Weed, grass, Mary Jane, pot... call it whatever you'd like, but marijuana has been around long before 1937's "Reefer Madness" warned of its (arguably overblown) deleterious effects. These days it's more common than ever, thanks in part to its medicinal uses. But are there beauty ramifications that come with the decision to smoke?
We decided to find out. Whether or not lighting up is your thing, it doesn't hurt to know exactly what marijuana can do to your skin and appearance. So we spoke to two New York-based dermatologists, Dr. Bobby Buka and Dr. Ariel Ostad, and found out some surprising facts about America's most commonly used illicit drug.
The THC in marijuana increases your testosterone levels... which could lead to acne.
Let's start with the bad news. The most potent ingredient in cannabis, also known as marijuana, is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). When you smoke, vaporize or otherwise ingest it, there's an immediate increase in testosterone levels, says Dr. Ostad. As a result, these increased testosterone levels can cause your skin's oil glands to produce more sebum oil, which can lead to breakouts in people predisposed to acne. People who are chronic users of marijuana can also experience hair loss on the scalp or even excess hair growth in other parts of their bodies due to this testosterone jump, Dr. Ostad adds. "I have seen acne and hair loss," he says, "not a lot, but I've seen it."
However, Dr. Buka says that the testosterone increase -- which is in the order of 3 to 5 percent -- is too marginal to cause a flare up of acne or unusual hair growth patterns. "We're talking about buckets and buckets of weed," he says. "Nothing any human could smoke." (We'll leave that judgement call to you.)
Another thing to watch out for? Packing in sugar-filled snacks while using marijuana. "There is a link between high-glycemic index foods and acne," he says. "So you might draw the conclusion that people who get the munchies are eating more of those foods."
Plus, the smoke can make your skin age more rapidly.
Something both Dr. Ostad and Dr. Buka do agree on? The harmful effects of the marijuana smoke itself, which contains many of the same carcinogens as cigarette smoke (though studies have shown that THC actually protects against pro-carcinogens, unlike nicotine). These hydrocarbons can inhibit cells that are chiefly responsible for making new collagen. Meaning: Exposing your skin to marijuana smoke can make it age more rapidly. The smoke from pot can also worsen skin conditions like psoriasis and rosacea, says Dr. Buka.
But THC is also anti-inflammatory and an antioxidant, and it has potential anti-aging properties.
Don't make a judgement call just yet -- more and more, people are discovering the upside of getting high. Even though THC may cause an increase in testosterone levels, it's also gaining a reputation as an anti-inflammatory agent and an antioxidant in the medical world. So while the actual smoke from marijuana can suppress collagen production, some studies have shown that the THC itself has anti-aging properties (thanks to those antioxidants, which neutralize the damaging effects of free radical oxygen particles). Dr. Buka even likens moderate weed consumption with drinking a glass of red wine.
However, Dr. Buka notes, "The delivery system is really critical." He recommends using a vaporizer if you're dead-set on using marijuana and want to enjoy its supposed anti-inflammatory benefits, adding, "Even a bong would be preferable [to smoking]." (Remember: There is no fundamental difference between marijuana smoke and cigarette smoke when it comes to skin, according to Dr. Buka.)
Additionally, Dr. Ostad points out that we naturally have THC receptors in our brains, which means that cannabinoids, the compounds present in cannabis, aren't foreign to our systems. "Those THC receptors actually can lead to increased production of neurotransmitters that make us feel better, like serotonin," he says. Indeed, neuroscientists who have looked into the connection between cannabis and depression have found that low doses of THC are associated with a drop in depressive symptoms. But it's important to note that too much can actually have the opposite effect.
Dr. Buka adds that stress seems to have negative effects on skin conditions across the board -- including acne, eczema and rosacea -- and reducing that stress can be a critical step to clearing up skin. "My pot smokers are by and large a mellower group of patients," he says.
Studies have also shown that cannabinoids can be used topically for the treatment of inflammatory skin diseases (though these studies have been done in mice, not people).
So if you're going to smoke...
If after weighing the pros and cons, you decide you'd like to reap the benefits of marijuana, choose your method wisely. Like we said, Dr. Buka recommends using a vaporizer to avoid the carcinogenic smoke of a marijuana cigarette. However, if you must smoke it, he suggests making sure your skin is protected as much as possible with a thick moisturizer (he likes the Ultra Repair Cream by First Aid Beauty).
The bottom line: There are mixed philosophies when it comes to both the positive and negative effects of marijuana on the skin, so choose wisely -- and be mindful of your local laws.
CLARIFICATION: This article was amended to reflect that marijuana smoke and cigarette smoke do not cause the same exact carcinogenic effect.