Alcohol can make you look older, but what else does it do to your skin?

Dr Haran Sivapalan

Excessive alcohol can age your skin, but it can do other nasty things too. Dr. Haran Sivapalan explains.

Most of us like a drink, whether it be a bit of wine with dinner or a nice aperitif beforehand. But have you ever stopped to think about what it could be doing to your skin? As much as you may like it, it could play a role in skin aging and various other skin conditions.

One recent study from Brown University suggests that drinking white wine is associated an increased risk of rosacea – an inflammatory skin condition that causes redness and flushing of the face. The study, which followed the drinking patterns of 82,737 women between 1991 and 2005, found that those who put away five or more glasses of white wine a week increased their risk of developing rosacea by 49%. There was bad news for liquor drinkers too – those having 5 or more drinks per week were at a 28% increased risk of developing rosacea.

And it isn’t just rosacea. Excessive alcohol consumption has also been linked to a heightened risk of psoriasis, skin cancer and certain skin infections. Of course, many people do not drink to excess, instead enjoying a tipple from time to time. But even this may negatively impact the appearance of skin. So, is it time to swap the glass of prosecco for a lime and soda?


Effects of alcohol on the skin

We all know that alcohol has the potential to damage various organs, from the liver to the brain. Unsurprisingly, alcohol can also damage the body’s largest organ – the skin. One way in which alcohol can do this is by causing dehydration.

As multiple trips to the pub loo might tell you, alcohol is a diuretic. This means it increases the rate at which you pass water as urine. Specifically, alcohol inhibits the release of ADH (anti-diuretic hormone). ADH normally acts in the kidney to reabsorb water back into the bloodstream, keeping the body appropriately hydrated. When ADH release is suppressed by alcohol, less water is reabsorbed. This can lead to dehydration.

Water and moisture give the skin its firmness and bounce. By contrast, dehydrated skin can appear less supple and wrinkled. Drinking water between alcoholic drinks may be one way to counteract this dehydrating effect.

Alcohol can also damage the skin in other ways. There is lots of evidence suggesting that alcohol stimulates the release of inflammatory molecules called ‘cytokines’. These cytokines can cause local inflammation of the skin, causing the degradation of collagen, excess production of keratinocytes and signs of aging. Indeed, one study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that frequent drinking of alcoholic beverages led to people looking older than they actually were.

The pro-inflammatory cytokines can also make blood vessels more ‘leaky’, allowing more water to move out into skin tissue. It’s possible that this process causes sagginess and puffiness of the skin.


Red wine

But wait a minute; didn’t I hear that drinking alcoholic drinks such as red wine carries a whole host of health benefits and is good for my skin? Well, there is some evidence that moderate consumption (1-2 glasses per day) of red wine is linked to a reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases, such as heart attack or stroke. Topical formulas (creams and lotions) made from red wine extract may also improve the appearance of the skin. But, note, that this not the same as drinking wine.

Moreover, the health benefits of red wine may not be due to its alcohol content, per se. Rather, the cardiovascular and skin benefits of red wine are likely due to its rich content of ‘polyphenols’ (molecules such as resveratrol). In support of this, studies show that those drinking ‘de-alcoholised’ or alcohol free red wine also receive health benefits, as they are still ingesting these polyphenol molecules.


Take home point

So, should you give up alcohol completely for the sake of better skin? As with anything in life, it’s about weighing up the risks and benefits. The risk of various skin conditions (as well as other health problems) is higher with excessive alcohol intake. Moderate intake of alcohol may cause very minor damage to your skin, but may also bring other health benefits.

When it comes to alcohol then, perhaps the mantra adopted by the Ancient Greek Poet Hesiod rings true – “all things in moderation.” Currently, the UK Chief Medical Officer advises drinking no more than 14 units of alcohol per week – that’s for both men and women. That’s no more than six pints of 4% beer or ten 125 ml glasses of 11% wine per week.


Li, S., Cho, E., Drucker, A. M., Qureshi, A. A., & Li, W. Q. (2017). Alcohol intake and risk of rosacea in US women. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology.

Opie, L. H., & Lecour, S. (2007). The red wine hypothesis: from concepts to protective signalling molecules. European heart journal, 28(14), 1683-1693.

Sherertz, E. F., & Hess, S. P. (1993). Stated age. The New England journal of medicine, 329(4), 281-282.

Smith, K. E., & Fenske, N. A. (2000). Cutaneous manifestations of alcohol abuse. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 43(1), 1-18.