What Alcohol Really Does to Your Skin
I’ve been writing about beauty for almost the same amount of time that I’ve had a taste for wine. Yet, in those decades, never have I asked what it does to your skin. Not in casual conversation, not in an interview – just not at all. This is no oversight; I simply did not want to know. Because, wine is delicious, and gave me the fuzzy-happy feels, and I didn’t want my Friday nights to be forever ruined by information I couldn’t unhear. I was happy swigging (free) champagne at beauty events, being told that the big skin bad guys were the sun, pollution, and free radicals.
But there came a point, right as I was sliding out of my mid-30s and steamrolling to 40 that I couldn’t play skin denial anymore: the special sauce was just no good for my skin. So I (finally) asked the question to two terrifically qualified people – a dermatologist and a nutritionist – and braced myself for the answer. Just how bad is alcohol for your skin? Read at your own peril.
OK, but how bad is it really?
I’m going to give it to you straight: there’s really no good news here. As you probably know, alcohol damages the liver, but what that damage means in real terms is that it inhibits one of the primary functions of the liver: detoxification. Dr. Chwalek says, “When you drink, you’re reducing your body’s ability to filter out toxins. And, on top of that, alcohol and its metabolites trigger a persistent systemic inflammation.” Inflammation in the body is responsible for all kinds of issues including cellular damage, delayed wound healing and digestive problems, including the ineffective absorption of nutrients from food – which we need for healthy skin. Lola adds, “Alcohol can also interfere with the integrity of our gut microbiome – the ecology of gut bacteria that has important roles in detoxification, stress responses, inflammatory and hormonal regulation. This can ultimately disrupt important pathways that are involved in skin cell health.” Another side effect of regular drinking is that it reduces vitamins A, B3 and C in the body – all which will cause dullness and loss of elasticity in the skin.
Looking at it on face value (literally) the story doesn’t get much better. You know when you wake up at 3am after a big night and your mouth feels like a cat slept inside it and lapped up all the water from your system? That’s because alcohol is a diuretic. “It interferes with the production of a hormone, vasopressin, which signals the kidneys to absorb water,” Dr. Chwalek says, “and it also causes dehydration to the skin.” And that explains why no one is winning any beauty pageants the day after the office Christmas party.
Is your skin trying to tell you something?
I’m not here to scare you off your favorite pinot. Truly. But if you’ve ever dared to face a mirror mid-hangover, you may have noticed a few of these visitors: sallowness, puffiness, enlarged pores, and maybe a broken blood vessel or two? That’s a little gift from your last round of drinks. Dr.Chwalek explains, “alcohol alters the blood vessels and causes dilation leading to broken blood vessels, flushing and redness.” And, if you already have some pre-existing skin conditions like eczema, rosacea, psoriasis or acne, it’s likely to be further inflamed by alcohol. Lola adds “Longer term the dehydrating effects of alcohol can lead to water and nutrient depletion, which over time, may result in fine lines or loss of skin elasticity.”
The bad, and the (not quite so) bad
No one expects you to give up alcohol completely. Hell, I wrote this story while masking and sipping on my favorite rosé, because ~balance~. But there is some good(ish) news. There are some choices that are better than others when if comes to a tipple. Dr.Chwalek explains, “Alcohols that contain more congeners (substances produced during the fermentation process like esters, tannins, acetone, methanol, aldehydes that are responsible for the of alcoholic beverages) are a bad choice because the impurities may be more damaging to the skin.” She suggests sticking to clearer varieties like vodka or gin. Another reason to stay away from the dark spirits is they have higher sugar content – same as those delicious cocktails – which will inflame skin conditions even more. Lola adds that “these will compound the effects of alcohol and cause glycation – a sort of hardening of skin cells, which ages the skin prematurely.” Red wine isn’t necessarily your savior either. Because, although yes, it does have potent antioxidants in it (called Resveratrol), Dr. Chwalek also says that it can worsen rosacea.
Just as it’s unreasonable to think you’ll go full teetotaler after this, it’s probably highly unlikely that you’ll never have one-too-many again. So is there such a thing as damage control? Yes. Yes there is – and it’s called rehydration. “Rehydration is your first step in helping the body find some balance. Drink around 2.5 litres of filtered water, which will help the liver to flush out alcohol and put back water that is lost due to alcohol’s diuretic effects,” says Lola. Follow this up with a lunch of blood sugar stabilizing protein and dark green leafy vegetables (and no the limp lettuce garnishing a greasy burger doesn’t count).
The vegetables contain B vitamins which Lola says are “important nutrients that can be depleted by alcohol and that are vital in liver detoxification processes and energy production.” Coconut water can also be helpful as it contains potassium, electrolytes and B vitamins, and a milk thistle supplement can also help support the liver.
From a beauty perspective, I have taken one for the team and suffered several years of hangovers to bring you this list of tried-and-tested helpers to de-puff, nourish and gently coax some life back into your faces. Selfless, I know.
Face Mist: I can personally vouch that chilling a face mist in the fridge and spritzing it on your hot, tired face is like having a million little angels kissing your face the day after. Refrigerating it actually helps to reduce puffiness and calm inflammation because of the coolness. My go-tos are Tatcha Dewy Skin Mist for the delicious glow and the plumpness that its key ingredient, hyaluronic acid, gives and Jurlique Rosewater Balancing Mist for the smell and instant hydration.
Sheet Mask: The pros masking: you won’t need to look at your face; you can lie down doing it; it doesn’t matter if you fall asleep while doing it. Always, always keep an emergency stash of hydrating face masks for these occasions. And if you’re smart, that hydrating face mask will be Go-To’s Transformazing Mask which will kiss your skin better and forgive it for last night. Plus, you really, really need that shot of hydration right now. Follow this up with an eye mask like Wander Beauty’s Baggage Claim Eye Masks, and you’ll feel almost human again.
Face Roller: If you’ve ever been dubious of face rollers, this will change your mind – hangovers are their time to shine. Pop one in the fridge (I love Herbivore’s Rose Quartz version), and while it’s cooling put on a nourishing face oil. Then roll it over all those puffy, sore areas and exhale.
Silk Pillowcase: Silk pillowcases are always a good idea. They magically help you wake up with better hair, they help prevent wrinkles (really!) because they cause less friction on your face and they also just feel really good. But when you have a hangover and are lying down all day, nothing feels quite as magic as that silk against your skin. My current favorite is Bty.Slp, a cruelty-free, toxin-free version made from Peace Silk (where silk cocoons are only collected only after the moth has flown away). It’s a revelation, trust me.
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