Alcohol and Skin Health

Even the most deluded of us don’t consider weekend drinking an essential part of our skin care regimen. We are, as a society, also much better educated about the potentially deleterious effects of drinking, especially heavy drinking. The majority of adults drink in some capacity, and this is unlikely to change in the near future.1 We look at what the effects of alcohol have on the skin, even from casual or moderate drinking.

The skin is often a reflection of your general health. When your skin is dull and ashy, it’s usually a sign that your body is suffering from exhaustion or stress. Many serious diseases like diabetes are also found due to symptoms that manifest on the skin. When you’re out drinking though, your skin is often the last thing on your mind.

What Happens to Your Skin When you Drink?

Flushing – This is the most obvious and noticeable symptom of drinking. As alcohol is consumed, even in minimal amounts, the blood vessels dilate (expand) making your skin look red (flushed). We’ve all seen red faces, but it’s often also noticeable in the chest area as well as the arms for some people. Asians are especially susceptible to this effect as up to 40% of Asians have a genetic variation that causes acetaldehyde not to be metabolized as efficiently. Although flushing is mostly temporary, over time, the blood vessels can permanently expand in the form of flushed appearance or sometimes spider veins.

Dehydration – Alcohol is a potent diuretic. It will make you want to urinate and breathe slowly and sweat in an attempt to remove the ethanol, and if you take it to extremes, you will vomit out even more fluid. After a night of drinking, you should notice in the morning a strong sense of thirst as well as a tight sensation of the skin – a sign of dull and dry skin.

Itching – The mechanism of action is unclear, but many people indicate that itchy skin is a very common symptom of drinking. Although not technically a skin concern, the result is that you scratch the skin which can lead to skin problems.

Triggers – Although not a cause per se, alcohol can worsen symptoms of rosacea and psoriasis. The incidence of seborrheic dermatitis is also thought to be higher in those who drink.4

Liver Disease Manifestations – Many symptoms of liver disease show up on the skin and the nails in a visible way. It can cause redness, jaundice (yellowness in the skin and the eyes), nail changes, and in various other ways. If these symptoms are showing up, it’s time to see a doctor.

Sugar Sag – There is also mounting evidence that AGEs (advanced glycation end products) may contribute to premature aging of the skin. Alcohol is essentially sugar once inside the body and may be a primary culprit.5

The Upside

Facebook memes notwithstanding, nobody who doesn’t usually drink should start, for its purported health benefits. To console casual drinkers, however:

Resveratrol – Red wine contains these antioxidants in good amounts, and this has generated interest – certainly among people who are looking for a reason to imbibe. Like most studies on the effect of antioxidants, its impact is far from well established. Moreover, the benefits only apply to moderate drinkers which is a surprisingly small amount (two 355ml cans of beer, or a glass of wine a day for men, half of that for women).

Skincare Tips When Drinking

Unconvinced? Fair enough. There’s a good reason that the majority of adults drink, and it’s usually not for the health benefits of red wine. Like all lifestyle factors, abstinence or bust will not be the right approach for many. Having a simple plan before you drink, however, can make a world of difference in how you will look and feel the day after.

  • Never drink on an empty stomach – yes, it makes a huge difference
  • Pace yourself – the faster you drink, the more you will drink
  • Skip the bar if you’re under the weather
  • Drink water regularly – your body needs the help
  • Wash off the makeup before you hit the sack

What Alcohol does to You: An Experiment

There’s plenty of information today about what alcohol can do to people. Indeed, at the polar end of things, alcohol can devastate lives, families, and even communities. However, you’re much more likely a social or casual drinker both by the fact that you’re reading this article and also simply by the statistical distribution of alcohol consumption, which is another interesting story. Alcohol consumption, behavior, and how it affects you will vary widely from person to person. Most drinkers know the acute pain of hangovers the next morning, and may even notice the damage that it can wreak on the skin – mostly dehydration, but sometimes dullness or redness will also be a problem. The baseline appearance of the skin can also change if you drink daily, it can be difficult to notice what alcohol may be doing to your skin – after all, it’s hard to compare what your skin would like if you drank more or less.

Try an experiment. If you are a regular drinker, try abstaining for just one month. Take a few pictures before, and a few pictures after. You’re tweaking only one small factor of many –sleep hygienedietexercisestress levels, and skincare of course. There’s a good reason why studies on anything lifestyle based are notoriously muddled, and often return unimpressive results – no two persons are the same, and changing one part of a lifestyle tends to have crossover effects on the others. It’s not uncommon for minor lifestyle improvements like cleaning up your diet to cascade into other improvements like sleep quality and even exercise – unfortunately, the opposite is true as well. There’s an excellent chance that you’d likely be surprised by the results of your alcohol experiment. Think of it this way – it’s not a proper clinical trial, but it’s explicitly focused on you – your body, your alcohol consumption, your lifestyle. See how your skin looks after a month away. At worst, you would save some on the booze budget, and who knows, you may decide that abstinence is the boost that your skin needed.

1According to a 2015 England study, only 17% of people over the age of 16 claimed to have not had any alcohol in the last year.
3Some alcohol metabolites may be stimulating nerve endings in the skin, or it may have to do with blood flow.
5AGE is also implicated in certain cooking methods like frying, grilling, roasting as well as sugar content.
6A good example is the person who is over-ambitious with their unforgiving diet plan, but then feels it’s hopeless once a small slip-up is made.
7The quick synopsis is that the “elite 10%” consume three times as much as the other 90% combined.

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