In today’s health-conscious atmosphere, few think that alcohol is great for you, even among drinkers. At the same time, we’ve all heard the warnings about alcohol, sugar, smoking, and the various known bad habits of the modern world, leading many drinkers to think that it’s also not a big deal either. How bad is alcohol really for the skin, and your general health?
Is drinking generally bad? Unsurprisingly, yes. How bad? Like many things, it depends on how much. There is a big difference in risk between a heavy drinker and the occasional or moderate drinker. One of the surprising findings of alcohol is that consumption is very skewed in its distribution. According to one study, the top 10 percentile of drinkers consumes more than 3 times the rest of the population combined.1 More than 50% of people drink not at all, or very small amounts of alcohol. About a third of people drink, what people call casually or socially, at 2 to 15 drinks per week. Then at the tail end of the distribution, are those that have the attitude of:
One does not simply go to a bar to have “a couple of drinks.”
This extreme distribution is consistent across numerous studies in different countries.2 The more serious dangers associated with excessive drinking such as acute alcohol poisoning, risky behavior like drinking and driving, and in the long term, liver cirrhosis, are much more common among heavy drinkers.
One of the lessons of these studies is that averages don’t always accurately reflect reality. While the more serious dangers of alcohol are very real, they will not correspond with the observed reality of the majority of people who do drink. So, with that warning out of the way, let’s assume for this article that you’re a social drinker – not a “problematic drinker” – however murky and fluid that distinction may sometimes be.3
How Bad is Moderate Drinking?
Over 85% of adults drink to some degree.4 This isn’t surprising given how much social support there is for this habit. Unlike smoking, which has fallen from the grace of “cool cowboy habit” into something between “unfortunate habit” and “disgusting polluter,” alcohol remains an acceptable social lubricant both in private and in business settings across most cultures. When the majority of adults drink, while we know that alcohol isn’t the healthiest habit, it can often tacitly make us feel more confident that “it can’t be that bad” since everybody does it. Is it as harmless as you think though?
In terms of health, surprisingly little is known about the effects of moderate drinking, defined as one drink a day for women, and two drinks a day for a man (one drink being 5oz of wine or 12oz of beer).5 This is because there are many factors concerning health, including exercise, diet, and other habits which are almost impossible to isolate. The correlation between drinking and health is generally negative, but this may be due to other factors associated with alcohol such as engaging in risky behavior as well. Heavy drinking is unequivocally bad both in the short and long term. On the other hand, the effects of moderate drinking on overall health are still not well established.
The Side-Effects of Alcohol Consumption
The most noticeable side-effect of moderate alcohol consumption is hangover and dehydration. It might not be the first thing you think of, but alcohol also has an immediate effect on the appearance of your skin. On a longer timespan, the effects of moderate drinking over the years will leave a more permanent mark behind as well. Let’s look at all the effects that alcohol has on the body:
- Alcohol is dehydrating. It is a powerful diuretic, suppressing vasopressin, a hormone that helps regulate the water retention of cells.
- Alcohol damages the blood vessels. It causes small blood vessels to widen, which is a common trigger if you have rosacea.
- Alcohol causing bloating. Leading to bloating in your face the next morning.
- Alcohol has inflammatory effects:6
- Many conditions that are alcohol-induced produce chronic inflammation
- Inflammation can play a wide-ranging factor in brain damage, immune system, microbiome, and recovery.
- Alcohol has many visible effects on the skin:
- The enlarged appearance of pores
- Fine lines and wrinkles
- Alcohol ages you faster:
- Dehydrates your skin
- It stresses your system, and in particular, the liver. While the liver is working hard, it’s spewing off free radicals, which can have damaging effects.
- It can create permanent blood vessel breaks, making purple veins in the face area prominent
- Alcohol will affect your sleep quantity and quality – which will age you
Besides being high in empty calories, drinking often leads to eating more unhealthy foods
The overall conclusions are unsurprising but still revealing.
- Don’t drink excessively. It has horrible consequences on your health, both in the short and long-term.
- Slipping into the “excessive zone” is not hard; moderate drinking is defined as less than 2 drinks a day for men, and 1 drink a day for women by the CDC and the Dietary Guidelines of America.7 This likely means that the vast majority of drinkers will get here some of the time, but it’s a warning that most of us could reduce our intake.
- The long-term effects of moderate drinking are murky because it is hard to isolate drinking from other habits, many of which are associated with drinking.
- There are numerous negative side-effects of alcohol consumption, but the total effect over the long-term is difficult to isolate.
- Drinking has many damaging properties that affect the skin, even in the short-term.
- Dehydration, sleep quality, and added free radicals can affect the skin indirectly.
- Others affect the skin directly: Discoloration, dullness, fine lines and wrinkles, and broken blood vessels.