I flew home to Texas for the holidays this past December, and while it was wonderful to see my family, the real highlight of my two-week trip was being able to cozy up in front of our living room fireplace and drink my parents’ Belle Glos® pinot noir almost every night. It may or may not have been over 70 degrees in San Antonio over Christmas break — but when his cold-blooded daughter requests a blazing fire, my dad always delivers.
As I was fireside imbibing the fancy wine, I noticed my face started to get extra toasty and hot, and wondered what, exactly, this might be doing to my skin. Since my face wasn’t touching the fire, I wasn’t getting burned, but could the excessive heat be flaring up my broken capillaries or drying out my dermis? I needed to know.
Whether you’re a fireplace wino like myself, or enjoy roasting marshmallows over a campfire, we are all exposed to heat and smoke from time to time. So, I interviewed two dermatologists to discuss how, if at all, fire exposure can affect your skin.
Is sitting by a fire bad for your skin?
Not only are there many health consequences from smoke, including irritation to the eyes, throat, and lungs, it can apparently negatively affect your skin, too. “The particulate matter in campfire smoke, which refers to the mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the smoke plume, can penetrate the skin,” explains Chris Adigun, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. “Campfire smoke (and barbecue smoke) is full of large amounts of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (or PAHs), which can penetrate the skin through the hair follicles. Once these particles penetrate the skin, they can cause damage by inducing oxidative stress, damaging collagen, and causing wrinkling and pigmentation.” Plus, campfire smoke can dry out the skin, causing it to appear dull and ashy.
Can smoke clog pores?
One of the biggest offenders of fire includes smoke clogging your pores, notes Dr. Adigun. “The residue from smoke particles settles on the skin and into the pores, and can thus increase acne breakouts,” she says. But breakouts might be the least of your worries. “Over time, the small particles, similar to UV, can damage your collagen and lead to everything from fine lines to potentially even cancer,” warns Dhaval Bhanusali, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. He says that recent studies have examined pollution’s effects on skin more broadly, and they revealed that it can worsen eczema or cause hives, so keep that in mind next time you’re debating a beach bonfire.
Can heat damage your skin?
Yes — especially if you’re prone to exposing yourself to excessive heat. You could be at risk for erythema ab igne (EAI), or “toasted skin syndrome.” “Toasted skin syndrome causes characteristic changes in the skin after chronic exposure to heat, such as on the tops of the thighs from using a laptop or on the back from using a heating pad,” explains Dr. Adigun. “The rash can be red or brown, usually with a reticulate (net-like) pattern.” If you have fairer skin, the rash will likely appear more red in color, while it will typically present more brown in deeper complexions.
Is wood smoke worse for your skin than cigarette smoke?
According to Dr. Adigun, it is not (but don’t let that be your excuse for cozying up to a smoky fireplace). “The deleterious effects from cigarette smoke inhalation are well documented, and include the accelerated activity of the matrix metalloproteinases, special enzymes that break down collagen and other components of our skin, and increased free radical damage,” she cautions. “The many changes in the skin that we refer to as ‘premature aging’ are caused by cigarette smoke.”
On the other hand, Dr. Bhanusali asserts that wood smoke could be worse on your skin and body. “There is a belief that wood smoke can generate a significantly larger amount of carcinogenic polyaromatic hydrocarbons than cigarette smoke, [which means] they may last longer in the body, producing more harm,” he points out. It’s better to be safe than sorry — avoid smoke overall!
What are some ways to avoid damage to the skin caused by sitting next to a fire?
Both Drs. Bhanusali and Adigun agree that you should limit your exposure to fire as much as possible, and always give your skin some space between you and the campfire or fireplace, while avoiding wherever the wind is carrying the smoke. “If you will be at a place with a wood fire for an excessive amount of time, while it may seem like overkill, wearing a mask may at least help limit respiratory exposure,” says Dr. Bhanusali. “If you are exposed, regardless, you should cleanse your face and consider showering soon after.” He advises using an exfoliating cleanser for extra insurance against the injurious effects of smoke. We like Tata HarperTM Regenerating Exfoliating Cleanser ($42), which contains physical exfoliants (courtesy of apricot microspheres) and chemical exfoliants (willowbark-derived beta hydroxy acid) to slough away grime.
You can also look to topical skincare products to protect your skin prior to fireside exposure. Dr. Adigun suggests applying antioxidants such as alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E), L-ascorbic acid (vitamin C), and/or melatonin (an enzyme that has antioxidant properties) to provide protection against environmental pollution and the oxidative stress that can be induced by campfire smoke. “Topical antioxidants reduce the free radical concentration that can be increased by the campfire smoke, and therefore will reduce the damage to the skin,” she says. Isdinceutics® Melatonik® 3-in-1 Night Serum ($160) contains all three: vitamins E and C, and melatonin.
If your skin does get damaged, are there any products or ingredients that can reverse it?
Applying products with vitamin A derivatives such as tretinoin or retinol can help clean pores and induce collagen production, according to Dr. Adigun. “Starting a topical antioxidant can help halt further damage, but for more severe cases, lasers or device-based treatments will be necessary,” she says. Learn more about how retinol can benefit your skin here.
Retinol shouldn't be used by women who are pregnant, considering getting pregnant, or nursing. As always, talk to your doctor before starting any new medication or treatment.
In addition to the aforementioned exfoliating cleansers, Dr. Bhanusali notes that facial tools can go a long way in helping your skin detox from smoke. “To go one step further, even using an exfoliating brush like the Clinique® Sonic Cleansing Brush ($22) or Clarisonic® Mia Smart® Cleansing Skincare Device ($169) may provide benefits, too,” he says.
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