Updated: May 8, 2020
It turns out that the second most difficult thing about understanding the use of alcohol in skincare is trying to figure out a well-defined title for a blog post.
I began this gruelling research with one objective in mind: to draw a line between the good alcohols and the bad alcohols in skincare, but so much more needed to be explained. Perhaps, the title ‘why alcohol is used in our products’ would suffice, but it also didn’t scratch the surface to all of the questions I wanted to answer. I considered using ‘why alcohol is bad for the skin’ but this seemed too biased and grossly unfair when I started to discover all the reasons alcohol is used in cosmetic manufacturing.
So, I settled for the truth, because it turns out that there are good alcohols and bad alcohols in our skincare products and logic to explain why they are used that way. The studies may shock you. Alcohol may not be as drying as it sounds. When did we all get so caught up on alcohol-free products anyway? Here is all the truth that I could find on one of the most controversial topics in the industry: the alcohol in our cosmetics and skincare.
Let’s start with the basics.
What is alcohol? Google tells me it is
“an organic compound whose molecule contains one or more hydroxyl groups attached to a carbon atom.”
We know it as a weekend-friendly refreshment that can hold consequences if consumed in dangerously large and frequent amounts. Some may argue that it is the same concept in skincare – that too much of the ‘bad alcohol’ in your routine can cause the skin to dry out and weaken over time. If this is true, then why is alcohol frequently present in the majority of cosmetics and convenience products we use?
Why alcohol is used in products, food and drink manufacturing
Alcohol has a long history of use by humans before we can even start getting into the grit of its use in cosmetics and skincare.
Isopropyl alcohol has powerful astringent and antimicrobial properties that destroys the majority of strains of bacteria, fungi and viruses efficiently and effectively, which is why it is the main ingredient in most hand sanitizers. Ethyl alcohol is diluted to create mood-changing beverages whilst methyl alcohol is most useful as industrial solvent – often found in varnishes, paint, mouthwash, cough syrups and as a fuel additive.
Believe it or not, alcohol has good reason to be in skincare too.
As I have mentioned the antimicrobial role that alcohol plays, is the main reason it is regularly used in products that target acne and oil production – as well as guaranteeing a matte finish, alcohol ensures the product dries quickly when applied to the skin’s surface.
One of the most common reasons as to why alcohol is used in cosmetics is to act as a preservative by preventing the development of fungus and bacteria in a product. Another advantage to adding alcohol to skincare is that it can used as a carrier to help other ingredients penetrate better, its cheap too.
Alcohol-based ingredients can also help give skincare and cosmetics the desired texture and also help stabilise a formulation.
The good, the bad and the ugly
Often these alcohol ingredients are banded into two categories amongst industry experts and skincare-savvy civilians. Some alcohols are considered ‘good,’ also known as ‘fatty alcohols’ and respected mainly for their nourishing emollient qualities.
These types of alcohols are usually derived from nuts, vegetables and palm oil and have a wax-like texture to them. Because of this, they have a non-drying effect on the skin and often give a product a smooth, balmy texture.
However, this group of alcohols are not skin-friendly to all. Due to their incredible moisturising ability, they do post a risk of clogging pores and increasing oil production and therefore unsuitable for oily and acne-prone skin types.
Then there are simple alcohols, otherwise known as the ‘bad’ alcohol. These products are usually manufactured with petroleum-based ingredients, have a smaller molecule weight and a tendency to be notoriously drying for the skin. Long-term use of simple alcohols can cause epidermal damage and increased sensitivity to environmental factors.
You tend to find simple alcohols in products aimed at oily and teenage skins, toners, astringent lotions, and other skincare formulations that needs to dry quickly on the surface (*cough, Clinique)
This drying effect can cause premature ageing, breakouts and potential skin irritation however it is important to know it does not pose a serious risk to your health according to EWG.
There are a few studies available to read online that test simple alcohols and the effect it has on the skin but their findings tend to contradict each other. For example, ethanol is one of the most commonly studied simple alcohols and is often associated with skin irritation and contact dermatitis. Whilst one study concluded that ethanol may be able to induce apoptosis (cell death) with repeated use, another trial showed that there was a reduction in hydration but no “significant change in skin barrier or erythema.”
From all of the studies I have read it seems that there is no real trend nor epidemic of skin irritation after using simple alcohols.
The FDA point out that this band of alcohol ingredients, in particular Isopropyl alcohol are rarely used in skincare manufacturing.
Aromatic alcohols are the third most common category of alcohol used in skincare and cosmetic manufacturing and the main reason for this is in the title: fragrance.
These types of ingredients are generally derived from essential oils which are sourced from such a high variety of plants, that skin reactions are difficult to measure as they differ from one essential oil to the next. This uncertainty leaves the use of aromatic alcohol in the middle, and can be equally as helpful to the skin as irritating.
The most common aromatic alcohol is benzyl alcohol and other common uses for it is to degrease and act as a preservative.
Did you know?
Benzyl alcohol and benzoic acid are also found naturally in foods such as apricots, mushrooms, honey, cranberries, snap beans and cocoa.
Rather than spending your consumer life trying to avoid alcohols in skincare, download this alcohols in skincare_ cheatsheet to remind yourself what type of alcohol-based ingredient may be suitable for your skin.
For example if you have dry skin then it may be best to avoid the simple alcohol ingredients but use a product with moisturising fatty alcohols. If you have very oily and acne-prone skin quality, using simple alcohols in your routine every now and then, might benefit you more than the non-problematic-skin type. If you have a sensitive skin condition and/or suffer with rosacea, eczema and dermatitis, simple alcohols are probably not a good idea.
What works well for one skin condition can have detrimental consequences to another, which can probably explain the amount of conflicting data there is following the study of the effect of alcohol on the skin. The key is to know your skin type, assess how your skin reacts to certain products and adapt from there.
Meanwhile, the debate continues.