Have you ever had a big night out and then woken up in the morning with supple, glowing skin? No, me neither. Unfortunately, alcohol can wreak havoc on the complexion, especially for acne-prone skin. So let’s get to the bottom of the glass about how your adult beverages can lead to zits, what kinds of alcohol are worse for acne than others, and how to help minimize the damage when you drink.
Meet the Experts
Dr. Blair Murphy-Rose is a board-certified cosmetic and medical dermatologist based at the Laser and Skin Surgery Center of NY and also an instructor of dermatology at the Weill Cornell Medical College.
Christine Adams is known a Nurse Christy. She is a nurse practitioner and founder of aesthetics clinic, Skin Splendid in Manhattan.
How Alcohol Can Lead to Breakouts
“Drinking alcohol can worsen acne or lead to breakouts in many ways,” says Dr. Blair Murphy-Rose. Here are the six main ones:
- Oxidative Stress. “Alcohol causes inflammation of liver cells, leading to oxidative stress,” says Adams. In a nutshell, oxidative stress is when you have more free radicals than antioxidants in your body, and it’s been linked as a precursor to acne.
- The Immune System. “Alcohol consumption can affect cells of the immune system, leading to an environment more favorable to Propionibacterium acnes — P. acnes — and other acne-associated bacteria,” says Dr. Murphy-Rose. We’ve heard it before; Treat your gut well, and it will treat your skin well.
- Hormones. We know that hormones can play a role in acne development, and as drinking alcohol can affect hormones, it may ignite a flare-up. “Alcohol intake will increase estrogen levels, even in men,” says Dr. Murphy-Rose. “Newer studies suggest that acute alcohol intake affects androgen hormone levels — leading to an increase in testosterone in men and women. Androgen hormones play a major role in acne formation, with higher levels promoting acne.”
- Sugar. “Elevated glycemic indexes have been associated with acne,” says Dr. Murphy-Rose. “And alcohol, especially sugary mixed cocktails, can exacerbate breakouts.”
- Dehydration. “Alcohol is a diuretic, so it causes dehydration,” says Adams. “and dehydrated skin can cause acne breakouts.” How? Dr. Murphy-Rose explains: “Oil glands respond to skin dehydration with overproduction of acne-promoting oils. The buildup of oils and sebum in the pores is a well-known cause of acne.”
- Inflammation. “Alcohol consumption increases inflammation, which can worsen acne,” explains Dr. Murphy-Rose. Adds Adams: “Sugary drinks can make inflammation worse.” (See sugar above.)
Type and Quantity of Booze
Deciding between a glass of pinot noir or a margarita tonight? This may help you decide: “All types of alcohol increase inflammation in the body. Some types may be more likely to increase inflammation,” says Dr. Murphy-Rose. And mostly, it comes down to two things: Congeners and sugar. Congeners are chemicals produced during alcohol fermentation, increasing inflammation in the body. “Dark liquors have more congeners than clear liquors, and red wines have higher levels of congeners called tannins compared to white wines,” explains Dr. Murphy-Rose. “Beer also has high levels of congeners.” And as mentioned previously, sweet drinks are likely to promote acne. “Sugary cocktails have a double whammy of alcohol and sugar,” says Adams. “And as most of us know, excess sugar in any form is an enemy to good skin.” So, as a general rule, steer clear of brightly colored cocktails or sweet mixers like tonic, Coca-Cola, and orange juice. Beer and wine tend to be no or low sugar, except dessert wines; acne-prone people: say no to the sticky late-harvest Riesling.
And you guessed it, when it comes to amount, “Moderation is key,” says Adams. “Having three to five drinks a week and not more than a couple a day is less likely to cause a problem than bingeing those same five drinks on a single evening. Binge drinking has many bad side effects, and acne can be one of them.”
Papules, Blackheads, Pimples — How Each Reacts
Maybe you’re prone to fungal acne or more of a whitehead kinda person. Is there a specific type of acne that flares with alcohol consumption? “All types of acne are susceptible to worsening with alcohol consumption,” confirms Dr. Murphy-Rose, who adds that she’s seen that “Cystic and inflammatory acne are more likely to flare and comedonal acne less likely, just due to the type of acne.” (Comedonal acne comes from a sebum-blocked hair follicle—blackheads and whiteheads are the most common kinds.) But there aren’t studies showing this correlation, though other skincare pros agree that comedonal acne is often less likely to flare suddenly compared to other types. And don’t think that you’re off the hook because you already have a breakout. Acne can “absolutely” make already existing acne worse, according to both experts.
Useful Tips for When You Do Drink
Our experts offer up the following three tips for booze and breakouts:
- Take ‘before’ and ‘after’ notes. “Pay attention to your skin after you drink and compare it to the days you don’t,” says Adams. “Likely you’ll be able to see the difference,” and that will tell you if alcohol affects your skin significantly.
- Cleansing: Non-negotiable. “Clean skin on a clean pillowcase is less likely to have a breakout in the morning,” says Adams. “So no matter how tired you are, never go to sleep with makeup on.” Dr. Murphy-Rose recommends a gentle cleanser, followed by a toner or serum designed for acne-prone skin, followed by moisturizer to provide much-needed hydration without clogging pores.
- Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate. Says Adams: “Water is your best friend.” Dr. Murphy-Rose adds that water is important while you’re imbibing as well: “Try drinking at least one glass of water between alcoholic beverages.”
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