Skin enzyme makes smokers look older

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You can tell a smoker by his or her face - and now scientists think they know why. Research published in The Lancet shows what makes smokers look older than they are.

You can tell a smoker by his or her face - and now scientists think they know why. Research published in The Lancet shows what makes smokers look older than they are.

The lines and wrinkles that, to the diplomatic, create a "lived-in" face (and to the blunt, a prematurely aged one) have been traced to an enzyme in the skin stimulated by tobacco. It has been known for decades that smoking causes prematurely ages the skin but the process has been little understood.

Now scientists at St John's Institute of Dermatology, London, have found that smoking activates a gene in the skin that breaks down collagen, the protein maintaining elasticity. As collagen makes up 70 per cent of the weight of skin, too much of the enzyme increases wrinkling and adds to the effect of the sun's ultraviolet rays, which also raise the concentration of the enzyme.

Professor Anthony Young, who led the study, said: "Smoking exerts such a noticeable effect on the skin that it's often possible to detect whether or not a person is a smoker simply by looking at his/her face. Smokers have more wrinkles and their skin tends to have a greyish pallor."

The anti-smoking pressure group Ash said the study could help to deter young smokers. Amanda Sandford, research manager, said: "It's ironic that teenagers often start smoking in the hope of appearing more mature ... by middle age they really will start to look older than their true age.

"For smokers, middle age starts in their early 30s as the tell-tale wrinkles around the mouth and eyes begin to appear. Young female smokers are likely to be wasting money on anti-ageing face creams if they continue to smoke. The best beauty treatment by far is to quit smoking."

The researchers measured the presence of the gene for matrix metalloproteinase 1 (MMP-1) in the buttocks of 14 smokers and 19 non-smokers. They found significantly more of the genetic material in the skin of smokers than non-smokers.

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