One of the major functions of human skin is to provide protection from the environment.
Whilst we cannot entirely avoid, for example, sun-exposure, it is likely that exposure to other
environmental factors could impact cutaneous function. A number of studies have identified
smoking as one such factor that leads to both facial wrinkle formation and a decline in skin
function. In addition to the direct physical effects of tobacco smoke on skin, its inhalation has
additional profound systemic effects for the smoker. The adverse effects on the respiratory
and cardiovascular systems from smoking are well known. Central to the pathological
changes associated with smoking is the elastic fibre, a key component of the extracellular
matrices of lungs. In this study we examined the systemic effect of chronic smoking (>40
cigarettes/day; >5 years) on the histology of the cutaneous elastic fibre system, the
nanostructure and mechanics of one of its key components, the fibrillin-rich microfibril, and
the micromechanical stiffness of the dermis and epidermis. We show that photoprotected skin
of chronic smokers exhibits significant remodelling of the elastic fibre network (both elastin
and fibrillin-rich microfibrils) as compared to the skin of age- and sex-matched non-smokers.
This remodelling is not associated with increased gelatinase activity (as identified by in situ
zymography). Histological remodelling is accompanied by significant ultrastructural changes
to extracted fibrillin-rich microfibrils. Finally, using scanning acoustic microscopy, we
demonstrated that chronic smoking significantly increases the stiffness of both the dermis and
the epidermis. Taken together, these data suggest an unappreciated systemic effect of chronic
inhalation of tobacco smoke on the cutaneous elastic fibre network. Such changes may in part
underlie the skin wrinkling and loss of skin elasticity associated with smoking.