The toll that alcohol takes on both your body and on your relationships is, by now, quite well-known. What may come as a surprise, however, is the impact that alcohol can have on your skin. Not only that, but your skin is often the first and most accurate barometer of the effect drinking is having on your health, especially in the early stages of alcohol use disorder (AUD). But how, exactly, does alcohol affect the skin and why?
If you have any experience at all with alcohol, then you’re probably already quite familiar with the tell-tale red face that often accompanies even moderate amounts of alcohol. But the flush isn’t just about partying too hard in a hot and crowded room.
It’s actually a sign of the effect that alcohol in any quantity has on your circulatory system. You see, alcohol is a top-notch vasodilator, meaning that exposure to alcohol causes the blood vessels to dilate or expand. It is that rapid increase in blood flow, especially at the surface levels of the skin, that gives you that distinctive facial flush when you drink (1). Odds are, you’re also going to feel excessively hot and you may even notice that your heart rate is accelerating. All of these are further signs of the immediate impact that alcohol exerts on your circulatory system, which is a principal reason why physicians warn against alcohol consumption in persons with certain preexisting conditions, particularly cardiovascular disease.
Not only is alcohol a powerful vasodilator, but it is also a strong inflammatory agent. And the skin is perhaps the first place where you’re going to spot the signs of inflammation. Once again, however, it’s primarily the blood vessels that are to blame. The inflammatory properties of alcohol cause the smaller vessels and capillaries to leak and break. When this happens in the superficial veins beneath the skin, the result is the appearance of “spider veins.”
This is the same mechanism that produces the notorious “gin blossoms” around the nose of chronic alcohol abusers. But alcohol-induced spider veins can appear almost anywhere, particularly on the face and chest. Clinicians often refer to such skin changes, and particularly the proliferation of spider veins on the face and upper body, as the “stigmata of alcohol misuse” because such dermatological changes are so strongly and closely aligned with prolonged alcohol abuse (1, 2).
One of the most significant impacts of over-indulgence in alcohol is dehydration. In fact, a primary reason you may be plagued with a dire hangover after a night of heavy drinking is because of the severely dehydrating effects of excess alcohol consumption (3). The reason that alcohol, even in limited quantities, is so dehydrating is because alcohol is a diuretic. Think about it: when you drink, you probably find yourself sprinting to the bathroom far more frequently than usual.
When your body is deprived of the fluids it needs to function properly, not only will your internal organs pay the price, so too will your skin. The dry skin that results from a dehydrated body is far more prone to the development of fine lines and wrinkles. In the end, that can lead to premature aging, as your desiccated tissues lose their fullness, buoyancy, and dewy, youthful glow.
If you’ve ever drunk to excess, then you probably noticed a lot of unexplained bruises on your skin. That’s probably not just because you may have taken bumps and tumbles you don’t remember, but also because your skin is simply more vulnerable to bruising due to the effects of the alcohol. As we’ve seen, exposure to alcohol both increases blood flow and causes inflammation that can lead the small vessels to leak and break. The tiniest trauma can lead those inflamed vessels to bleed beneath the surface layers of the skin, causing some nasty bruises.
Jaundice is perhaps one of the most serious and most frightening skin symptoms associated with alcohol abuse. That’s because, unlike the symptoms described above, which primarily appear in the early stages of AUD, when harms can be reversed before they evolve into a serious and chronic health condition, jaundice is a sign that significant organ damage has already occurred. Jaundice refers to the distinctive yellowing of the skin and eyes (the sclera) which often accompanies severe liver damage or liver failure (4).
To be sure, there are many conditions unrelated to alcohol misuse that can cause jaundice. However, when jaundice accompanies prolonged alcohol abuse, that is often an important indicator of alcohol-induced organ damage or chronic disease, such as alcoholic hepatitis or cirrhosis of the liver (4).
In addition to the increased risk of organ damage, there is mounting evidence that the inflammatory properties of alcohol can substantially increase the risk of cancer. While alcohol is most often associated with the development of cancers of the liver and digestive tract, there is also evidence that alcohol can substantially increase the risk of certain types of skin cancer, including melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers (5).
Despite this increasing evidence of the relationship between alcohol consumption and skin cancer, though, the exact mechanism isn’t quite clear. Researchers suspect that this could not only be due to the inflammatory effects of alcohol but also potentially to lifestyle factors linking chronic alcohol abuse and heightened skin cancer risk behaviors (i.e. inadequate sun protection or skin cancer screenings).
Exacerbating Skin Conditions
Not only can alcohol significantly impact healthy skin, but it can also substantially worsen pre-existing skin conditions. There’s substantial evidence showing that alcohol can dramatically worsen conditions such as rosacea and psoriasis (2, 6, 7). And, once again, it all seems to boil down to inflammation. Skin conditions such as these are usually inflammatory, and when you introduce a substance that increases the inflammation levels in the body, you have a recipe for disaster. However, the worsening of these conditions not only increases the physical and emotional discomfort of these disorders but also increases the risk of potentially lethal complications of uncontrolled disease. Poorly managed psoriasis, for example, can lead to the development of life-threatening infections, autoimmune disorders, and even malignancies (8).
Alcohol abuse and dependency can impact your quality of life in many ways, from your relationships to your physical health. But you may have been surprised to learn that alcohol can also wreak havoc on your skin. Understanding how alcohol affects the skin, though, can be an important tool for recognizing the impact that drinking may be having on your overall health, from your organs to your blood vessels and beyond. That may just be the motivation you need to seek help because stopping drinking can halt the progression of the damage being done to your skin, and to your internal systems as well. Best of all, getting sober means that you may even be able to reverse some, perhaps even most, of the harms that have already been done! If you are struggling with alcohol dependency, Bayshore’s team of dedicated experts can help you forge your own path to sobriety. With our personalized and holistic approach to recovery, we can help you return to the happy, healthy, alcohol-free life you want and deserve.