We like a good cocktail now and then. But what is alcohol really doing to our skin... and which drinks are inflicting the most damage?
We decided to face our fears and talk to Dr. David Colbert, founder of New York Dermatology Group, Dr. Debra Jaliman, author of "Skin Rules: Trade Secrets From a Top New York Dermatologist" and Dr. Jessica Krant, Assistant Clinical Professor of Dermatology at SUNY Downstate Medical Center.
Right off the bat, Dr. Colbert burst our champagne bubble. "It may make us feel good, but alcohol is a hepatotoxin," meaning it specifically damages the liver, he explained. "It's a toxin to the cells that detoxify your body." How does that affect our skin? "One way to look at it," Dr. Colbert said, "is to ask what does someone look like who is dying of liver failure? They're sallow, they're pasty, they're cold, their pores are huge."
Alcohol also contains congeners, said Dr. Colbert, chemical substances produced during the fermentation process that contribute to liquors' unique tastes and smell. Congeners are the main cause of hangovers, so the more congeners in your liquor, the worse your hangover... and the worse you look the next morning.
On top of that, Dr. Jaliman pointed out, "All alcohol dehydrates the skin." This means your skin will appear less plump and fresh the next morning. Between the congeners, the liver damage and the dehydration, it's clear alcohol does damage to our skin. But if we happen to imbibe anyway... which drinks should we steer clear of and which are the least harmful?
Clear Shots (Vodka, Gin, Tequila)
What makes the skin effects of one alcoholic drink different from the next is what else is in the drink. That makes shots the best option, since there's no extra sugar, salt or other harmful ingredients. "If you just have one shot of vodka or just a shot of tequila that you nurse," Dr. Colbert said, "you'll probably look OK the next day." Dr. Jaliman added, "A shot of gin or rum would probably be the best." However, keep in mind that some people who drink shots end up consuming more alcohol than they intended since it's easy to lose track. And more alcohol is never better for your skin.
Dark Shots (Rum, Whiskey, Tequila)
Like clear liquors, straight rum or whiskey comes with the benefits of no additives. But Dr. Krant points out that one key difference between the two is the amount of congeners. "Dark liquor contains congeners and products of extra fermentation that clear liquor does not," she said. More congeners worsen your hangover, and Dr. Krant suggests that the excess impurities of the congeners may contribute to more skin aging (although the connection hasn't been formally proven).
Mojitos & Other Sweet Mixed Drinks
The danger with drinks like mojitos is the sugar. "Sugar anywhere in the diet, along with other excessive carbs, leads to systemic inflammation, which contributes ultimately to cell damage and increased skin aging," Dr. Krant said, "The less sugar you take in with your alcohol, the better for your long-term wrinkle risk." But mojitos, not to mention drinks mixed with Coke, orange juice, Red Bull and other sweet drinks, are loaded with sugar. Sugar also causes acne by spiking your insulin levels, causing inflammation throughout the body.
Plus, Dr. Colbert said, sugary drinks can give you a "sugar hangover" on top of your regular hangover, resulting in sallow skin and bloodshot eyes.
Margaritas, particularly frozen margaritas made with mixes, also contain sugar. But these tequila-based drinks serve up a double whammy due to the salt. "The intake of any salt, no matter the source, does contribute to bloating," explained Dr. Krant. "This is temporary, but no one likes to feel and look puffy on top of a hangover."
Another drink with salt is beer, although it's not dangerously high in sodium levels. "If you drink a lot of salt," Dr. Colbert told us, "you're going to get symptoms like swollen eyes and thirsty skin, and your body is telling you to drink more water to get rid of the salt." On the other hand, beer has some redeeming qualities. "It does contain antioxidants and other antiaging benefits," Dr. Krant said. Plus, ounce for ounce, Dr. Colbert reminded us, beer just has less alcohol in it than straight liquor.
White wine, like mixed cocktails and beer, contains sugar, in addition to some salt. Wine can lead to swollen skin and bloating, plus it makes you hungry, Dr. Colbert said. And sadly, white wine doesn't contain the health benefits that red wine so famously does...
Red wine, as we've often heard, can actually be good for you. "Red wine contains more antioxidants than white, which may help counteract some aging processes," said Dr. Krant. "I would say the best single drink to have to support skin health and minimize aging risks is a glass of red wine."
But red wine is actually the most harmful drink for those with skin issues like rosacea. Dr. Jaliman told us, "76 percent of people that drink red wine have a flair of their rosacea," versus 56 percent of those drinking white wine, 41 percent of those drinking beer and only 21 percent of scotch drinkers. "Red wine can also cause histamine release in some people, leading to increased flushing and more of a hangover," Dr. Krant added. "Any alcohol in excess contributes more to aging than it protects against."
What else could be harming your skin?