Is alcohol in skincare bad for you?

When it comes to skincare you may be wondering what part alcohol has to play in your daily regime and whether it's bad for your skin? Read on to understand how this ingredient is designed to work and which type is safest for you.

Key takeaways: 

  • There are 3 core types of alcohol found in skincare
  • Fatty alcohols moisturise and strengthen your skin, as such they are considered safe for most skin
  • Simple alcohols are used to deliver active ingredients to skin
  • Aromatic alcohols act as as fragrances and preservatives in formulations
  • Simple and aromatic alcohols are safe when used in low concentrations, but when used regularly in large concentrations, they can damage the skin barrier
  • You don’t need to cut alcohol from your skincare, just avoid daily, leave-on products where simple alcohols are the main ingredient
  • Although rare, some people may be allergic to specific alcohols and should avoid them

Whether it’s a light buzz from a sensible glass of wine or a pounding headache after one too many glasses, some of us are familiar with the effects of drinking alcohol a.k.a. ethanol. But alcohol is also commonly used as an ingredient in skincare...

Types of alcohol in skincare

Alcohols are a class of organic compounds. In beauty products, there are 3 main types of alcohols used: (1) Simple alcohols, (2) Aromatic alcohols, and (3) Fatty alcohols. Each of these is structured differently and plays a specific role in product formulations.

(1) Simple alcohols

These can be found abundantly in nature, for instance, from fermentation processes. In skin products, simple alcohols are used to lighten product textures, degrease oily skin, and help other ingredients (e.g. retinol or vitamin C) penetrate the skin and to work better. You might see these in ingredient lists:

  • SD alcohol / Alcohol denat. / Denatured alcohol
  • Isopropyl alcohol
  • Ethyl alcohol
(2) Aromatic alcohols

These are predominantly used for fragrance and as a preservative. You might find the following aromatic alcohols on labels:

  • Benzyl alcohol
  • Phenethyl alcohol
(3) Fatty alcohols

These are fantastic moisturising agents derived from natural fats and oils. They are not harmful nor irritating for the skin. Aside from their conditioning properties, fatty alcohols are also used as thickeners and preservatives in skincare products. These are the common ones you may see:

  • Cetearyl Alcohol
  • Cetyl Alcohol
  • Stearyl Alcohol
  • Behenyl Alcohol
  • Myristyl Alcohol
  • Benehyl Alcohol

How do these alcohols work?

Simple alcohols penetrate the skin by breaking down the oils and proteins of the skin barrier. However, these natural oils help retain moisture, keeping skin healthy and glowy, while also acting as guardians to prevent foreign substances from entering the skin. This is generally a good thing as we don’t want nasty bacteria or chemicals getting through - but when we want to deliver good ingredients, it becomes a challenge. Products are therefore formulated with simple alcohols to help other active ingredients penetrate deeper into the skin. Simple alcohols can also be found in products developed for acne and oily skin types because they strip away extra oil and kill bacteria.

Unlike simple alcohols that can be drying, fatty alcohols deliver moisture to the top of the skin. You can find fatty alcohols in various products, including cleansers. Cleansers are created to strip away grease and grime, but in that process, they may strip away natural skin oils that protect our skin. As such, fatty alcohols are included to minimise this stripping effect. Not only moisturising the skin, but also reducing the irritation potential of cleansers.

Are they safe in skin products?

Controversy around alcohols in skincare is predominantly centred around simple and aromatic alcohols. There are different ways to penetrate the skin barrier, but simple alcohols do it in a way that destroys skin cells. When used infrequently or in small amounts (like spot treatments), simple alcohols cause minimal damage. However, when used in higher concentrations and/or over the long term, damage builds up and compromises our skin’s natural ability to protect and hydrate itself.

This damage when left unchecked, can go on to create a host of dreaded skin issues like dryness and sensitivity. And the unfortunate news is that some skincare products contain alcohol concentrations high enough to damage skin with continual use. Therefore, it’s important to judge the concentration of simple alcohols when buying products. Brands are unlikely to reveal this information, but as a rule of thumb, use the ingredient order on labels – if a simple alcohol is at the top of the list, then there’s probably a high concentration in the product.

How do different skin types react to alcohols?

Simple & aromatic alcohols

For non-sensitive and oily skin types, simple alcohols are okay in low or infrequent doses. For instance, localised spot treatments may be formulated with simple alcohols, but because these products are not used every day or all over your face, they won't have a detrimental effect overall. However, it's important to avoid using simple alcohol-based products meant to be put all over your face, like harsh anti-acne toners used on a daily basis. While these products may temporarily kill acne bacteria and degrease oily skin, they can compromise your skin barrier and will actually harm your skin’s ability to ward off acne bacteria and inflammation in the long run (i.e. your acne could get worse over time).

Those with dry or sensitive skin should avoid simple and aromatic alcohols. These skin types already have a weaker skin barrier, and simple alcohols will further this weakness. If your skin is considered dry or sensitive, then definitely keep an eye out for products marked as “alcohol-free”.

Some people may have an allergy to specific aromatic alcohols, for example, benzyl alcohol is a common allergen. Benzyl alcohol is great at preventing your products from developing bacteria and fungus (which can be delivered via your very own fingers!). However, it is derived from Balsam of Peru, a plant that is an allergen for some people. Although rare, those affected should avoid products with benzyl alcohol or fragrance listed on the ingredients label. Those without specific allergies can use these ingredients safely.

Fatty alcohols

Most skin types, but especially dry skin types, should use fatty alcohols as these ingredients strengthen and hydrate your skin. It is possible to react to specific fatty alcohols (for example, some people are allergic to lanolin). But unless you have such an allergy, fatty alcohols are definitely a keeper!

It doesn't need to be complicated...

Alcohols in skincare may seem complicated, but here at skoosh, we don’t think that it needs to be. We make it easy to spot products that have that drying alcohols in their ingredient lists and help profile your skin to find what will work for you in the long-run. If that sounds good, don't forget to tell your favourite skincare stores about us and get them to contact us.

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