Bad Skin? Blame It On The Alcohol

Photographed by Aaron Richter.
For plenty of us, there's nothing more enjoyable than pouring ourselves a glass of wine or a strong cocktail at the end of a long workday. On weekends, some of us enjoy multiple mimosas over brunch, and tie one off with some friends on a Saturday night — hangovers be damned! But upon looking at our splotchy, hungover faces in the cold, fluorescent morning light of our bathrooms, we've often wondered: What exactly is all that booze doing to my skin?

Alcohol is kind of a double whammy — it's forcing out water and making it harder for your body to rehydrate itself.

Dr. Whitney Bowe
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It won't surprise you to learn that alcohol, like many of the other things we love in life, is pretty harsh on the skin. First, drinking basically makes it impossible for your body to stay hydrated. "Alcohol is a diuretic, which means it causes you to pee more," says NYC-based dermatologist Whitney Bowe, MD. "But it also hinders the production of the hormone vasopressin. That hormone helps you reabsorb water. So alcohol is kind of a double whammy, in that it's forcing out water and making it harder for your body to rehydrate itself." And we all know what dehydrated skin looks like — tired and sallow, with more pronounced fine lines, wrinkles, and pores.
Aside from dehydrating your face, alcohol decreases the body's level of vitamin A, which is a powerful antioxidant. "It's important for cell renewal and cell turnover, and it gives you a healthy glow," says Dr. Bowe. She says a lack of vitamin A can make it harder for your skin to fight off free radicals, which can do damage to the lipid layer (a.k.a., the moisture center) of your skin.

A majority of rosacea patients say that alcohol is the number-one trigger of their rosacea.

Dr. Whitney Bowe
What's more is that alcohol acts as a vasodilator, meaning it opens up the blood vessels — which explains why you get a flush when you've had a few too many. If your vessels over-dilate, they can burst, leading to permanent spider veins on your face. The dilation is also what leads to a puffy complexion. But the worst side effect really hits home for those who suffer from rosacea: "A majority of rosacea patients say that alcohol is the number-one trigger of their rosacea," Dr. Bowe says.
On top of all this, there are the sugar and salt you often find in large amounts in mixed drinks. "Sugar has been shown to trigger the hormone IGF-1, which causes an over-production of oil in your skin," Dr. Bowe says. "It also leads to inflammation." Salt, of course, leads to bloating and undereye bags.
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The good news: Most of your skin functions return to normal once you start to rehydrate post-bender. "The texture of your skin is going to look healthier. Your pores will look like they're getting smaller again," Dr. Bowe says. "You'll also see your undereye bags start to de-puff as your blood vessels go back to their normal size." Your body will begin to replenish its antioxidant stores, which is why it's important to be mindful about what you eat while you recover.
If you've been a "heavy drinker" (which Dr. Bowe characterizes as having more than one drink per day) and you stop drinking for a few days, you'll see better tone and clarity in your skin. You'll have less free-radical damage, and you'll likely even lose a little weight (which results in better tone in your face). Plus, your skin will stay hydrated, making those lines and pores appear smaller.

The keys to minimizing alcohol's negative effects on your face? Moderation and being choosy about what you drink.

The keys to minimizing alcohol's negative effects on your face are moderation and being choosy about what you drink. "You're better off with straight vodka over dark liquors," Dr. Bowe says. But the best drink you can have is a glass of red wine. "Red wines have resveratrol in them, which is a potent antioxidant," she says. One glass every evening is actually preferable to limiting your drinking to the weekends and loading up then. "Your liver can't metabolize a high volume of alcohol, so you're actually doing more damage," Dr. Bowe says. "You're much better off moderately drinking every night."
If you're going to have more than one drink in a night, though, she advises to eat with your booze, as the food will slow the release of sugar. And make sure to follow the age-old advice of downing a glass of water between drinks. That way, you can have your cake and eat it too — or rather, your liquor and decent skin.
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