How Soon Do Bad Decisions Show Up On Your Face?

I once had a friend who was a big-time cigarette smoker — so much so that she'd cycle through at least a pack-and-a-half of Marlboros on any given weekend. She'd quit over and over again; inevitably, a few weeks (or more like days) in, I'd find her outside whatever bar we were imbibing at puffing away. Then, one day at brunch, she ceremoniously declared she'd finally be quitting for good. Her reason? "I had my first cigarette in over a month last night, and I woke up with a huge zit on my chin," she alleged.

I raised an eyebrow. Not because I expected her to fall off the wagon as quickly as she had in the past, but because I was super-skeptical of her reasoning. "I don't think a zit would show up on your face that quickly after a single cigarette," I argued. "There's, like, bodily functions that need to go down first." But she persisted. The cigarette she smoked 12 hours ago had caused the breakout. I was the one who was wrong.

Eventually, she did quit for a while, and then started smoking again, and our friendship eventually fizzled the way these things do. But our argument continued to nag me: Could things really go south so quickly on your face?

So I polled dermatologist Jessica Weiser, MD, about how quickly certain stressors impact your skin — everything from smoking to sugar to fast food. Read on to learn how bad habits really affect your face.

grown-up guide to dealing with acne. Read more from The Acne Diaries here.
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Illustrated by Maria Ines Gul.
Sleeping In Your Makeup
We get it — sometimes you're just so sleepy that washing off your makeup can seem like the ultimate chore. But snoozing in your makeup has both short- and long-term effects. "Makeup should be removed every night to allow skin to repair and regenerate overnight," says Dr. Weiser. "Leaving it on can lead to clogged pores, oil buildup, and bacterial growth, causing breakouts."

Those zits can start brewing as early as the morning after — especially if you fall asleep in heavy makeup. But your skin will also immediately look uneven and dull, even after you finally wash off the makeup.
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Illustrated by Maria Ines Gul.
Fast Food
I have gone on my fair share of late-night McDonald's runs. (Double cheeseburger with Big Mac sauce, please.) And while the occasional burger won't do too much harm, over time your face will start to look sallow, thanks to an avalanche of chemical processes.

"Exogenous glycation happens when the sugars in food react with fats or proteins exposed to high temperatures, such as those incurred during the cooking process of fast food," Dr. Weiser explains. "Glycation is the first component in a set of reactions that forms advanced glycation end-products, or AGEs." Those AGEs trigger inflammation, which causes collagen breakdown, skin laxity, fine lines, and more. So, basically, the way fast food is prepared leads to the creation of nasty, inflammation-causing chemicals.

You won't see this after a single juicy bite — effects compound the more you nosh. But just like your nutritionist, your derm will likely steer you away from too many Whoppers or In-N-Out for the sake of your skin. Damn!
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Illustrated by Maria Ines Gul.
Traveling On An Airplane
Anyone who has ever stepped foot on a long-haul flight knows the immediate reaction your skin has to that craptastic air. "Airplane air is recycled, pressurized, and without humidity," says Dr. Weiser. "Therefore, it causes skin dryness and irritation." But what you may not realize is that parched skin can lead to other problems. "That excessive dryness triggers oil-gland productivity, resulting in breakouts," she says. These can crop up two to three days after air travel, which is why you might see a zit make an unwelcome appearance during your vacation.

The easiest way to combat all of this is to ensure you stay nice and hydrated. Sip water during your flight, apply a moisturizing serum and cream before you board, and use a mild facial scrub once you land to remove dead skin cells. In-flight mists with hydrating sprays are also a refreshing option.
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Illustrated by Maria Ines Gul.
Cold Air
Funnily enough, cold air and airplane air aren't all that different — they both lack humidity, and your skin loves it some humidity. But chilly temps are actually worse than airplane air. "Cold air is so depleted of moisture that it pulls it from the skin surface, causing dryness and irritation," says Dr. Weiser. If your skin is exposed to cold air for long periods of time, this can actually lead to eczema.

While redness and dryness are immediate (especially after a brutally cold or windy day), more serious side effects are cumulative. The best way to combat ice-climber face? Cover up as much as possible, and ensure your skin is getting enough hydration. Plug in your humidifier, and double down on moisturizer.
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Illustrated by Maria Ines Gul.
After our last two slides, you're probably thinking that humidity is like manna from heaven for your complexion. Well, you know what they say about too much of a good thing. "Humidity is excessive moisture, and it can trigger excessive oil-gland production, leading to clogged pores and acne breakouts," Dr. Weiser says. Things get especially icky when that humidity triggers sweat, which can lead to epic irritation. These sorts of breakouts and rashes are quick to flare up, but easy to soothe. Just make sure you're washing and exfoliating well.
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Illustrated by Maria Ines Gul.
Anti-pollution is the beauty industry's new favorite buzzword — and not just because it sounds good on the packaging. Smog and environmental factors wreak havoc on your skin. "Dirt and dust from the air clog pores, cause acne, and give skin a dull, lackluster complexion," Dr. Weiser says. "Free radicals from pollutants in the air cause oxidative damage that leads to premature aging." Luckily, those effects take years to show up on the skin — but they are cumulative, so the longer you're exposed, the worse it'll be.
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Illustrated by Maria Ines Gul.
Listen, everyone. You can't keep kidding yourself into drinking multiple glasses of red without consequence. Booze in every form causes all sorts of complexion issues — both today and 10 years from now. "At first it works as a diuretic, causing dehydration, which leads to dryness, dullness, or even ashy-appearing skin," Dr. Weiser says. You'll notice that cute result the morning after, right around the time your screaming hangover takes hold.

Booze also has pretty rough long-term effects that can show up after a couple of months. "It leads to facial flushing, broken capillaries, swelling of the skin and soft tissues, and specifically worsens rosacea," Dr. Weiser says. This explains why people who drink heavily tend to have puffy red faces and noses. According to Dr. Weiser, long-term alcohol use also increases those pesky AGEs — which, as we've discussed, lead to inflammation and accelerated aging.
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Illustrated by Maria Ines Gul.
Like fast food and booze, sugar triggers the production of both AGEs and free radicals. We know by now that these processes lead to inflammation and early aging — specifically wrinkling, laxity, and dullness. But, according to Dr. Weiser, these effects happen quicker with foods high in sugar (or refined carbohydrates) than they do with whole foods or fruits. "After a day of eating junk food, your skin will appear dull and lifeless," she says. However, once your diet improves, you will bounce back.
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Illustrated by Maria Ines Gul.
Ah, the argument that launched an entire investigation. "Smoking causes direct release of carcinogens onto the skin, which accelerates collagen breakdown, increased skin laxity, and fine lines," Dr. Weiser says. "Smoking is particularly associated with vertical lines around the mouth and with a sallow complexion." But how soon do these issues turn up? It turns out, both my friend and I were correct — kind of. "While some effects can be seen immediately, generally the skin findings worsen over time and correlate with duration of smoking, frequency of smoking, or number of cigarettes per day." Unfortunately for my pal, smoking doesn't have a direct correlation with acne — so I'm going to deem myself the winner in this battle.
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Illustrated by Maria Ines Gul.
The red, scaly effects of too much time in the sun appear on the spot — they do call it a sunburn, after all. But once the aloe soothes and the redness fades, there's even worse damage happening below the surface, according to Dr. Weiser. "The sun's ultraviolet radiation is one of the primary sources of oxidative damage to the skin," she says. "The accumulation of free radicals accelerates collagen and elastin breakdown, causing laxity, wrinkles, and uneven texture." UVA light also triggers pigment production, freckling, and irregular skin tone.

Sun damage is cumulative, and the more you get, the sooner you can start to see the effects. You may see new freckles and wrinkles post-sunburn, so it's important to get these things checked by your derm once they crop up.

It's no wonder that so many dermatologists cite SPF as your number-one defense against early aging. Even when you're not hitting the beach, make sure to apply an SPF of 30 or higher to all exposed areas of your skin. Your future self will thank you.
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