What Things Damage Skin?

Medically Reviewed on 10/5/2021
The most common things that damage skin include ultraviolet radiation, smoking cigarettes, and skin irritants.
The most common things that damage skin include ultraviolet radiation, smoking cigarettes, and skin irritants.

Your skin is your biggest organ and works as a protective barrier between your body and the outside environment. It's important to take good care of your skin so that you can prevent unnecessary skin damage and maintain all-around good health.

Ultraviolet radiation

Ultraviolet (UV) radiation refers to the invisible electromagnetic waves given off by the sun and by some artificial things, like tanning beds. There are three types of UV radiation:

  • UVA rays
  • UVB rays
  • UVC rays

UVA rays are the least damaging of the three but can make skin cells age. UVA rays are linked to the development of wrinkles. UVB rays damage the skin directly and are the direct cause of most sunburns and skin cancers. UVC rays are the strongest of the three and are given off by certain tools like welding torches and mercury lamps.

UV radiation damages the DNA in our skin cells. DNA is crucial to the healthy functioning of our cells. When DNA is damaged over time, skin cells can start to grow out of control and form skin cancers. UV rays also trigger the release of free radicals in the skin. These unstable atoms can damage elastin fibers, leading to wrinkles and other visible signs of premature aging.

UV radiation from the sun is stronger at certain times and places:

  • Between 10 AM and 4 PM
  • During spring and summer
  • Higher altitude areas
  • Countries closer to the equator

To protect yourself from sun damage, wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher every day. Re-apply sunscreen every two hours when you're outdoors and opt for shade when the sun is at its strongest.

UV radiation from artificial objects can also damage your skin. These objects include:

  • Tanning beds and booths
  • Black-light lamps
  • Broken mercury vapor lamps

Avoid using tanning beds and booths if possible.

Smoking cigarettes

Tobacco smoke contains harmful substances and is associated with the following kinds of long-term skin damage:

It's still unclear exactly how smoking leads to bad skin, but some popular theories link smoking with the following damaging bodily processes:

  • Narrowed blood vessels
  • Reduced Vitamin A in the skin
  • Breakdown of elastin fibers in the skin
  • Release of free radicals

When blood vessels narrow, there's less flow of oxygen and vital nutrients to the skin cells, which contributes to wrinkles. Smokers purse their lips when they smoke, which causes fine lines around the mouth and eyes. The heat and smoke given off by a cigarette can dry out the top layer of skin.

Smoking also has negative effects on skin wounds and the wound-healing process. Smoking decreases blood flow and hinders inflammation in the body, which in turn slows down the body's natural healing process. This can lead to wounds that won't go away.

If you've been diagnosed with any of the following skin or skin-related conditions, smoking can make them even worse:

Consider quitting smoking to prevent unnecessary skin damage.


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Skin irritants

Contact dermatitis happens when you develop an itchy or painful skin reaction after contact with a skin irritant. The irritant could be an allergen or a chemical found in everyday household products. Common skin irritants include:

  • Cleaning products
  • Soap
  • Latex
  • Fabric softener
  • Wool clothing
  • Perfumes or fragrances
  • Metal jewelry

There are two types of contact dermatitis. Allergic contact dermatitis is caused by an allergic reaction to a specific allergen, like nickel or perfume. If you're allergic to these substances and accidentally touch them, it can take a few days before an itchy, red rash develops. In contrast, irritant contact dermatitis produces a painful rash almost immediately and is triggered by harsh chemicals like detergents or acids in cleaning products.

When your skin comes into contact with an irritating substance, your immune system produces white blood cells which trigger inflammation. This inflammatory response causes an itchy rash. If you scratch the affected area, it could become wet and start to ooze liquid. This increases the chance of getting an infection.

You're more likely to develop contact dermatitis if you work at a job that requires lots of hands-on activity, such as:

  • Healthcare and dental work
  • Mechanical work
  • Gardening or farming
  • Cooking or cleaning
  • Construction work
  • Hair and beauty work

To prevent skin damage from contact dermatitis, try to identify and avoid irritants that trigger your skin. If you must touch a known irritant, make sure to wear protective gloves and wash your hands with a mild, fragrance-free soap afterward. Moisturize your skin regularly to maintain the skin barrier and consider applying a barrier cream or gel to provide extra protection.

Medically Reviewed on 10/5/2021
American Academy of Dermatology Association: "Sunscreen FAQs."

American Cancer Society: "Ultraviolet (UV) Radiation."

American Osteopathic College of Dermatology: "Smoking and its effects on skin."

BetterHealth: "Wrinkles."

Cancer Research UK: "How does the sun and UV cause cancer?"

Cleveland Clinic: "Contact Dermatitis."

Mayo Clinic: "Contact Dermatitis", "Is it true that smoking cause wrinkles?"