Understanding the Link Between Alcohol and Skin Damage
Around 5% of adults in the US drink heavily(1) and although the dangers that alcohol abuse poses to your liver, heart and other organs are widely publicized, you may not appreciate the impact that heavy drinking has on your skin. Regularly exceeding alcohol recommendations not only takes its toll on your skin’s appearance, but it can also worsen pre-existing skin conditions and leave you vulnerable to skin problems that pose a risk to your health. As alcohol effects on the skin are typically visible long before you suffer lasting organ damage, recognizing the signs of alcohol skin problems early on allows you to address your drinking habits before you cause irreversible harm to your body.
Red Face and Alcohol Intake
The typical image that many of us have of someone who drinks heavily is that they have a red face and there is a lot of truth in this. The scientific explanation is that when you drink alcohol your blood vessels dilate, allowing more blood to flow near the surface of your skin, giving your face a red glow. Some people are more prone to facial flushing though, as due to a genetic mutation they are unable to process alcohol effectively, which not only leads to a change in their complexion, but soon makes them feel dizzy and develop palpitations, nausea and vomiting from only small amounts of alcohol(2). This gene mutation is more common among people of Chinese, Japanese and Korean descent and owing to the consequences of drinking they are less likely to abuse alcohol.
The link between alcohol and complexion isn’t just short lived though, as when you regularly drink large quantities, spider veins appear at your skin’s surface. These unsightly veins are not just limited to your nose and cheeks with alcohol; face spider veins are joined by those on your chest, stomach, arms and hands. While alcohol can directly cause these skin changes, if you are drinking to the extent where you have suffered liver damage, this can also contribute to the appearance of extra veins. As your veins are more prone to damage with alcohol abuse, they become leaky, which can also cause your face and other areas of your skin to appear swollen.
Alcohol and Dry Skin
Dry skin is a common problem and although everything from sun exposure and cold winds to very low fat diets can dry out your skin, your choice of beverage can also strip your skin of moisture. People with high intakes of caffeine and alcohol are more prone to dry skin(3), but a regular coffee habit has less impact than drinking heavily, as alcohol has a greater diuretic effect, which puts you at greater risk of dehydration. When you are dehydrated on the inside, less water is available to moisturize your skin, leading to skin that appears rough, flaky and is more prone to sensitivity and itching. Moderating your alcohol intake by alternating alcoholic beverages with water or a caffeine-free soft drink can help to prevent dehydration, which also means you are less likely to feel the effects of steroids or your drinking the next day.
Alcohol and Skin Ageing
Although it is well-known that smoking causes premature skin ageing, you may not realize that when it comes to heavy consumption of alcohol skin wrinkles are also a risk. This in part relates to the fact that dehydrated skin is more likely to develop fine lines and creases(4), so this is another reason to include soft drinks alongside alcoholic beverages. There is additionally a connection between alcohol and wrinkles because alcohol generates free radicals, which can adversely affect your skin’s structure, making it more prone to lining(5). This may come as a surprise to you, as drinking moderately, particularly when it is red wine, is often said to protect your heart due to its antioxidant content. The disconnect arises because at higher intakes alcohol acts as a pro-oxidant, so actually generates free radicals rather than neutralizing their effects.
Alcohol and Skin Conditions
Another problem that develops with alcohol and your skin is that it can cause flare ups of skin conditions that you may already have, which is particularly true of rosacea and psoriasis. Rosacea affects around 16 million Americans and is characterized by redness across your cheeks, chin, forehead and nose, though can spread to affect your ears, scalp and chest. With time blood vessels appear in rosacea, so it is no surprise that alcohol can exacerbate the problem. However, if left untreated, excess tissue grows in the form of bumps across affected areas, which can have a significant impact on your confidence and self-esteem. Sufferers usually find that red wine is most likely to trigger flare ups and as just a single drink is often enough to bring on symptoms, avoiding alcohol altogether may be necessary to prevent lasting skin changes(6).
Meanwhile, around 7 million people in the US suffer from psoriasis, which usually occurs as raised, red scaly areas on the face, scalp, elbows, palms, back, knees and soles. With alcohol skin rash in psoriasis is usually worse in men who drink heavily and this can reduce the effectiveness of treatment(7). Due to the link between alcohol and psoriasis, as you might expect the skin condition is more common among alcoholics and achieving abstinence can reduce the severity of symptoms. However, if you are female and have psoriasis, you should also be aware that alcohol can interact severely with some skin treatments, which poses a danger if you conceive.
Heavy Drinking and Nutrition
The health of your skin is just as dependent on a supply of vitamins and minerals as any other part of your body. When you become dependent on alcohol though, your nutritional intake can suffer, placing you at risk of micronutrient deficiencies, which may arise due to a poor diet or altered uptake and metabolism of nutrients(8). For instance, if you neglect your diet and place less emphasis on fruit and vegetables, you are likely to miss out on vitamin C, which is important for collagen production, the protein that keeps your skin supple. Alcohol also interferes with the absorption of the fat soluble vitamins A and E, which both help to protect your skin from damage. Meanwhile, in alcoholism skin can also suffer, as metabolism of alcohol depletes levels of B vitamins that otherwise promote a healthy circulation to deliver additional nutrients to your skin.
Alcohol and Bruising
Besides the extra knocks you may experience while under the influence of drink, there are further reasons why you tend to bruise more easily when you drink frequently. This is most likely an issue for heavy drinkers and ties into the impact that alcohol has on your nutritional status. Indeed, there is documented evidence that extensive bruising can arise among alcoholics as a result of scurvy, caused by a severe deficiency of vitamin C(9). Bruising arises because without enough vitamin C to support collagen production your blood vessels become fragile and damage easily, allowing blood to collect beneath your skin. Similarly, a deficiency of vitamin K, which is needed for blood clotting, can also leave you more vulnerable to bruising.
Alcohol and Skin Infections
Another of the skin signs of alcoholism is that you are more prone to infections. Even just a single drink transiently reduces immune function, which can become a permanent feature when you drink regularly, placing you at risk of skin infections(10). Alcohol can directly impair your immune system, but can also do so indirectly if you develop deficiencies of vitamin C and zinc, both of which help to maintain the strength of your immunity. Another reason why skin infections occur more often is that your skin usually acts as a barrier to the entry of microbes, but when your skin becomes dry and breaks down, bacteria and fungi are able to enter the upper layers of your skin and take hold.
Skin Cancer and Alcohol
While heavy drinking is a risk factor for cancers that affect your mouth and digestive system, you may not know that your alcohol intake can also influence your risk of skin cancer. This is the case for both malignant melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers, with research showing that drinking more than 7 alcoholic beverages each week makes either form of skin cancer significantly more likely, as does a higher alcohol intake over your lifetime(11). For someone who exceeds recommended guidelines alcoholic skin cancer may occur more frequently due to taking greater risks in the sun, having dry skin that is more susceptible to damage or a low intake of dietary antioxidants that otherwise protect the DNA in skin cells from UV rays.
Yellow Skin Symptoms
Finally, while it is tempting to mask discolored skin, you should do so with caution if you abuse alcohol. This is because if you develop a yellow skin tone, this is sometimes a sign of jaundice, indicating that heavy alcohol use has already damaged your liver(12). Instead of covering up a yellow hue, you should always seek medical advice and investigate treatment options to help you give up your habit.
Written By: Amy Linton
- 1 “Alcohol – data, trends and maps,” CDC, accessed September 14 2014
- 2 “Drinking until you’re red in the face,” University of Michigan, accessed September 14 2014
- 3 “Combating dry skin,” Saint Louis University, accessed September 14 2014
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- 5 “Antioxidants and skin care – media hyper or wonder drug?” Vanderbilt University, accessed September 14 2014
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- 7 “How cigarettes and alcohol affect psoriasis,” National Psoriasis Foundation, accessed September 14 2014
- 8 “Alcohol and nutrition,” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, accessed September 14 2014
- 9 Ian Fraser & Mark Dean, “Extensive bruising secondary to vitamin C deficiency,” BMJ Case Reports, (2009):bcr08.2008.0750, accessed September 14 2014
- 10 “Alcohol and your health after SCI,” University of Washington, accessed September 14 2014
- 11 J Kubo et al, “Alcohol consumption and risk of melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer in the Women’s Health Initiative,” Cancer Causes and Control, 25(2014):1, accessed September 14 2014
- 12 “Jaundice in the adult patient,” American Family Physician, accessed September 14 2014
- Shelley Kramer provides Healthy Alternatives for Safety Conscious Product Informationon her website, Healthy-Communications