Alcohol in Skincare Products: Good or Bad?

Jun. 18, 2020
The truth about the alcohol in your skincare products might surprise you.
Alcohol must be one of the most controversial ingredients in skincare. Some consider it safe while for others it is a no-go. This is partly because of the stinging alcohol-based toners back in the day and partly because of all the misinformation going on. Alcohol is often considered unsafe and harsh mostly because people refer to ethanol which is a drying alcohol. But ethanol is just one kind of alcohol you can find in skincare products. So is alcohol good or bad for the skin? Well, it depends on the type.
Bad vs. Good Alcohol in Skincare Products
You can find alcohol in a variety of beauty products, including serums and creams, makeup, body lotions, oral care, and hair care. There are many different types of alcohol in skincare, some are considered safe while others are drying. However, if you pick up a product and you see that alcohol is its main ingredient, consider it a red flag and do thorough research before using it.
Bad Alcohol in Skincare
Bad alcohols in skincare are also known as simple or drying alcohols. They are usually used as preservatives, to reduce excess sebum, to make the texture of the product smoother, or to make the formula dry quickly and leave your skin looking less shiny. Such alcohols are usually very harsh and strip the skin over time. Used on a regular basis, these alcohols weaken the skin’s natural barrier function which results in loss of elasticity, dryness, appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Examples of alcohols in skincare to avoid:
  • Ethanol
  • Isopropyl alcohol
  • Denatured alcohol (alcohol denat)
  • Benzyl alcohol
  • Methanol
  • SD alcohol
These types of volatile alcohols can cause skin irritation, wrinkles, and even breakouts but it’s important to know that there is no evidence showing that the use of these alcohols has a harmful effect upon the overall health.
Alternatives to drying alcohols
Many people with oily and blemish-prone skin use drying alcohols because they ensure a smooth and weightless finish and leave the skin looking and feeling less shiny. However, these alcohols can increase the growth of acne-causing bacteria, worsen the inflammation, and in long term, increase oiliness. That’s why you might want to replace them with skin-loving ingredients like green tea, for example. Green tea has powerful antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, sebum-reducing, and soothing properties which makes it suitable for all skin types.
Good Alcohol in Skincare
The safe alcohols that are used in skincare products are fatty alcohols that are derived from natural sources, such as vegetable oils or nuts, for example. These alcohols are rich in healthy fats and are often used as emulsifiers in skincare. They are non-irritating and incredibly beneficial for the skin, thanks to their emollient and occlusive properties. That means that they aid the skin’s natural barrier function, by locking in moisture and protecting the skin from environmental damage. Fatty alcohols also keep the ingredients in the skincare formulations fresh and stable. Some good alcohols to know are:
  • Cetyl alcohol
  • Stearyl alcohol
  • C12-16
  • Cetearyl alcohol
  • Lauryl alcohol
  • Glyceryl stearate
  • Glycol
  • Myristyl alcohol
While not fatty alcohols, there are two types of alcohol that draw moisture to the skin and they are:
  • Butylene glycol
  • Propanediol 
Good alcohols can be beneficial even for people with dry, dehydrated, and sensitive skin. They can also be a useful addition to help ingredients penetrate the skin better and preserve the formulation.
Read the Labels
You can easily understand how much alcohol is used in a product by the location of it on the ingredients list. If alcohol is one of the top ingredients, it is likely to be a drying type that can disrupt your skin’s barrier in the long term. Avoid products with high alcohol content. If it is lower in the list, preferably past sixth position, drying alcohols are not concentrated enough to cause severe damage.
Alcohol in skincare comes in many forms and not all alcohols are created equal. Different alcohols hold different risks and benefits and it is essential to distinguish the good from the bad ones. Fatty alcohols have a place in the skincare world, as they are skin-friendly and boost the skin’s moisture retention. Drying alcohols need to be avoided or used only in wash-off products, such as cleansers, as they can aggravate the skin, cause irritation, and even be a factor in premature aging.
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