuana actually helps my acne. My cortisol levels have been completely healthy since I was prescribed marijuana, and I think it reflects in my skin, too.
What the heck does insomnia or poor sleep have to do with cannabis and our skin?
I'm glad you asked!
First of all, a poor night's sleep can take its toll on our skin and health in so many ways! Your body boosts blood flow to the skin while you sleep, which means you wake to a healthy glow. Skimping on sleep could lead your complexion to look dull and lifeless.
In a deep sleep, your body enhances its ability to fight environmental and natural damage, which translates into a better and brighter complexion. Sleep also reduces cortisol (lookie lookie), which is responsible for thinning skin and discoloration. Sleep also increases melatonin, which acts like an antioxidant to fight age spots, acne and fine lines. A good night's rest can also increase the efficiency of special growth hormones that repair and regenerate collagen-producing cells, which are responsible for skin's elasticity and tightness. If you're constantly tossing and turning and not getting a good night's rest, you're doing your skin a disservice.
Enter cannabis! Cannabis has amazing soporific qualities. Besides easing insomnia, marijuana has a wide range of effects on sleep due to the cannabinoids actually mimicking the activity of chemicals found naturally in the brain. These chemicals and their biological pathways make up the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS), which is responsible for regulating sleep, among other things.
Some of the earliest research on marijuana and sleep shows that marijuana’s main ingredient, THC, can significantly reduce the time it takes for both insomniacs and healthy people to fall asleep. In a small study published in 1973, THC reduced the time it took for 9 subjects with insomnia to fall asleep by over an hour on average. However, the researchers noted that too high of a dose could counteract the effect (bad trips are no good for anyone!). THC was also found to ease falling asleep in a 2013 study involving healthy subjects.
Now for the really exciting part. Studies show that THC can actually increase the amount of slow-wave sleep, also known as deep sleep, that an user experiences. This is a good thing, due to the role of deep sleep in the restoration process.
That means that if sleeping is a tough time for you and it's beginning to show on your skin, marijuana can actually be an amazing saving grace. Anyone who smokes weed knows that when you wake up from your weed-induced-semi-coma, you feel like a million bucks. No hangover, no problem.
And last, but certainly not least, marijuana affects our self-image in a highly positive way. There's probably nothing at all scientific about this, but it's damn important. We are constantly pressured to look a certain way, and especially when we have acne, we feel down on ourselves about what we are doing wrong, and why we can't "fix it". When you smoke weed, you don't give a good god damn about your appearance and what people think of you. You're just happy to be here, smoking weed, listening to good music, and being happy as a clam.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is that smoking marijuana is not necessarily "bad" for your skin - it may even be helpful! However, it doesn't hurt to eliminate as much from the risk bowl (no pun intended) as possible - which means not smoking it.
Thankfully, there are other ways to enjoy marijuana without smoking it! You can eat it - edibles provide a body and mind high, without the smoke. You can use a water bong, which, although it produces some smoke, the compounds that we come into contact with are thought to be much less harmful, and using ones with percolators is even better. According to research, a percolator bong will filter out more carcinogens, so it is definitely a healthier (not to mention more fun!) alternative to smoking. And last, but certainly not least, there is vaping, which is arguably one of the best ways to use marijuana - you get all of the benefits, with none of the pitfalls. If you're in the market for a new vaporizer, the creme de la creme is the Davinci Ascent, which has an all-glass and ceramic pathway, digital display, easily adjustable heat settings, the ability to vape oils, etc. I also love my Grenco Science G Pro, but it is only for dry herb.
Exciting New Research
The newly discovered endocannabinoid system (ECS) has now been implicated in multiple regulatory functions both in health, and disease. Recent studies have intriguingly suggested the existence of a functional ECS in the skin and implicated it in various biological processes (proliferation, growth, differentiation, apoptosis and cytokine, mediator or hormone production of various cell types of the skin and appendages, such as the hair follicle and sebaceous gland). It seems that the main physiological function of the cutaneous ECS is to control the proper and well-balanced proliferation, differentiation and survival, as well as immune competence and/or tolerance, of skin cells. The disruption of this delicate balance might facilitate the development of multiple pathological conditions and diseases of the skin (e.g. acne, seborrhea, allergic dermatitis, itch and pain, psoriasis, hair growth disorders, systemic sclerosis and cancer). Although the immunomodulatory effects of the ECS have not been fully elucidated, here’s what we do know: at optimal concentrations, certain cannabinoids can reduce inflammatory responses in patients with autoimmune diseases. Cannabidiol is particularly potent in this regard. Interestingly, the ECS and cannabinoids have been shown to play a key role in “balancing” the various arms and components of the immune system.
Say you're still not convinced, and you want to avoid smoking/vaping/inhaling cannabis altogether. But that doesn't mean you need to miss out on the awesome skin benefits! Using cannabis topically, such as in an oil, might even act as a therapeutic tool for excessively dry skin, by enhancing fat production.
One study demonstrated that a topically-applied emollient cream containing cannabis markedly reduced itching associated with dry skin. This means that topical formulations that contain cannabinoid ligands could have therapeutic values in skin inflammation.
So, now you know that cannabis can be inhaled safely, without impacting your skin, and without skimping on the effects. Now, if only you could figure out how to not eat yourself out of house and home.