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Alcohol in skincare is one of those controversial ingredients that causes a lot of debate among skincare experts. Some believe that using alcohol-based skincare products can damage the skin barrier in the long run. Others think that it's perfectly safe to use.
So, what is true? Well, as with many other things in life, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. And as you probably already know, not every alcohol is created equal.
So, let's find out what alcohol exactly is, what it does in skincare, and which ones to look for, and which ones to look out for.
What Is Alcohol?
Before we continue – a little bit of chemistry. Alcohol is an organic chemical compound consisting of the hydroxyl functional group (-OH) attached to a saturated carbon atom. The hydroxyl group consists of an oxygen atom attached to a hydrogen atom and is found in many organic compounds. Ethanol, also known as ethyl alcohol, found in alcoholic beverages, has two carbons present.
So depending on the length of its carbon chain, alcohol compounds differ in their structure and molecular weight, which determines how they'll interact with the skin. Did you know that retinol – anti-aging superstar – is a type of alcohol? This fact alone proves that we shouldn't be afraid of every alcohol in skincare.
The role of alcohol in skincare will depend on its molecular weight and can act as either a preservative, solvent, emulsifier, or fragrant. We could say that there are two main types of alcohol in skincare: simple alcohols (with low molecular weight) and fatty alcohols (long-chain or high-molecular-weight alcohols).
So, let's break them down.
Simple Alcohols: The Baddies in Skincare
Simple alcohols, also known as denatured or rubbing alcohols, are most commonly found in cosmetic products. These come labeled as alcohol, ethanol or ethyl alcohol, isopropyl alcohol, methanol, methyl alcohol, alcohol denat (denatured alcohol), and SD alcohol (super denatured alcohol).
These alcohols are added in skincare for various reasons, including:
Preservation: Protecting a product's formula from contamination and microorganism and prolonging its shelf-life;
Solvents or emulsifiers: Blending the immiscible ingredients (like oil and water), and creating a stable and smooth formula that doesn't separate;
Enhancing absorption: Alcohols can improve the absorption and penetration of a product into the skin;
Astringents: Usually found in toners and other products for oily and acne-prone skin, tightening the pores and removing excess oil.
The most noticeable damage associated with these alcohols is dehydrated skin. Dry and dehydrated skin cracks more easily and is, therefore, less protected. Some skincare experts, like Paula Begoun, the founder of Paula's Choice, believe that simple alcohols can damage the natural lipids that protect our skin, leaving it more prone to UV damage and eventually fine lines, wrinkles, and contact dermatitis.
Additionally, simple alcohols are frequent ingredients in skincare for oily skin. But instead of relieving the symptoms of oily skin, they can only do the contrary. At first, it can appear that alcohols are beneficial to oily skin as they can temporarily remove excess sebum and make your skin feel clean. However, they will dry the skin out, making it produce even more oil to protect itself.
But... As we said before, opinions are divided. According to Perry Romanowski, author and cosmetic chemist, there's nothing wrong with having denatured alcohol in your cosmetic products. His stance is that if formulated well and balanced out with other ingredients, denatured alcohol can only aid the delivery of the ingredients and shouldn't harm your skin.
Our advice... Avoid astringents and toners with large concentrations of any of these alcohols. Likewise, if one of the above-mentioned labels of simple alcohols appears as one of the first six on the ingredient list of a skincare product, you should probably avoid it (ingredients are always organized from the most concentrated to the least).
There's still not enough research to prove whether the baddies in skincare are indeed that bad (the only studies we've managed to find were done in vitro on isolated skin cells and not on actual human skin), but it's still better to be safe than sorry!
Fatty Alcohols: The Goodies in Skincare
Now we can relax, as there's no controversy, debate, or dilemma regarding fatty alcohols. These are known as the good alcohols in skincare and include cetyl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol, lauryl alcohol, oleyl alcohol, propylene glycol, glycerin, and others with a denominator -yl (caprylyl, decyl, behenyl, and myristyl).
These alcohols are mostly derived from plant-based oils, such as coconut oil, palm oil, olive oil, and others. These are waxy components rich in healthy fats that nourish and hydrate the skin.
Glycerin, the most praised hydrating ingredient in skincare, is a type of fatty alcohol. All of these alcohols act as humectants – they attract moisture and prevent it from evaporating from the skin, leaving the skin supple and soft. In addition, some can also serve as solvents and emulsifiers, making the texture of products thicker and more uniform.
Therefore, it's clear that fatty alcohols won't damage your skin or harm you in any way (unless you're particularly sensitive or allergic to them). However, if used in higher concentrations, they tend to make skincare formulas on bit heavier and greasier side. So, if you have oily skin prone to acne, these ingredients can have a comedogenic effect – clogging your pores and breaking you out even more.
Other Alcohols Used in Skincare
If you thought we'd finished our story about alcohols in skincare, you're gravely mistaken. There's more! Skincare products with fragrances may contain aromatic alcohols, such as phenethyl alcohol and benzyl alcohol.
Except for making a product smell good, these alcohols don't have any real purpose in skin care. Although they are usually used in low concentrations and are often located somewhere at the bottom of ingredient lists, they can still cause irritation, dryness, and allergies, especially if you have sensitive skin.
Therefore, unless you're a huge fan of having your creams and lotions smell like vanilla or coconut (just to name a few aromas), skip on products that contain aromatic alcohols and choose those labeled as fragrance-free.
Some Final Thoughts
We hope now you'll have a better understanding of alcohol in skincare and the differences between the bad, the good, and those hanging somewhere in the middle.
All in all, just because a specific product has alcohol in it, it doesn't necessarily mean you need to avoid it. Every product has uniquely formulated ingredient combinations – and every ingredient behaves differently in different environments and has, therefore, different effects on the skin.
So, don't purchase skincare products based on their brand, packaging, or catchy advertisement. But instead, read their ingredient lists, and most importantly, listen to how your skin reacts to them.
If you see a new ingredient and you're not sure how your skin will like it, inform yourself by reading online reviews of other consumers or try a sample product before buying the whole thing.
For more info on any ingredient in skincare, you could check out these websites: incidecoder.com or skincarisma.com.
Here's a short summary:
Is alcohol in skincare bad for your skin?
Not all alcohols in skincare are bad for your skin. The simple alcohols, such as ethanol, isopropyl alcohol, methanol, and alcohol denat (denatured alcohol), can dry out the skin and potentially damage the skin's natural barrier. On the other hand, there are fatty alcohols that act as humectants and are beneficial for the skin.
Is alcohol bad for face skin?
The so-called bad alcohols, such as ethanol, isopropyl alcohol, methanol, alcohol denat (denatured alcohol), and SD alcohol, can be drying to the skin. Likewise, if you have oily skin, these alcohols can exacerbate the problem since their drying effect can trigger your sebaceous glands to produce more sebum (your skin's natural oil).
What alcohol is safe for skin?
You don't have to worry about the fatty alcohols in skincare, such as cetyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol, oleyl alcohol, lauryl alcohol, propylene glycol, and glycerin. These act as emollients and humectants, hydrating your skin and maintaining its healthy moisture levels.
Why do they put alcohol in skincare?
Alcohols are added to skincare products for various reasons, including prolonging their shelf-life, emulsifying immiscible ingredients (like oil and water), enhancing absorption of a product into the skin, and acting as astringents for removing excess oil.
Is isopropyl alcohol safe on skin?
Isopropyl alcohol is one of the so-called bad alcohols in skincare. It's a simple alcohol that can lead to skin dryness, irritation, and redness.
Is toner with alcohol bad?
Toners containing simple alcohols, such as ethanol, ethyl alcohol, isopropyl alcohol, methanol, and alcohol denat act as astringents. These are usually meant for oily skin because they easily remove excess oil. However, in the long run, these types of toners can only offer a counter-effect, drying your skin and triggering your sebaceous gland to produce more oil.