Alcohol in skincare - is it always a bad thing?

amy.swansonamy.swanson
Sep. 17
You may never have considered that many skincare products contain alcohol - it might not be too much of a surprise to find it in products that are formulated for oily skins, but alcohol can even be found in products designed to moisturize the skin.
But how do you work out which alcohols to avoid, and which are good for your skin? And what ingredients should you look out for on the ingredients label?
What are the common alcohol ingredients found in skincare products?
  • Denatured Alcohol is formulated so that it is undrinkable, meaning cosmetics companies don’t have to pay duty on it. It’s often found in skincare, haircare, fragrances, and makeup. Look out for labels containing Alcohol Denat, methyl alcohol, or SD alcohol.
  • Ethyl Alcohol is also a form of denatured alcohol and is used in cosmetics. Look out for ethanol or grain alcohol on the label.
  • Isopropyl Alcohol is used in hair care, skin care and nail products, and is commonly known as rubbing alcohol. 
  • Benzyl Alcohol occurs naturally in fruit and is used in soaps, cosmetics, cleansers, and hair care products.
  • Cetyl, Stearyl, Cetearyl, or Lanolin Alcohol are fatty alcohols and are used in hair conditioner, foundation, eye makeup, moisturizers, and cleansers.
  • Propylene Glycol is used in cosmetics, hair care products - and even some foodstuffs. 
  • Lanolin alcohol is derived from wool and is used in body creams and lotions.
  • Retinol - also known as vitamin A - is sometimes used in face creams, serums, and eye creams.
  • Tocopherol is the form of vitamin E most commonly found in skincare products.
What are bad alcohols?
Denatured or isopropyl alcohol give products a quick-drying, lightweight oil-free finish on the skin. Their astringent properties mean that they are often used in toners and gel moisturizers targeted at oily skin.
Used in moderate concentration, they can be very helpful for oily and acne-prone skins. However, if these ingredients appear high concentrations (near the top of the ingredients list), they can cause dryness and damage the skin’s natural protective barrier. And for oily or acne-prone skin, using products containing these types of alcohol in excess concentration may even be counter-productive, as they can encourage oil production and enlarged pores.
Denatured, ethyl, isopropyl, and benzyl alcohol can aggravate dry and sensitive skin, and cause increased inflammation in skin conditions such as rosacea.
What are good alcohols?
Fatty alcohols can actually have very beneficial properties for the skin. As you might expect from the name, they can be very helpful in products such as cleansers and moisturizers targeted at dry and dehydrated skins and can form a protective barrier. They are non-irritating, help improve the texture of products, and help stabilize the ingredients in cosmetic formulations. In fact, ingredients such as cetyl, stearyl, and cetearyl alcohol are fine in small quantities for any skin type
Cetyl is a product thickener, stearyl is an emollient which traps moisture in the skin, cetearyl alcohol is an emulsifier so keeps products shelf-stable, and propylene glycol acts a humectant to attract water into the skin. Vitamin A is also known as retinol and is often used in skin-smoothing products and those that target acne. Vitamin E can be helpful in healing and repairing damaged skin and is moisturizing and hydrating.
In Summary
Depending on the type of alcohol used, and the concentration it is found in, it can be beneficial when used in skincare and other personal care products. Not all alcohols are created equally - and while your perception may be that they will be drying, with certain types of alcohol, the reverse is true. Fatty alcohols can stabilize and preserve products and can be moisturizing and hydrating, whereas other types of alcohol can be incredibly drying, especially for dry or sensitive skin. Always check the ingredients label and refer to our guide before adding a new product to your skincare routine, and if in doubt, consult a dermatologist.
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