Holiday cocktails: A hangover for your skin

High-calorie, high-sugar alcoholic drinks such as eggnog cause fluid retention.
(Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)
Special to the Los Angeles Times

This time of year — pretty much from Halloween through New Year’s Day — we’re tempted at every turn by rich, sugary high-calorie foods, from candy corn to candy canes, with plenty of pumpkin pie, fruit cake and chocolate decadence in between.

The same is true for seasonal drinks, such as eggnog, brandy Alexanders, hot toddies and glögg. These holiday cocktails don’t just wreak havoc on the waistline, they do a number on the skin too. And what’s surprising is that some of the alcoholic beverages that you’d least suspect are those that can be the most damaging when it comes to your complexion.

Dermatologist Patricia Wexler points out that sugar, which is no friend to the skin, makes alcohol. “Sugar has a glycemic effect, and sugar may break down collagen faster,” which makes skin look older, she says.


Paulette Lambert, a registered dietitian and director of nutrition at the California Health & Longevity Institute, says high-calorie, high-sugar drinks (such as eggnog, white Russians, brandy Alexanders and piña coladas) also cause fluid retention due to the combination of alcohol and sugar. “These types of drinks can leave you feeling puffy the next day as well as make the scale go up 1 to 2 pounds, which is mostly water weight,” says Lambert, who adds that, from a pure health perspective, refined sugars can contribute to heart disease and raise insulin levels, and higher insulin levels are associated with inflammation in the body that can cause chronic disease.

“Most of these types of drinks weigh in at a hefty 300 to 500 calories that most of us clearly need to avoid at this time of year.”

When it comes to skin, high fat intake, which goes along with these creamy drinks, can lead to breakouts in people with just a mild intolerance, Wexler says. If a cocktail is also caffeine-laden — as are many post-dinner holiday hot toddies, Irish coffees and some mixers (such as Red Bull) — it’s even worse. The imbiber can run the risk of collagen breaking down, be bloated and have dehydrated skin the morning after. “When we’re talking about dehydration, it’s a vascular effect,” Wexler says. “Caffeine and alcohol in general have a dehydrating effect on the skin. And dehydration can cause fluid to stagnate, which can cause puffy eyes … so drink a lot of water to help flush things out.” But she adds that if applied topically, caffeine’s dehydrating properties can be a bonus — you can apply tea bags to puffy eyes. “It draws out the fluid,” says Wexler.

Although red wine is lauded for health benefits due to its resveratrol and other positive properties, Wexler says that for some people red wine causes problems. “Red wine can cause flushing of the skin, bloodshot eyes, dilated blood vessels, perspiring and puffiness — definitely not pretty. I have one friend who when he drinks red wine he turns as red as a beet. Some people, even their chest and neck turn fire-engine red.” She says that people who are prone to acne rosacea are susceptible to this reaction and that even white wine can cause it in some cases.

When it comes to mixers, regular soda isn’t skin friendly because of its high sugar and caffeine combination, and even sugar-free varieties of carbonated beverages can contain a lot of sodium, which causes puffiness.

The intention here isn’t to be a holiday Grinch and take all of the jingle out of your jangle — after all, it’s the holidays, and some celebrating is in order. It’s just smart to be aware and make good choices — even if it’s just the choice not to go back for seconds.


Lambert says that the higher the alcohol content of a drink, the more dehydration, so she recommends limiting mixed drinks to 1 ounce (one shot) of liquor. Lambert and Wexler agree that for people who aren’t prone to the wine-associated negative reactions mentioned above, spritzers can be a great way to keep a drink in your hand without overdoing it.

Wexler says that clear alcohols, such as vodka, produce fewer skin effects than wine, caffeine or highly sugary drinks. Lambert’s list of lower-calorie, lower-alcohol drinks includes vodka (she suggests trying a flavored vodka, such as blueberry, for more pizazz) and club soda, rum and diet cola, gin and diet tonic, a 12-ounce light beer or 5 ounces of wine or Champagne. Lower-alcohol wines can be an option too.

Lambert adds that the best mixers are those lowest in calories and sugar or that have some health benefits. Good options include club soda, mineral water, orange juice, grapefruit juice, pomegranate juice, diet sodas and diet tonic waters.

“It takes about one hour to clear one drink of the above out of your system, so make a drink last a whole hour to avoid getting drunk or other side effects,” says Lambert.

So what to do if you’ve overimbibed?

“The day after drinking, you have a red, puffy face, puffy eyes, bloodshot eyes and dry, dehydrated skin,” says Wexler. “Best to drink lots of water — no caffeine.” Rest with your head elevated with cool compresses of ice-cold caffeinated tea bags on your eyes to draw fluid out of the eye area. She also says that niacyl, a derivative of niacin (vitamin B3) — and an ingredient Wexler uses of in many of the products in her skin care line — restores moisture and balance to skin.

“Calm the redness with products containing chamomile, green tea, oat derivative,” says Wexler. “Eye gels kept in the refrigerator with caffeine, cucumber, peptides will tighten and firm.”

Facials and massages that emphasize lymphatic drainage, detoxifying oils or oxygen can also be beneficial.

For do-it-yourself at home, there are a few products that might help, including Skyn Iceland’s Paraben-Free, Travel Size Holiday Rescue Kit for Stressed Skin ($45, The kit is made to hydrate, balance and soothe skin that’s dull, dry, dehydrated and puffy from holiday stress. It contains a calming cream cleanser that’s strong enough to remove festive eye makeup, an eye pen for under-eye puffiness, a vitamin-infused mist to hydrate and Oxygen Infusion Night Cream to help restore a radiant healthy glow.

A new product from Dr. Brandt Skincare, Detoxygen Experience ($75,, claims to provide an oxygenating skin detox via a two-step facial and cream that oxygenates and detoxifies to reveal glowing, revitalized skin.

REN Mayday Rescue Balm with Chamomile ($40, is a paraben-free elixir that contains essential fatty acids to help repair skin, antileukine from ochroleuca seaweed extract to protect the skin against inflammation and chamomile to calm redness and soothe minor irritation.

Clinique Redness Solutions Urgent Relief Cream ($30, contains Camellia sinensis, from which green tea is made.

Malin+Goetz Detox Face Mask ($40, is made with oxygenating cleansing agents to cleanse deeply without irritation, while creating a barrier to seal hydration. Amino acids, almond, Vitamin C, antioxidant vitamin E and soy protein are among the ingredients.