Like so many women, I’m a sucker for the cosmetics superstore Sephora, that glittering rainbow of color and light with all its tantalizing promises of MORE: more youthful, more vibrant, more glowing, more visually appealing and aromatically pleasing. So, when a jumbo Sephora outlet opened up just a few blocks away from my studio apartment in Hell’s Kitchen at a time of particular weakness, it quickly became a regular pit stop in my weekend circuit of bars, bookstores and restaurants. As a heavy drinker in my late twenties, Sephora was my haven of hope. I regularly charged up hundreds of dollars on anti-aging creams, anti-acne washes and most notably, concealers- ones to dab on my persistent under eye circles and bags, ones to dot across the volcanic cystic acne that erupted across my chin, and ones to cover the squiggly red spider legs on my nose that appeared like firecrackers.
While I lacked the patience or self-care to seek out a qualified dermatologist at the time, my gut told me that this crisis on my skin was likely due to the fact that I drank far too much wine- about a bottle a night, on average, and twice that on the weekends. My face, after so many years of relying on booze and pills, was beginning to change- and not in a good way. The conclusion wasn't, however, “I should quit drinking now.” Instead, my circular reasoning looked like this:
"I look like crap." -> "Mmm, wine!" -> "I Still look like crap."-> "I need to go to Sephora and pick something up to fix this situation."
An intense relationship with alcohol, it turns out, is just like any other sordid affair and thus I became clinging and blind, hoping no one else would find out about these cycles of madness- least of all myself. I became at once careless and perfectionistic, wearing the same drab beige H&M wrap day in and day out while sparkling up my face with myriad concoctions that I somehow believed would scrub away whatever happened the night before. When I look back on it, it all just seems insane, but then again, we’re dealing with alcohol- baffling, cunning, and powerful.
While improving my personal appearance was not one of the major factors that finally brought me to quit drinking, seeing the positive changes once I put down the bottle definitely encouraged my sobriety. I began to notice that I wasn’t so preoccupied with hiding all the clues on my body pointing to a not-so-healthy life. Over time, those clues gently faded away with each alcohol-free day, each run, each meal of eating better. The red splotches on my nose disappeared within a year, while facial bloating subsided within a few months. The cellulite across the backs of my thighs gradually eased and the dark circles under my eyes gently faded. My weight, which had slowly been creeping up, began to come back down again. Unfortunately, the zits decided to stick around, although they're not half as aggressive as they once were. And, while I still probably spend too much money at Sephora, it’s certainly a lot more under control than what it used to be.
So, what does booze actually do to your appearance, scientifically speaking? A lot, it turns out.
Alcohol Accelerates Aging
When you consume alcohol, the body treats it as a poison and immediately goes to work trying to remove the booze you've just ingested from your system. As alcohol enters your bloodstream, it also suppresses the creation and release of vasopressin, a hormone in your body that regulates water retention and keeps you hydrated. These shifts set your kidneys into high gear, forcing them to generate increased urine due to the reduction of vasopressin, which then results in dehydration. This dehydration, over time, promotes wrinkles while swapping out your natural glow for a dull, fatigued hue.
You might be thinking, “ok, so I’ll just drink more water with my booze.” While that may sound like the logical thing to do, your body won’t be able to hang onto this extra boost of H20 due to the chain reaction that’s occurred. In other words, you’ll just end up running to the bathroom more often.
Recent research has also found that alcohol damages a part of our cells that regulate aging, called telomeres. As time passes, these telomeres shorten until eventually, the cell dies and alcohol, it turns out, accelerates this process. According to the results of a study, telomere length was nearly half as long in people who consumed alcohol heavily as those that didn’t. Even minor alcohol consumption in midlife was associated with shorter telomere length in old age.
Finally, alcohol interferes with both the sleep cycle and absorption of vitamins and minerals, which detrimentally impacts skin renewal and repair cycles. And, since women have thinner skin and less collagen than men, the negative consequences of alcohol on facial appearance are generally more profound (lucky us!)
Booze Packs on the Weight
When a person monitors their caloric intake and chooses lower calorie alcoholic beverages, they'll still be able to lose weight while enjoying moderate drinking, right? That's the common assumption, however, there are a few significant factors to take into account. Alcohol in its pure form contains seven calories per gram- nearly twice as much as protein and carbohydrates- and has no nutritional value. The liver responds to alcohol as a poison and the metabolism redirects all of its energy to breaking it down and getting it out of your system as quickly as possible. When this process occurs, the body stops burning fat and instead uses the alcohol you've consumed for energy rather than utilizing any nutrient-rich foods you've ingested. Any excess calories consumed will then be stored as fat.
In addition, when we drink alcohol, our logic and willpower both tend to decrease- a bad combo for anyone on a weight loss journey who already has a tough time turning down tempting foods and monitoring their overall intake. Research confirms appetite increases following alcohol consumption and that people eat more even after drinking small amounts of booze, although whether that's actually due to disinhibition or not is up for debate. Considering the impact that alcohol has on metabolism and appetite, as well as the high number of empty calories most drinks contain, it's not too difficult to gain weight as a moderate to heavy drinker, but it's quite tough to lose it.
You may be surprised to read this here, but there is evidence that drinking a small amount of alcohol each day may actually be better than having none at all. Here's the rub, though- most people only count one half to one quarter of what they're actually chugging, be it wine, beer, or margaritas. So, if you're only having a 6 oz. glass of wine a day, you'll probably be able to manage your weight while still being able to enjoy it. Just make sure that that's really all you're drinking (for many, it's not). Consider that a bottle of merlot is the caloric equivalent of a McDonald's double cheeseburger and a large chocolate fudge brownie- with less nutritive value!
Alcohol Dulls Hair and Eyes
Remember how alcohol sets your kidneys into high gear and dehydrates your body? This impacts the hair as well, robbing the mane of its shine and replacing it instead with brittle, easily breakable strands due to lack of moisture and vitamin deficiencies. And, alcohol can radically impact the way your eyes look as well, enlarging the blood vessels and promoting a tired, bloodshot look.
If your relationship with alcohol is a healthy one and you enjoy a drink once in a while or even a glass of wine at night, alcohol probably won't impact your appearance or weight loss efforts too much. However, if you're one of the (rapidly increasing) millions who regularly have three or more drinks most nights of the week, I can almost guarantee that it will catch up to you over time, especially if you're struggling to maintain a healthy weight. Charging up hundreds of dollars at Sephora or on "get slim quick" schemes won't help you here. Decreasing your intake or abstaining from drinking will, and the good news is that a lot of the effects are reversible.
Thank you for reading! Have a bit of fun- check out the Drink Mirror app here and see what you think. If you missed the previous posts in "The Conversation," a series on drinking and women, head on over to the main blog page. What would you like to read about? Do you have any questions for me, or topics you'd like me to cover? Leave your thoughts in the comments section! I'd love to hear from you.