Alcohol and Your Skin, Explained

Trying to cut down on your drinking? Here's a reason to keep going, as we look into why cutting down throughout the year can pay dividends for your complexion.

Words: Amelia Jean Jones

Woman with nice skin

Looking in the mirror, you’ll probably see the dark circles and dull, sickly pallor that sit alongside the headache and general lethargy the morning after the night before. What you might not realise is that the hangover for your skin can be longer lasting – no matter the amount you drank. We asked the experts to talk us through what alcohol is doing to your body’s largest organ. 

“When you have a drink, your liver metabolises alcohol with an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase into a chemical compound called acetaldehyde,” says Daniel Clarke, registered nutritionist and lead sustainable nutrition executive at Huel. “A class-one toxin, its accumulation causes many of the negative effects of alcohol including immediate flushing or redness.”

“Alcohol worsens redness in those with rosacea through histamine [chemicals in the body which fight allergens] release,” explains Dr Shaaira Nasir, Consultant Dermatologist at sk:n. “It’s also known to flare inflammatory skin conditions like psoriasis, eczema , seborrheic dermatitis and hives.” Clarke adds that one reason for this inflammation is that alcohol upregulates inflammatory cells and the cells that activate them.

“In addition, once absorbed, alcohol is distributed throughout the body and excreted through the lipid layers of the skin, leading to barrier damage and increased permeability of external agents that can be harmful,” he explains. In fact, studies have linked alcohol to an increase in conditions including skin cancers and infections.

If you’re thirsty – does that mean your skin is too? Absolutely. Alcohol is a diuretic, meaning it causes water loss in the skin. “The result is dehydrated, dry skin, which increases the appearance of wrinkles,” says skincare expert, Lisa Franklin.

And that’s not all that’s happening to make skin appear older. “Alcohol’s high sugar content causes glycation – a process which hardens our collagen causing the skin to age faster. Excess intake can also cause DNA damage resulting in skin ageing,” says Nasir.

A 2019 study demonstrated that heavy drinking for more than eight weeks was associated with an increase in upper facial lines, under-eye puffiness, lines at the corners of the mouth, midface volume loss, and visible blood vessels.

“This same surge of sugar in the bloodstream produces a spike in insulin and the hormone androgen to break it down, which increases oil production,” says Nasir. The result? Blackheads, whiteheads and/or acne can form.

So how can you reduce the damage? It’s simple, says Clarke: “Less ethanol, and its toxic byproducts in the body, means less damage caused. Repeated exposure to alcohol over many years can result in irreversible effects and the higher the frequency and volume of alcohol consumed, the more likely this is to occur.”

The question on all barfly’s lips: do you need to abstain entirely? Happily, no. “The ability to metabolise and excrete alcohol from the body varies from person to person – which is why some of us get drunk more readily than others – but it is possible to enjoy alcohol without causing lasting harm,” says Clarke.

“The official recommendation for alcohol consumption is no more than 14 units of alcohol a week, spread across three days or more. To put that into context, a single shot of vodka is one unit and six glasses of either wine, or pints of beer at 4% ABV, is 14 units.”

If you think a kebab at the end of the night or loaf of toast in the morning will mop it up then you might be disappointed. “Avocados, leafy greens and bananas are rich in potassium, which help your skin and body to recover from dehydration,” says Franklin but, despite research, there is little scientific evidence that these can reduce the effects of drinking. 

“Keeping hydrated with water throughout the night or before bed will help to hydrate your skin and body,” she suggests. Clarke recommends alternating between rounds of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages throughout the evening.

As with most things, moderation is key. “It’s recommended to spread alcohol consumption over several days – which is something that statistics show happened organically during the Covid pandemic – rather than having your weekly intake in one day,” says Clarke. “Think of it like a bath filling and threatening to overflow: if the liver can't metabolise the alcohol quickly enough it can accumulate and cause damage.”

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