This article contains general information, and should not be understood as medical advice. Each individual's circumstances are different and should be discussed with a medical practitioner. It was written for Dry January but has been updated for Dry July.
In my early 20s, my friends and I hosted weekly parties at various clubs. My job was to promote our events, then party along with the guests. It was fun at first, but after a few years of late nights and constant drinking I’d had enough, so I quit and didn’t touch a drop of alcohol for the next 24 months.
During those two years my skin never looked better. My adult acne was less severe, my pores appeared tighter, and my skin glowed. However, when I did finally drink again, I was reminded of how much I love the stuff. The glorious taste of a crisp, dry white wine; a margarita's perfect juxtaposition of sweet and sour; the comforting warmth of a coffee with a shot of Baileys on a cold winter's day. Alcohol became my vice of choice once again and I was totally okay with that, until Facebook presented me with a spot-free, glowing, even-skinned and completely teetotal picture of myself, and I wondered whether cutting out alcohol could make me look as good now as I did a decade ago. It’s then that I vowed to give up my 18-units-a-week habit (doctors recommend drinking no more than 10 units a week) and go alcohol-free for a month, in the hope that it would turn my skin around…
After an intense month of socialising, where I racked up an average of 30 units a week (that’s around 8-10 cocktails), it’s safe to say that when I caught a glimpse of myself on 1st January, my skin had seen better days. The redness around my nose and cheeks looked like smeared lipstick from the night before. My pores looked even bigger than normal and my eyelids were puffy, while the skin under my eyes appeared sallow. I’d woken up with a rash across my forehead, the lines from my nose to my mouth looked deeper, and I'd developed dry patches around my mouth, although my skin is naturally oily. It was obvious that even my favourite serum would have a hard time saving me. So I asked the experts for their opinion.
"The body views alcohol as a poisonous substance so our prime detoxifying organ, the liver, is charged with ridding it from our system," explains Lorna Driver-Davies, senior nutritional therapist at Wild Nutrition. "During this process the liver metabolises the alcohol into an even more toxic substance called acetaldehyde and in order to make it less harmful a host of nutrients, minerals and antioxidants are needed. However, those same nutrients and antioxidants also play a vital role in supporting our skin’s repair and renewal process to slow down ageing, prevent breakouts, nourish and hydrate. Since our skin is not a vital organ, our body prioritises ridding the system of toxins over giving the skin the vitamins and minerals it needs."
Aesthetic doctor Maryam Zamani elaborates: "Alcohol has been linked to a variety of skin disorders, including psoriasis and acne, and research suggests that it’s also associated with the development of rosacea, particularly in women. Even if you don’t develop these conditions, all it takes is one night of drinking to instigate inflammation that can result in flushing, increased pore size, puffiness and dehydration the next day, and there is really only so much your skincare can do. Ideally your lifestyle and skincare should work in synergy with one another for maximum benefit."
Once week two rolled around, that 'rash' had turned into inflamed angry spots, the redness at the centre of my face seemed worse than the week before, my skin looked dull and you could probably see my pores from outer space. Needless to say, my confidence took a bit of a nose dive. I’m used to my monthly cycle being accompanied by hormonal spots and I try not to let them stop me in my tracks, but add in skin flushing, huge pores and a lacklustre complexion and even this pretty outgoing individual found it tough to make eye contact with strangers.
Again, I looked to Dr Zamani for advice. "It may seem like things get worse before they get better when it comes to the effects of alcohol on the skin," she told me. "Simply giving up alcohol doesn’t account for all the toxins you’ve been flooding your body with, or the sleep disruption you’ve been experiencing. Every night that you go to bed after drinking, you negatively affect sleep quality, diminishing the body's ability to conduct adequate repair overnight. This affects the moisture levels in your skin and lowers its pH balance, weakening the protective acid mantle."
As well as this, Dr Zamani tells me that the sugar in your favourite cocktail or glass of wine could potentially play a part in acne development, something dermatological research corroborates. "This can elevate insulin, which in turn can cause a hormonal imbalance that may also be seen on the skin. Sadly, it takes time for all of these imbalances to regulate themselves," says Zamani.
As much as I wanted to book in for a magical rejuvenating skin treatment, I stuck to my regular skincare routine in order to make sure that whatever the end result, it would be down to the elimination of alcohol. Thankfully, this was the week in which I saw my skin turn around. With a somewhat cleaner system, my skincare seemed to be working better, too. My angry-looking acne was subdued and my pores definitely looked smaller. The only area on my face that saw no change were my eyes. They were still sallow and tired-looking.
I asked Dr Zamani why this area is so problematic for me. "At just 0.05mm thick, the skin around the eyes is the most delicate on our bodies, making it particularly vulnerable in times of 'stress'," she explained. "With a decreased ability to produce sebum, this area is more prone to moisture loss, and over time, both elastin and collagen production wanes too. This is without the effects of alcohol consumption. So if you factor in the skin’s impaired ability to repair itself, it’s inevitable that your eye area will look tired, sallow, sunken and/or puffy as a result."
I hit the sweet spot at the beginning of this week. My skin looked pretty good. The kind of good where you want to go out as much as possible, schedule a Bumble date and take some new Instagram pics to capitalise on your good fortune. So that’s exactly what I did, and three days later I caught a bug and found myself in bed, looking and feeling like I did on New Year’s Day.
I must admit, going cold turkey after all the drinking I’d done during December did not just do wonders for my skin but (most likely thanks to the better quality sleep I was getting) it also had a positive impact on my mind and energy levels. If I hadn’t caught that bug and been reminded of how many factors are involved in the health and appearance of skin, I would probably have made the decision to carry on being teetotal for a while longer.
Now, I’m inclined to take more of a balanced approach to drinking. I've made the decision to ditch hormone-disrupting alcohol like wine in favour of non-insulin spiking options, such as tequila. Plus, having heard that our bodies view alcohol as a poisonous substance, I see myself drinking less going forward, too. I’ve also started taking supplements and I’m attempting to eliminate refined sugar and refined carbohydrates from my diet so that when I feel like it, I can drink guilt-free.