Epidemiologic studies have indicated the association between tobacco smoking and skin aging, but the exact mechanism of tobacco smoke-induced premature skin aging is currently unknown. In this study, we investigated the alterations of collagen, matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) and tissue inhibitors of metalloproteinases (TIMPs) in human fibroblasts treated with tobacco smoke extract. Human fibroblasts were exposed to different concentrations of water-soluble extract from tobacco smoke. Human fibroblasts irradiated with ultraviolet A1 (UVA1) were used as positive controls because the mechanism of UVA1-mediated MMP expression has been well characterized. The expression of MMP and TIMP was analyzed semiquantitatively following reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction. Production of type I and type III collagens was detected by Western blotting and biosynthesis of new collagen was assessed by 3H-proline incorporation. Upon treatment with tobacco smoke extract or UVA1 irradiation, the expression of MMP-1 and MMP-3 mRNA was significantly increased in a dose-dependent manner. Maximum induction was observed with 25 microl/ml tobacco smoke extract. In contrast, the expression of TIMP-1 and TIMP-3 mRNA remained unchanged. Western blotting of the supernatant revealed that type I and type III collagens were decreased as compared with untreated controls. Collagen biosynthesis was significantly reduced by 40.1% following treatment with 25 microl/ml tobacco smoke extract. Sodium azide, L-ascorbic acid and Trolox (a water-soluble vitamin E) prevented both the UVA1- and the tobacco-induced alteration of MMP-1. These observations suggest that the imbalance of connective tissue matrix components might contribute to the molecular basis for premature skin aging in smokers. They also suggest that reactive oxygen species including singlet oxygen mediate this process.