“Swellness” is a monthlong series exploring the health and wellness stuff no one talks about.
I was freakishly calculated about my skin-care plan leading up to my wedding last fall. I’ve been a beauty editor for 15 years, so in some ways (as pathetic as this reads as I type it), this was my Super Bowl. I timed my Botox and filler precisely, I went for regular facial acupuncture and gua sha facials, and I fine-tuned the ideal skin-cycling routine with alternating active ingredients on a tight three-day cycle. But the most impactful thing I did to make my face look its best at 37 — better than I looked on probably any day over the course of my entire 20s — was cutting way back on drinking for about three months. I switched from a couple of drinks most nights (and more on the weekends) to just a few a week, and by nuptials time, my face was depuffed and contoured, my skin was even toned, and I looked well rested and happy.
While I know plenty of people who look radiant and beautiful and still drink alcohol, the science shows that drinking is objectively bad for skin. Dr. Doris Day, a New York City dermatologist who co-authored a 2019 study in The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology about the skin-aging effects of alcohol and smoking, explains what drinking is doing to your face. “Alcohol is pro-inflammatory and dehydrating, plus when you drink you tend to eat poorly and sleep poorly, which has systemic effects that include your skin,” she says. “On patients that drink, I can see signs of dehydration, gauntness and sallowness, flushing, broken blood vessels, rosacea, and perioral dermatitis. This can be from chronic drinking or sometimes just one day after.”
In Day’s study, which included more than 3,000 women from the United States, Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom, heavy alcohol use — eight or more drinks a week — was associated with increased lines in the upper face and around the mouth, under-eye puffiness, midface volume loss, and visible blood vessels. Other studies have linked drinking to rosacea, psoriasis, and even an increased risk of skin cancer.
I have not welcomed this information, to be honest. I love sitting at a bar with a cold martini or two and sharing wine with friends, and drinking has been fairly central in my social life since before I was 21. I know I’m far from alone in this. And I know I’m not alone in the downsides I’ve experienced, including brain fog, “hang-xiety,” and some pretty unattractive mornings of inflamed, puffy skin with a damped inner shine, for lack of a better term. Sometimes my post-drinking emotions are more troubling than anything happening on my face.
“When blood-alcohol levels first start to rise, your body releases all the ‘happy chemicals’ like serotonin and dopamine, but once the alcohol has leveled off and starts declining, all those chemicals become depleted and you’re feeling all the exact opposite things,” says Ruby Mehta, director of behavioral-health operations at Cityblock Health and formerly director of clinical operations of the online alcohol-recovery platform Tempest. “You’re feeling sluggish, less motivated, anxious, and stressed out.” Imagine your skin after a red-eye return from a girls’ trip to Vegas the moment you remember you have a giant presentation Monday morning. As for sleep, alcohol disrupts the REM cycle starting a few hours after bedtime, ruining concentration and focus the next day and interrupting the body’s (and skin’s) key repair time. These consequences, Mehta reminds me, are worse drink for drink for people assigned female at birth.
I’ve found that questioning alcohol habits is omnipresent these days. Mocktails or “zero proof” drinks have become expected on restaurant menus in major cities; sales of nonalcoholic booze alternatives nearly doubled in 2022; neuroscientist and Stanford professor Dr. Andrew Huberman’s two-hour YouTube video “What Alcohol Does to Your Body, Brain & Health,” posted last fall, has more than 3.5 million views; and anti-alcohol Instagram Reels by celebrity-beloved psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Amen get some of his highest engagement. “Alcohol is poison. You’re drinking a disinfectant, and why would you do that?” he asks to 3.1 million views.
“The absence of alcohol helped me achieve all the skin results I was paying a lot of money for: less puffiness, less redness, better hydration — my skin just looked more bouncy and alive,” says my close friend and writer Hannah Summerhill, who quit drinking about three years ago. While better-looking skin hadn’t been the reason for quitting, she texted me a few months into sobriety to rave about her newly developed glow. Megan Klein, founder of the canned-mocktail company Little Saints, agrees: “Since I stopped drinking, the most frequent compliment that I get is about how good my skin looks.”
When I posed a question about the skin benefits of sobriety to my Instagram followers, the number of sober or near-sober people with stories of skin (and whole-life) improvements was moving. “I’ve cut back so much and I feel so good about it. Even a cocktail one or two times a week caused bloating in my face,” wrote beauty writer and aesthetician Shani Hillian, who now drinks delectable mocktails (great herbs, she tells me). “I truly think the alcohol was causing inflammation.”
“Getting sober has been such a gift. I noticed a huge difference in my skin after a couple of months,” wrote a childhood friend who is six years sober and found significant improvements in her relationships and spiritual life. “It’s something I always notice about newly sober people. There’s a real glow that happens.”
To be clear, I do not want to conflate my superficial pursuit of looking good for one day with the very real struggle of alcohol-use disorder and addiction. Alcohol-use disorder and binge drinking are highly prevalent and severely undertreated, often because of a lack of access to help, Mehta tells me. The consequences are about much more than skin care. However, there is a dissonance between our growing body of knowledge about alcohol’s destructive capabilities and our alcohol-centric culture, especially in New York City, where you don’t have to drive and going out for drinks or dinner is a big part of the lifestyle.
In moments of self-negotiation, I have found myself justifying a glass of wine or two for stress reduction and, in red wine, for its famed resveratrol, which is supposed to be good for my skin. Could alcohol really be so bad if it’s part of the Mediterranean diet?
Dr. Sarina Elmariah, a dermatologist and co-founder of the skin-care brand Aramore, gives me a reality check about moderation. The science on resveratrol is not only iffy, but the amount you get in a glass of red wine is so small that the downsides more than cancel out the potential upsides. “You’d be better off with a large handful of blueberries,” she says. Day shares the same doubts.
There is, indeed, some conflicting research showing that low to moderate consumption of red wine may offer stress reduction and micronutrients that are better for your body — this looks like one to four six-ounce glasses per week. But if you’ve been drinking moderately or heavily and you want to readjust, you likely need to cut out alcohol entirely for two to six months, maybe longer, so your body systems, such as your neurocircuitry and gut health, can reset and restore. “Luckily, skin improvements start showing immediately,” says Day, who adds that she’s not a fan of being perfect 100 percent of the time, just being good most of the time. “Your skin has a beautiful capacity to repair. Puffiness and signs of dehydration can recover completely. Damage like a progression of rosacea with rhinophyma” — nose fullness — “or broken blood vessels can be permanent, but prescriptions can help speed up some recovery.”
If you are going to drink but want to try to reduce the effects, Day recommends slowing your pace, drinking tons more water, taking a good multivitamin, eating before you start drinking, and having your last drink multiple hours before bedtime. That said, these measures provide less and less benefit the more drinks you consume.
Even though she’s far more concerned with the mental, social, and emotional consequences of drinking, Mehta says it’s okay if your appearances are a motivator. “I don’t think it’s superficial to want to look healthy,” she says. “Looking better because you’re not consuming toxins is a sign of good health and good mental health. It makes you feel more confident.”
Even though I looked quite good on my wedding day (if I do say so myself), I still wouldn’t call it a turning point. A real turning point came a few months later, when a positive pregnancy test sent me on my longest sober period since I was 16. I chalk up the many compliments I’ve received on my pregnancy glow less to baby hormones than to no alcohol. Now, more than halfway to my due date, my mornings are a much bigger motivator to pondering a life sans booze than that glow. Growing belly aside, I start the day feeling pretty damn good. I have energy, clarity, motivation, and fewer self-punishing spirals (in fact, none). My skin is taking some rogue turns like periodic acne and rashes, but I still know I look good because I feel good.
Hannah has had similar revelations: “I can’t say I don’t miss drinking or won’t occasionally have a glass of wine, but it’s so limited and my tolerance is so low now that it’s not really even worth it.” She has found it easier to abstain after she moved to Southern California, where there’s more driving and non-drinking-centric activities. “My clarity of thought and moodiness are so much better. I’ve also found that my relationships with people are more honest and go deeper. The best way to summarize it is I just have way more good days. And long term, it’s helped me stay looking younger and more energized.”
The way I might put it: I like where my head is at.
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