Introducing Fancy Another? – a weeklong exploration of what young women's drinking culture in the UK looks like in 2022, with zero percent judgement.
Alcohol has been woven into many of our pandemic experiences. Working from home brought with it drinking from home — and without spendy bar prices, it made sense to treat yourself to one more DIY cocktail in the circumstances.
Personally, my casual drinking is on the rise. I mean, what else has there been to do but indulge in Netflix and chill(ed wine)? The internet helpfully reassured me I wasn't alone, with memes including Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci making cocktails, Barefoot Contessa with her giant martini glass and the man cheersing himself in the mirror all going viral peak-pandemic. If you weren't sent a variation of the "What did you learn in lockdown?" meme, accompanied by a picture of stacked beer glasses, were you even in a WhatsApp group?
Drinking has floated alongside us as we've navigated the 'new normal'. Every event I attended on Zoom was complemented by a tipple. I got on board with plonk in the park post-lockdown, too, and arranged outdoor pub meets until we could socialise inside. With one click of an app and the introduction of table service, drinks were literally on tap. It's sociable, I justified to myself. I'm celebrating being alive!
Now we're being told to limit our social interactions once again, what else is there to do on a cold winter's evening but warm your cockles with a glass of red? At 32, I don't tend to get drunk drunk. I indulge regularly but moderately. The NHS advises against drinking more than 14 units a week on a regular basis but this is easier said than done. Fourteen units is equivalent to almost five 250ml glasses of wine. Though I'm no big boozer, a few glasses of shiraz on weeknights and a relaxing weekend G&T soon add up.
Studies evidencing the negative effects of alcohol on our general health are widespread but regular drinking is reported to have an impact on our appearance, too. This past year I began to wonder what effect the liquid vice was having on my nails, hair and skin in particular. Every problem I aim to improve with my skincare routine (redness, dryness, enlarged pores, puffiness and dullness) is said to be exacerbated by the inflammation caused by my weekly tipples. Cocktails and wine are high in sugar and studies suggest that food and drink with an increased glycemic index may have a role to play in skin issues (which doesn't bode well for my medicinal merlot). Interestingly, clear spirits like gin, vodka and tequila are less laden with sugar and are reported to leave our systems quicker.
Convinced that giving up my weekend treats might do more than any expensive topical treatment ever could, I decided to be a teetotal tester and give up alcohol for four weeks. While I'd usually look to skincare ingredients such as niacinamide to even out my skin tone and hyaluronic acid to hydrate deeply, I was interested in how my skin would fare if moisture were increased internally through abstaining from alcohol, which is known to dehydrate. I often suffer with pesky dry patches at the corners of my mouth (also known as angular cheilitis) and I wondered if they would disappear as my alcohol intake went down to nothing. I'm also prone to blemishes and while my nails grow well, they aren't strong and frequently snap. My hair takes colour well and holds a style but it's fine, oily and flat.
Before giving up entirely, I enlisted some experts for advice. Global skin and wellness expert Marie Reynolds is renowned for her years of experience. "Alcohol is a toxin," she told me, "which is filtered out of our body by the kidneys and the liver. The kidneys are linked to the density and integrity of the hair, and texture and redness of the skin." It may come as no surprise that Marie cites binge drinking as much worse for us than the occasional glass. "Binge drinking bombards the liver, kidneys and spleen, which can reflect on the skin, hair and nails."
Dr Emma Wedgeworth, consultant dermatologist and British Skin Foundation spokesperson, explains: "In the short term, alcohol causes vasodilatation — meaning blood vessels come up closer to the surface of the skin, which can increase redness. Alcohol beverages, particularly red wine, may also release histamine, which can increase itchiness and irritation." It can have indirect effects on the skin, too, such as dehydration. "Many of my patients who suffer with inflammatory skin disease such as acne, rosacea and eczema will find their skin is negatively affected after drinking alcohol." Dr Wedgeworth adds that there is good evidence to suggest drinking over the recommended limit is associated with inflammatory skin conditions such as psoriasis and an increased risk of skin cancers. Like Marie, Dr Wedgeworth says that with higher alcohol intake, serious effects on the liver can impact the skin. "Nutritional deficiencies can also change – adversely affecting the hair and nails." If this were the case, Dr Wedgeworth explains that you would need to stop drinking alcohol for several months to see the benefit.
When I drink regularly I notice that my hyperpigmentation worsens, my dark circles become more prominent, blemishes look angrier and I appear less fresh-faced. Could ditching alcohol entirely really help? "A reduction in moderate alcohol intake could improve dark circles and blemishes," explains Dr Wedgeworth, and it's all to do with the anatomy of the skin. "Skin around the eye area is very thin, making it susceptible to changes in hydration status and sleep disturbance. Alcohol can be pro-inflammatory and has a high sugar content, which means that it may flare up blemishes and acne. Giving up alcohol may improve both of these things fairly quickly." I wondered if four weeks sans alcohol would be enough for me to see results but Marie was positive and encouraged me to eat healthy foods to aid any progress. Marie said that my body would benefit tenfold when sober, too. She mentioned that I may have more energy and get better sleep, both of which can benefit skin in the long run.
Before I began to see any effect on my skin, I was pleased with the energy and mental clarity I felt after the first five days of no post-work wine. I noticed a change in my complexion after the two-week mark. Inspecting my skin closely in the mirror, I was surprised to note a CC cream-esque glow to my face. My skin appeared blurred, though I wasn't wearing any makeup whatsoever. I was more even-skinned but I didn't see a change in the blackheads on my nose or the enlarged pores across my cheeks. The biggest change was under my eyes, where the skin was less purple and sunken, making me appear bright-eyed and awake. I don't suffer from redness usually — so no change there — but I have to say that I do think the occasional spot healed better. While the dry skin around my mouth faded, it hasn't disappeared entirely, so it's back to the drawing board with my GP.
These positive findings — a result of what I'm deeming No Wine November — might also be because my sleep has improved. According to Drinkaware, regularly drinking alcohol can disrupt sleep. Their website reports: "A heavy drinking session of more than six units in an evening can make us spend more time in deep sleep and less time than usual in the important Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage of sleep." REM sleep is important for your body — getting less of it will leave you feeling (and perhaps looking) tired.
While my skin seemed to improve, at four weeks sober I saw very little change in the condition of my hair. It's as fine and oily as ever, although the general feel is slightly smoother. I enlisted celebrity hair and beauty expert David Lopez to share his knowledge. "From my experience, I haven't seen a correlation between oiliness and fine hair in relation to alcohol," he told me. "If you have long hair, the ends are in the condition they are in and won't be changed," he says (bad news for split ends). "New growth could be stronger and healthier but that would only be seen at the root." So who would notice a difference? "Perhaps a very heavy drinker or someone who has had an alcohol addiction over a long period of time." My hopes for a full, bouncy mane in four weeks were dashed.
Disappointingly, I saw the least change in my nails. In fact, I'm pretty certain that they haven't benefited at all and are still flimsy. There may be slightly fewer ridges (often reported to be down to dehydration), though I didn't count many to begin with. If your nails appear dry and flimsy, your best bet is investing in a topical treatment, like a nourishing cuticle oil or a hand and nail cream, and using it regularly.
The biggest benefit, then, was to my skin – and it's enough to make me want to change my alcohol intake in the long term. If you suffer with redness, breakouts, puffiness or from a dull complexion like me, it seems skin loves sobriety. I asked Dr Wedgeworth if it's essential to be alcohol-free forever to continue seeing results. Is there a middle ground between 'on it' and 'sipping tap water'? "Ultimately, alcohol doesn't have any health benefits or positive effects on the skin," she said. "Whether low-moderate alcohol consumption causes long-term damage to the skin is not clear. However, if you want to optimise skin health, minimise alcohol consumption." Marie concurred: "A little bit of what you fancy does you good but moderation is key, so not drinking every night and not bingeing." In general, Marie suggests staying off alcohol for four to six weeks, three times a year if you're interested in the effects on your skin and body, and supporting your diet with a liver supplement.
I'm so pleased with my glowing skin that I've decided to stay alcohol-free for as long as I'm enjoying it. In the future, I'll swap sugary wine for gin and drink water between beverages to aid hydration. I've started taking two Liver Rescue supplements every day and I feel smug about my refreshed face and extra energy. Currently, me and my skin are firmly on the wagon. In fact, we decided to stay there all throughout Christmas and now into 2022.
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