Alcohol and skin. These 2 are the perfect elements for controversies. You may have seen warnings about alcohol in skin care products in your social media feeds. Some say alcohol is speeding up ageing. It’s no wonder alcohol is one of the most misunderstood ingredients in skincare. So it’s easy to see why some believe it’s really bad for their skin.
But as you’ve probably already guessed, the truth about alcohol isn’t straightforward. Alcohols are often used as an ingredient because there are very few alternatives that can both kill microbes and dissolve oils and fats at the same time.
Especially if plant extracts with their active compounds are added into the formulation, you need a fat-soluble substance because these active agents are not water-soluble.
Since alcohol can keep microbes at bay, it’s an excellent preservative and can extend the shelf-life of a product.
Some alcohols are known as penetration enhancing agents. This means having certain alcohols in the product helps transport substances better into the skin. Lastly, adding certain kinds of alcohol can make the product feel more elegant and light.
As you see there are many kinds of alcohol. In very very general terms, people classify alcohol as good or bad.
Not all alcohols are created the same. And so it follows that not all alcohol perform the same. On a night out, you’ll have alcohol at the bar, after Covid, you probably lug around a bottle of hand sanitiser, and of course, there’s alcohol in skin, hair, and personal care products.
Clearly, there are many types of alcohol. Let’s take a trip back to GCSE science lessons. There we learned that alcohol is a generic term that refers to a broad range of organic compounds. Don’t worry if it’s too far back.
The most important fact is that all alcohols have a chemical common denominator. It’s a carbon-based molecule that has a hydroxyl (OH) group at one end. Take a look at this list
- Oleyl alcohol
You may have read glycerine on the ingredient list of one of your products and it’s a known humectant in moisturisers. Oleyl alcohol feels oily. And Sucrose is table sugar.
As you see, alcohol is an umbrella term, encompassing everything from the cocktail and bar part of tequila to rubbing alcohol to retinol. What all alcohol have in common is the hydroxyl (OH) group.
That’s all – they can have completely different structures and different molecular weights. And that’s how each type of alcohol works with other ingredients and on your skin.
Types of alcohol commonly found in skin care
Simply put, there are 3 main types of alcohol used in cosmetics, and which one it is, largely depends on its molecular weight.
Simple alcohols include methanol and ethanol (often listed as SD alcohol, denatured alcohol, or alcohol-denat). These are alcohols with low molecular weights. They’re also known as volatile alcohols.
Denatured alcohol is derived from sugar starch. That is beet or sugar cane is fermented and then you get denatured alcohol. it’s also the same alcohol that’s found in alcoholic drinks – more or less.
They function as solvents, that is, they’re used to solve substances that water can’t. One example is salicylic acid (beta hydroxy acid. Another would be plant active compounds.
They’re also added for their antibacterial properties. And in higher it acts as a disinfectant. That’s also why it’s often added to products intended for oily or acne-prone skin. It helps the product to spread easily, making it feel elegant, weightless, and quick-drying.
When you hear or see “alcohol in cosmetics”, what people mostly talk about is ethanol.
It’s also the substance that got the reputation of being drying and irritating. That’s when it’s applied alone or in a large enough concentration. However, if it’s combined with the right ingredients in the proper ratios, simple alcohols shouldn’t negatively affect the skin.
In the right formulation, they can help deliver other ingredients into the skin and in higher concentrations to increase their effectiveness.
This type of alcohol is at the other end of the spectrum. They’re often derived from certain natural waxes, plants, and unrefined cereals. Hence, they contain the healthy fats of their natural source materials and can nourish the skin. Know that they can also be produced in the lab. Then these are derived from petroleum.
Fatty alcohols have high molecular weight and are usually solid (at room temperature), perky white wax pieces.
They’re typically used to help emulsify cosmetics (i.e. they help hold the product together so the oil and water don’t separate).
Another use case is as product thickeners. They add extra emollience to the final product. With their high molecular weight, they have the opposite effect of the simple alcohols: They feel thick and luxurious, maybe even have a heavy texture.
They’re also added to a product to stabilise actives like salicylic acid, zinc oxide, and hyaluronic acid.
Although often confused with simple alcohols – I mean just look at the names cetyl, stearyl, lanolin or isostearyl alcohol – fatty alcohol aren’t drying in the least bit.
In fact, they act like a moisturiser and help protect the skin and enhance the natural like barrier. They help the outer layer of your skin feel smoother and softer.
Often, alcohols are also used to give the products a long-lasting fragrance. These are the aromatic alcohols. The most commonly used is benzyl alcohol. It’s naturally found in several essential oils, most notably jasmine.
It can also be produced in the lab. Typically they’re used in minuscule percentages, so you’ll find them towards the end of the ingredient list. These kinds of substances may cause skin irritation or dryness, especially for those with sensitive skin.
To steer on the save side, you may want to avoid them and the best way is to go with choose fragrance-free products.
Is alcohol now good or bad in skin care?
There are pros and cons using a product with alcohol. But as with everything, it depends on your skin. Products with simple alcohols can can penetrate oil buildup and dissolve dirt and oil on your skin, so it’s more apt for people with oily to extremely oily skin.
Then it’s the dose that makes the poison. A study with pigs (because their skin is similar to human skin) found that a product with not more than 10% of simple alcohols shouldn’t cause issues in general, as long as it contains enough refattening ingredients as balance.
In more detail: if you’re applying a product with up to 10% alcohol, more than 97% of it evaporates after 10 seconds. That leaves less than 3% of what was applied to stay on the skin and then make its way down into the lower levels of your skin. But that’s only if your skin cells are in vitro. The exact amount in real life could be far less.
So it’s always a good idea to look at the ingredient list. If you see
- Alcohol denat
- Benzyl alcohol
- Ethyl alcohol
- Isopropyl alcohol
- SD alcohol
Listed in the top ingredients – like in the first third of the contents, the product is likely going to be drying. If you find it in the last third of the contents, don’t sweat it because its percentage is less than 1%.
So, does alcohol free really mean there’s no alcohol in a product?
It seems the “free from” list is more of a marketing tactics. In the case of alcohol, “alcohol free” only means no SD alcohol, denatured alcohol, or alcohol-denat. They still do contain many other kinds of alcohols, such as cetyl alcohol.
These are the alcohols derived from fats. Look for the following names on the ingredient list:
- Cetearyl alcohol
- Cetyl alcohol
- Isostearyl alcohol
- Lauryl alcohol
- Myristyl alcohol
- Oleyl alcohol
The good, the bad, and the ugly
In skin care, there’s no such thing as a good or bad, clean or dirty ingredient. It’s the amount and combination that makes the poison. In the end, you can’t just rule out products just because they contain alcohol, not even the simple alcohols. It all depends on your skin needs and the concentration.
Even the so-called good alcohols – the fatty alcohols can become problematic. They can be too good for certain people. These are people with acne-prone skin. Because these products typically have a heavy texture and tend to jam up pores.
The key is to know what your skin needs and scrutinise the ingredient label when shopping. If you want to know how to read the ingredient list, jump to A Guide To Deciphering Your Beauty Product Labels.