“I drink champagne when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it – unless I’m thirsty.”
I wonder whether Lily Bollinger, the author of these famous words, felt quite so blithe and carefree when she looked in the mirror the morning after.
Friends, alcohol is not good for the complexion. I know – hold the front page. But those who enjoy a drink – and I count myself within their number – have a dilemma on their hands. Setting aside, for now, the wider health issues, must we submit to bad skin? If we let rosé into our lives, must there also be rosacea? Or might there be a way to have one’s glass and drink it?
The charge sheet against alcohol itself, whether your tipple is 80-proof moonshine or Château Cheval Blanc ’47, is lengthy, as Harley Street cosmetic dermatologist Dr Sam Bunting confirms. First up: dehydration. “Alcohol removes more fluid from the body than it provides,” says Bunting. “This leaves skin dry, tight and lacklustre.” It takes lots of good stuff – including the skin-crucial vitamins A and C, and zinc – with it.
Then there’s the redness. That inflamed look – eyes, as well as skin – like Father Jack in Father Ted. But there is IPL – Intense Pulsed Light – at the end of the tunnel for redness sufferers; Bunting routinely administers this in lunchtime appointments. It feels like having elastic bands pinged at your face, quite hard. Whether or not you see this as a trifling thing depends on your disposition. You can also have sclerotherapy, which is where slightly larger thread veins are injected with a solution that irritates them and seals them off by scarring (virtually painless); or Veinwave, a new thermocoagulation technique that uses microwaves to zap rogue veins with instant results.
But it’s rosacea I’ve always dreaded – permanent facial redness with stinging, spots and pronounced visible facial blood vessels, which is treated with antibiotics but tends to recur. European Dermatology London’s founder and medical director Dr Stefanie Williams throws me a crumb of hope. “It is a myth that alcohol consumption causes rosacea,” she says. “Rosacea is a common chronic skin condition between 30 to 60 years, especially in fair-skinned women. Rosacea is caused by a genetic predisposition, not alcohol. However, in people with a genetic predisposition to rosacea, alcohol may trigger flare-ups.”
According to Bunting, people of Celtic or Scandinavian origin are especially prone; she says that as many as 1 in 10 in the UK have the genetics that make them susceptible to rosacea.
Not only that: as alcohol is broken down by our livers, a chemical called acetaldehyde is produced. The liver deals with this by marshalling enzymes to break the stuff down further until it is harmless. But that takes time, which is why you should only drink with food so that it’s absorbed into the bloodstream more slowly. (Canapés absolutely count.) Otherwise, acetaldehyde hangs around in the body, getting up to all kinds of delinquent behaviour like generating free radicals – your body’s very own nano Storm Troopers.
So there it is. Bad, bad. No case to answer, you might think. But not so fast. The defence calls red wine to the stand.
It has long been thought that red wine could confer some health benefits: this is the thinking behind the so-called French paradox: the relatively low rates of coronary heart disease on the other side of the Manche despite all the cheese, buttery sauces and pâtisserie they have over there. The secret is to be found in the winery. The skins of red grapes contain antioxidants called polyphenols, which neutralise free radicals, protecting our cells from inflammation and disease. In red winemaking, the skins are left to macerate in the juice as it ferments to get the maximum colour, tannins, flavour compounds and lovely antioxidants out of them. Rosé has some, too. Alcohol itself is also thought to have a beneficial effect on blood cholesterol. But there is another way to enjoy the benefits of red wine without any of the negatives: apply it directly to your face.
Several skincare ranges have deployed resveratrol, most famously the Bordeaux-based brand Caudalie, which features, among others, ranges called Premier Cru, Vine[Activ] and Vinosource that sing loud about the benefits of grape polyphenols. All use wine-industry byproducts. Caudalie’s founder Mathilde Thomas’s family owns Château Smith Haut Lafitte, a venerable estate in Pessac-Léognan. Thomas was alerted to the fact that she was “throwing away treasures” by a professor who was an expert in the science of polyphenols, and quickly set about developing and patenting a process for their extraction and incorporation into potions. (Asked if she believes red wine is good for you, Thomas is unequivocal: “In my book The French Beauty Solution, you can find one of my mantras: ‘one glass of wine a day keeps the doctor away.’”) Bobbi Brown and Dermalogica have also incorporated grape seed into their products; various cosmeceutical brands including Skinceuticals and Medik8 make resveratrol-rich products; and Marks & Spencer’s Pure Grape range uses resveratrol from our very own English grapes, which might appeal if you voted Brexit. If Bordeaux is too far to travel, you can try a similar belt-and-braces approach to antioxidants at wine hotel The Vineyard in Berkshire: spend the evening at a wine masterclass and the following morning at the spa enjoying the house’s own antioxidant-rich wine-based treatments.
I ask Williams for the bottom line: if I had never touched a drop, would I look better now? “That’s impossible to say, as ageing depends on so many other factors (and of course how much you drank, what kinds of drinks and how regularly). There are many other lifestyle factors known to contribute to premature skin ageing including stress and sleep debt, bad diet, sun exposure and urban pollution. How much these different influences contribute to ageing remains under investigation.”
It pays to ask yourself whether it’s worth it – for the sake of your appearance, and indeed your health. For a glass of plonk, the answer may very well be no. But when the Petrus is being poured… Well, maybe an extra wrinkle or two isn’t the end of the world. The aesthetic benefits of fun cannot be measured and embedded in statistics and algorithms; but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. As my mother said, nobody ever looked nice with a scowl on her face.