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The Impact of Alcohol on Your Appearance

Alcohol causes a number of effects on your physical appearance, from your hair to your toenails and everything in between. The impact of alcohol on appearance typically scales with the level of alcohol use and can get progressively worse when people develop an alcohol use disorder or one of several alcohol-related illnesses.

Thankfully, most of the physical changes from alcohol use can be reversed when you achieve and maintain sobriety. But getting sober is often easier said than done. Most people with an alcohol use disorder will need the help of addiction professionals to achieve recovery.

If you’ve noticed the impact of alcohol on your appearance, it might be the first of several signs that you need help to get sober. But first, let’s examine how alcohol can change your physical appearance for the worse.

How Alcohol Affects Your Appearance

In order to understand why alcohol affects your appearance, it’s important to take a closer look at the way alcohol interacts with your body.

Alcohol is a toxin. When you drink alcohol, your body immediately begins trying to break it down and excrete the byproducts as fast as possible to preserve your health, a task that can be very metabolically intensive.

This process happens in three distinct stages:

  1. Ethanol (pure alcohol) in the bloodstream enters the liver
  2. Alcohol dehydrogenase, an enzyme in the liver, begins breaking ethanol down into acetaldehyde
  3. The liver then breaks acetaldehyde into acetate, which is then excreted through the breath and urine

This process is incredibly taxing on the liver, which can ultimately develop severe problems if people drink a great deal of alcohol or continue drinking for several years. Other major organs, such as the stomach and kidneys, face similar challenges in metabolising and eliminating alcohol from the bloodstream.

The work of metabolising alcohol often becomes prioritised over other important, life-preserving functions. For people who have developed alcoholic liver disease, for instance, the liver cannot effectively process chemicals such as bilirubin, which can cause a number of deleterious effects on your physical appearance.

But even the process of metabolising alcohol can have several physical effects as well. Acetaldehyde, the chemical which alcohol is initially metabolised into, can cause flushing of the skin, nausea, vomiting, and other telltale signs of a hangover.

These effects, as well as countless others, lead to the huge impact of alcohol on your physical appearance. There are several common physical changes that people experience when they drink too much or develop an alcohol use disorder.

Skin and Nails

Depending on the severity of alcohol use, you may notice several changes to your skin and nails. Early into an alcohol use disorder, common changes in the skin include:

  • Dry, itchy skin
  • Reduced elasticity
  • Flushing

The first of these two symptoms is typically caused by dehydration, which is common among those who regularly drink alcohol. Alcohol is a diuretic, which means that it leads to people urinating frequently and promotes water loss throughout the body. It does this by suppressing the hormone vasopressin.

In time, dry skin will be more likely to wrinkle and show signs of ageing. Not having enough moisture in your skin can lead to inefficient absorption of essential vitamins and minerals that keep your skin healthy, supple, and looking its best.

People who drink greater amounts can experience significantly worse effects. Some of the common skin and nail changes among people with severe alcohol use disorders include:

  • Yellowing of the skin and nails (jaundice)
  • Spider veins
  • Increased risk of skin cancer and infections

Jaundice is perhaps the most obvious and concerning impact of alcohol on your skin. It is the result of alcoholic liver disease — a condition that leads to inflammation and scarring of the liver, which is reversible in early stages but can often be fatal if alcohol use isn’t stopped in time.

A liver impaired by alcohol use cannot process other substances in the body effectively. A buildup of bilirubin can lead to the skin, eyes, and nails taking on a yellowish tinge and is one of the key signs that medical professionals look out for in diagnosing liver disease.

Spider veins are common as well, as alcohol can cause increased blood flow throughout the body. Alcohol is a vasodilator, meaning it dilates the blood vessels, increases blood pressure, and can ultimately lead to veins bursting underneath the skin.

Finally, alcohol is a known carcinogen. It is one of the many causes of skin cancer, and it is linked to cancers such as stomach cancer, colon cancer, mouth and throat cancer, and breast cancer.

Face

While all of the symptoms listed above can happen on the face as well, there are other specific consequences of drinking alcohol on your face’s appearance. The first is rosacea, which is a reddening of the skin on the face. For people who live with rosacea already, alcohol is a common trigger, but it can also increase your risk of developing rosacea.

The next is sunken, dark circles surrounding the eyes. The primary reason that alcohol leads to this effect is dehydration, but alcohol’s effect on sleep may play a significant role as well.

While many people turn to a nightcap in order to help them fall asleep, any amount of alcohol can negatively impact the quality of your sleep, leaving you feeling unrested and showing visible signs of tiredness the next day.

Bloating

Another common impact of alcohol on your appearance is bloating. Bloating refers to puffiness in your face and body, typically seen after a night of drinking, but it can often become a more chronic problem.

Alcohol causes bloating in two main ways. The first is, yet again, dehydration, which can cause bloating in the face and other parts of the body. When your body is perpetually dehydrated, the skin attempts to hold onto water, leading to puffiness throughout the body.

The second cause of alcohol bloating is inflammation. Alcohol can lead to inflammation of the stomach, intestines, and liver. When these organs begin to swell with inflammation, it causes the appearance of bloating and contributes to the “beer belly” appearance.

Weight

Relatedly, alcohol use can lead to significant weight gain for many people. Alcohol is a highly caloric substance, with pure alcohol having approximately seven calories per gram. Yet, while it provides your body with calories, it provides zero nutritional value. They are empty calories that cannot help your body repair or preserve itself.

Especially for people who drink frequently and in great amounts, these calories can quickly add up. A single pint of 5% beer can have up to 222 calories, which means that five beers account for more than half of a person’s daily calorie requirements.

Drinking on top of eating what your body needs to sustain itself can lead to rapid, unexpected weight gain. This, in turn, can lead to a number of other medical health risks as well as affect your appearance.

Odours

Alcohol has a noticeable effect on body odour and bad breath. When you drink regularly, several factors contribute to a distinct stench that won’t go away, even if you brush your teeth and scrub yourself down in the shower.

This is again related to how alcohol is metabolised. When the liver begins breaking down alcohol, the metabolites are excreted through three main mechanisms:

  1. Through the urine
  2. Through the breath
  3. Through your sweat

Since the smell comes from your breath and sweat, bathing and brushing becomes only a temporary solution. The odours will continue so long as alcohol is being metabolised within your body.

This is often accentuated by physical withdrawal symptoms, which will often begin the very next morning after drinking. People experiencing the signs of alcohol withdrawal have elevated central nervous system activity, which often causes increased respiration and sweating. This results in a fast return of body odour, even if you’ve scrubbed yourself clean in the morning.

Importantly, if breath or body odour begins to take on a sweet, fruity smell, it could be a sign of alcoholic ketoacidosis. This is a life-threatening condition that requires immediate medical treatment and typically happens in people with long-term alcohol use disorders.

Eyes

Alcohol can lead to several changes in your eyes’ appearance, though the two most common signs are bloodshot eyes and yellow eyes. Bloodshot eyes after a night of drinking are the result of alcohol’s vasodilation properties, causing blood vessels to swell.

Yellow-tinged eyes are again the result of jaundice, or the liver’s inability to process certain chemicals as a result of alcohol use. Any sign of jaundice is a sign of serious concern and should be followed by immediately seeking medical treatment.

Hair

The dehydrating properties of alcohol can affect your hair as well, leading to several types of hair damage. Some of the most common signs that alcohol is affecting your hair’s health include:

  • Dry hair
  • Split ends
  • Dandruff
  • Hair loss
  • Breakage
  • Greasy hair

But dehydration isn’t the only reason alcohol damages your hair. Nutritional deficiencies are common in people with alcohol use disorders since people who drink alcohol regularly are typically consuming large amounts of calories with no nutritional value.

This can lead to deficiencies in essential vitamins for your hair, such as zinc, iron, and biotin.

Teeth

The dehydration inherent in alcohol use can substantially affect your dental health. Dry mouth is a common side effect of alcohol use, and when your mouth is perpetually dry, you increase your risk for dental problems, such as:

  • Tooth decay
  • Tooth loss
  • Gum disease
  • Cavities
  • Thinning enamel
  • Increased plaque buildup

Dry mouth isn’t the only harmful effect of alcohol use. Cocktails with sugary mixers can accelerate tooth decay or tooth loss, and drinks such as beer, wine, or cider can all be highly acidic, which can lead to rapid loss of your protective dental enamel.

Further, alcohol is linked to a significantly increased risk of mouth cancer. The British Dental Journal reports that even minimal alcohol use, less than one drink per day, can increase your risk of oral cancer by 20%.

How to Stop the Impact of Alcohol on Your Appearance

Knowing the negative effects of alcohol on your appearance, many people offer short-term strategies to help ameliorate the consequences. Moisturising your skin, taking vitamin supplements, or using specialised mouthwashes can all help delay the inevitable effects — but only learning how to stop drinking can prevent them entirely.

But getting sober isn’t always easy. Many people face substantial roadblocks on the path to recovery, from severe physical withdrawal symptoms to intense alcohol cravings that can lead to people returning to alcohol over and over again.

Getting help at a dedicated alcohol treatment centre is the best way to stop the impact of alcohol on your appearance and on your physical and mental health. At APN London, we use a variety of evidence-based approaches to help our clients accomplish these goals.

Contact APN London to learn more about your alcohol treatment options. For more information, complete our confidential online contact form or call our team at 0203 984 7699.

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