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How Alcohol can affect our skin

Whether we have a regular glass of wine, the odd gin and tonic or tend to save these or other favourite drinks up for the weekend, the alcohol in all of them is absorbed into our blood within minutes of our first sip and begins quickly, to affect almost every cell and organ in our body, including our skin. Nobody is saying that we should never drink again, but to limit the damage to our skin, there are some basic facts that are well worth grasping.

The first is to understand that our body views alcohol as a poison, which can only be made ‘safe’ by passing it through our liver. Here, the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase breaks alcohol down, first into another highly toxic compound called ‘acetaldehyde’ and then into the safe compound called acetate, which can be passed out of our systems in our urine.  

The second point to appreciate is that our livers can only perform this detoxifying task at a rate of one unit of alcohol per hour. When we drink more than this, alcohol levels in our blood rise, triggering everything from inflammation to reduced levels of immunity; and this happens throughout our body’s cells and organs, including, our muscles, heart, and blood vessels, as well, as mentioned, our skin.  

This makes knowing our units and then carefully controlling the number we consume, a crucial part of our ongoing skincare routine. You can check out how to work out units in your drinks, at the end of the blog, meanwhile, here’s exactly why keeping tabs on alcohol is so vital for our skin, both inside and out.

Ageing Effects of Alcohol on Skin  

We are all aware that our skin naturally changes as we move through the decades, a process resulting from a combination of the years we have lived and outside factors including exposure to sun and pollution. As research over the last two decades reveals, the frequency and amount of alcohol we drink also has an impact.  

Lines and Wrinkles  

Dermatologists have revealed that alcohol affects special cells in our skin known as ‘fibroblasts’, which play a key role in making collagen, the protein-rich fibres in skin that give it bounce, resilience and therefore, it’s youthful appearance. As collagen levels begin to fall, our skin is more prone to fine lines and wrinkles. Research on women shows drinking eight or more units of alcohol per week leads to significantly more lines on the forehead, and around the eyes compared to having four drinks per week, or fewer.  

Volume Loss

In the same research, even women drinking four alcohol containing beverages each week reported significant loss of volume in their face, caused by the loss of fat, especially in the cheeks. This fat loss makes us look visible older and as the study revealed, the effect becomes more pronounced as the number of drinks we have each week, increases.    

Sun Damage  

Alcohol has been shown revealed to reduce the amount of protective, antioxidants in our skin, which help to defend it against the suns damaging ultraviolet (UV). This leaves our skin more prone to the ageing effects of UV rays, which include age spots and wrinkles.  

Puffy Eyes  

A puffy appearance under our eyes is a common feature post-alcohol consumption and can have an ageing effect on our appearance. Researchers report puffy eyes to be a significant problem in women having eight or more units of alcohol per week. Experts think this is probably down to disrupted blood flow in the lower layers of our skin and possibly also, the dehydrating effects of alcohol.  

Dark Circles  

Although a common perception is that alcohol helps us to nod off, in fact, it disrupts the ‘deep sleep’ part of our sleep cycle, leaving us tired on waking. Research on over 3,000 women age 18 to 75 years from Asian, black, Hispanic and white backgrounds reveals those who recorded more than eight drinks a week, reported significantly more dark circles under their eyes, compared with those drinking four drinks or less each week.  

Flushing, Redness and Open Pores  

When alcohol is absorbed into our blood, it has the effect of relaxing blood vessels, which allows more blood to flow to our tissues and our skin. This can lead to flushing, rosacea and even affect the size of pores in our skin.  

Flushing

If you think back to the last time you blushed, you will remember a sensation of warmth and your skin becoming visibly reddened. Perhaps this was sparked by pride, embarrassment, a food sensitivity, or a menopause related hot flush. Flushing can also be triggered by alcohol because it leads to blood vessels dilating, including those in the face, which increases blood flow and causes redness. Flushing is even more of a problem if genetically, we have low levels of ‘alcohol dehydrogenase’ in our livers, the enzyme, which breaks down alcohol. If you know that alcohol affects you in this way, it is particularly important to keep alcohol to a minimum when looking after your skin.  

Rosacea 

Pronounced ‘roe-zay-she-uh’, this is a common skin condition where blood vessels in our skin become visible to the naked eye. Even if you are not initially affected by flushing when you have a drink, there is some evidence that over time, regular drinking may up your chances of developing rosacea, which leads to long-term reddening of our cheeks, nose, chin, and forehead. Skin experts have discovered too, a link between drinking alcohol and the development of acne rosacea, where small, pus-filled bumps also develop.  

Red Nose and Open Pores  

Known by doctors as ‘rhinophyma’, a regular average consumption of 14 units of alcohol per week has been linked with this skin problem, which is characterised by skin on the nose growing thicker, sebaceous glands becoming enlarged and a noticeable red colour in the nose developing.  

Sunburn and Skin Cancer  

Experts tell us that drinking alcohol regularly may be tied to a heightened risk of sunburn and the most common types of skin cancer. This they say could be because our body works to repair DNA damage caused by the sun, but alcohol interferes with this process, in part by reducing levels of protective carotenes in our skin.  

Carotenes include the bright yellow, red, and orange pigments found in vegetables and fruits like spinach, broccoli, tomatoes and carrots. A good intake of these combined with no, or a very low intake of alcohol, may help to lower the risk of sunburn and sun-induced skin cancer.  

Psoriasis, Eczema and Skin Infections  

If you already experience problems with psoriasis and eczema, then avoiding alcohol is wise because good evidence links drinking with making these skin conditions worse. Alcohol is also known to dampen down our immune system, making our skin more prone to infections.  

Hand Gels and Perfumes  

It is not just drinking alcohol that affects our skin, applying it directly within lotions and gels can also have an effect. Added for its antiseptic and disinfectant properties in hand gels and for its preservative effect in perfumery, for many, alcohol proves to be an irritant, probably by altering the barrier role of the skin, allowing it to enter the lower layers, where it triggers inflammation leading to dryness, soreness, and chapping.

How To Work Out The Units of Alcohol In Your Drink  

A unit can be worked out by multiplying the total millilitres in your drink by its percentage of ‘Alcohol By Volume’ (ABV), and dividing this number by 1,000.  

This may sound complex, but a few examples help to show how this works.  

Written by:  
Amanda Ursell
BSc Nutrition
Registered Nutritionist AFN
PG Dip Dietetics,  
Associateship King's College (AKC)

Twitter: @AmandaUrsell
Web: amandaursell.com

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