Marijuana and Your Skin: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
There is a clear public health message out there telling us that smoking cigarettes is bad for your health and harms your skin. But is the same true about smoking marijuana? It’s a simple question, but cannabis is a very complex plant.
Even though people have been cultivating the cannabis plant for over 6000 years, research on how it affects the human body is sparse. There are still many questions about the effects of marijuana on the human body.
The legalization and use of both medicinal and recreational marijuana is growing in America. Despite the trend toward leniency of marijuana use among state governments, the federal government still classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 controlled substance (prohibiting both medical and recreational use).
Due to the strict, regulatory hurdles this classification imposes, it is extremely difficult for researchers to get approval to study marijuana. While there are few completed studies in this country, scientists outside the US have been sharing their research since the 19th century.
Is smoking marijuana as bad for your skin as cigarettes?
The ingredients of the cannabis plant differ from those of the tobacco plant. But each produces thousands of chemicals that are similar when smoked. Marijuana smoke contains 33 cancer-causing chemicals. It delivers 4-times the tar to your lungs as a tobacco cigarette. Heating up the leaves releases free-radicals that damage the skin’s DNA. Marijuana may dilate (open) blood vessels and increase blood flow (bloodshot eyes). But first, it constricts them, depriving the skin of oxygen, just as smoking cigarettes does. The toxic effects makes your skin age faster.
Marijuana smoke is also high in hydrocarbons. Upon contact with your skin, they damage the production of collagen. Collagen provides structural strength against air pollution and inflammation. Damage to collagen can prematurely age your skin by causing wrinkles and loss of elasticity to the skin. Bottom line? Smoke is smoke. All of our organs are better off without it.
Does smoking marijuana cause acne?
There’s no real evidence that smoking marijuana causes acne flare-ups. But munching on empty carbs after you smoke it can lead to breakouts. There is a link between high-glycemic index foods and acne. Avoiding empty carbs when you crave a snack after smoking can help. THC (a cannabinoid found in marijuana cigarettes) was first thought to increase testosterone levels. This hormone increases oil secretion all over the body, and is particularly evident on the face. Hormonal acne is often triggered by high levels of testosterone. But recent studies show that THC lowers testosterone.
Cannabinoids are emerging as a new treatment for acne and other inflammatory diseases. Another compound found in marijuana, CBD, may actually decrease the formation of comedones and the production of sebum. Cannabis compounds may also help regulate the immune system and inhibit pro-inflammatory (and pro acne) chemicals. However, the smoke exhaled when smoking weed, like tobacco, can irritate and exacerbate acne.
Will smoking marijuana exacerbate skin diseases like psoriasis and rosacea?
Smoke, in general, is known to worsen skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis and rosacea. But actually, studies have found some links between the beneficial compounds found in marijuana and these inflammatory skin conditions.
The main characteristic of psoriasis is the rapid growth of skin cells, called keratinocytes. One recent study shows that cannabis can actively slow down the growth of immature cells. This means that cannabinoids may be an effective skin remedy for treating skin conditions caused by excessive cell growth. Allergic reactions are common causes of skin conditions, especially in the case of eczema. Some studies have indicated that cannabis has properties that can regulate the immune system, effectively reducing inflammation of the skin. And the newest research indicates that topical, anti-itch, cannabinoid drugs can be an effective treatment for chronic skin conditions.
Can secondhand marijuana smoke damage the skin?
Exposure to second hand marijuana smoke may damage your blood vessels even more than smoke from tobacco, according to a study released by the American Heart Association. The research shows that blood vessels and arteries in rats that inhaled secondhand marijuana smoke carried blood less efficiently for a longer period of time than tobacco smoke. Constricted vessels block nutrients in the blood from reaching skin cells, accelerating aging of the skin.
The best way to enjoy the benefits of marijuana and minimize its negative consequences is to find a less harmful way to use it. The issue of smoke may be eliminated if you switch to alternative methods that are less damaging, such as a water bong. Although it produces some smoke, the compounds are filtered and thought to be much less harmful. A percolator bong filters out more carcinogens and is a healthier alternative to smoking.
Edibles are also considered to be a safe way to consume marijuana. But for now, there is very little research that has evaluated the health benefits of ingesting the plant. Tip: If you have allergies, use extreme caution when selecting your edibles. Kitchens may be contaminated with trace amounts of nuts, gluten, or lactose. There is currently no system in place to assure dispensary-bought edibles come from kitchens that follow health and safety regulations. When purchasing your infused products, look for edibles that are lab tested, use quality ingredients, and have proper labeling on the package.
What does the future hold?
The possibilities of treating certain skin diseases, combined with the unknown implications of increasingly widespread marijuana use, make studying the effects marijuana has on our bodies all the more important. Exciting new research is currently underway that may provide breakthrough treatments for many skin conditions and diseases. Here are a few that show promising results:
- Cannabinoids found within cannabis can help manage psoriasis through their interaction with the endocannabinoid system.
- Cannabinoids can help alleviate, and in some cases, reverse skin inflammation and damage.
- Localized cannabinoid administration can provide an alternative therapeutic approach for the treatment of non-melanoma skin cancer.
- Topically-applied emollient cream containing cannabis can markedly reduce itching associated with dry skin.
Science is just beginning to uncover the potential of marijuana-based medicines. But based on current research, smoking it may not be the best way to reap the benefits.The future lies in a safe and effective way to deliver its healing properties to the body
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Specialist doctor from the University Hospital in Gothenburg, Sweden. I moved to the Bay Area in January 2013 and I attended the School of Public Health, UC Berkeley from 2013 to 2014 as a visiting PhD candidate. My PhD thesis is on Digital Health and so far I have published 4 peer review scientific papers. I founded First Derm in 2014.