Alcohol is one of the most common skincare ingredients but makes some consumers wary, as they think it may be too drying to the skin. But not all alcohols are created equally. Here’s a look at some of the most common types of alcohol found in skincare, their pros and cons, and which (of any) should you avoid?
What Kind of Alcohol is Found in Skincare?
Alcohol can be found in everything from shampoos to moisturizers, as well as masks, toners and sunscreen.
Some of the most common are known as “simple alcohols,” which are often derivatives of ethyl alcohol. These alcohols come from sugars, starches and other carbohydrates but can also be made in a laboratory. This can include denatured alcohol (which is often listed as SD alcohol or alcohol denat) and sometimes, isopropyl alcohol. “Denatured” alcohol just means ethyl alcohol, which is also found in beer, wine and spirits, has been made unfit for drinking but can be used in industrial or domestic purposes.
Another type is fatty alcohol, which includes cetyl, stearyl and cetearyl alcohol as well as propylene glycol (a humectant to attract water into the skin). Fatty alcohols are derived from natural fats and oils originating in plants and animals, such as coconut or palm oil. They are used as emollients and thickeners in skincare, and their texture can range from smooth, to thick and waxy. Another type of fatty alcohol is oleyl alcohol, derived from olive oil, beef fat oil or fish oil.
Another category of alcohol is aromatic alcohols, such as benzyl alcohol which are used in products with fragrance.
What Does Alcohol Do in Skincare?
Different types of alcohol have different roles and functions in skincare. They can be used as an emollient, emulsifier or a preservative. They also affect the texture and “feel” of a product, and can make certain moisturizers feel light and cooling on the skin. They can also help ingredient penetrate into the skin, and work as solvents, which means they help ingredients, especially non-water soluble ones, to mix together smoothly. Some act as a lubricant.
As a general rule of thumb, SD alcohol, denatured alcohol and isopropyl alcohol have antiseptic and antibacterial properties, and can be found in astringent toners as well as some gel moisturizers. They are lightweight and help products dry quickly on the skin. They are sometimes used as a preservative and can help other ingredients penetrate the skin more effectively. However, these are the types of alcohol which can be drying to the skin.
The fatty alcohols, which are derived from fats and oils, can help stabilize ingredients and improve the texture of a product. They can help add moisture to the skin, as some types of fatty alcohol are occlusive, which means they help slow down water loss. Oleyl alcohol acts as a lubricant on the skin surface. Aromatic alcohols share some of the same properties as simple alcohols, but with fragrance.
Should Alcohol Be Used on Oily or Acne Prone Skin?
When your oil glands have kicked into overdrive, it is tempting to want to get rid of all the excess oil with the right toner. As teenagers, many of us used toners that left faces tingling and stinging. We convinced ourselves that this “squeaky clean” feeling, that could feel like a burn, was good for us. But using a too-strong toner on oily or acne prone skin can backfire.
A strong toner can make the face feel temporarily oil free. The simple alcohols, including ethyl alcohol, denatured alcohol, methanol, isopropyl alcohol, SD alcohol and benzyl alcohol can help to temporarily dry up oil on the skin but in the process they will also dry up the skin. Skin that is overly dry and compromised can lead to irritation. Extremely dry skin encourages more oil production, which will lead to more breakouts and more oil. This can create a vicious cycle of break outs and over drying the skin.
As a general rule of thumb, anyone with oily or acne prone skin may want to skip the harsh toners and astringents containing simple alcohol. In an article looking at how to control oily skin, The American Academy of Dermatology suggests avoiding oil-based or alcohol-based cleansers as they can irritate the skin. The AAD also suggests avoiding alcohol-based toners for anyone with dry skin.
However, the quantity of the alcohol in a skincare product is another variable. When reading the ingredients list on a product, keep in mind that ingredients are listed in order from highest to least, so those with oily prone skin may want to avoid products with simple alcohols listed at the top of an ingredients list. If a simple alcohol is listed much farther down the list, it may not be as irritating but a patch test is a good idea.
If I Avoid Alcohol, What Should I Use on My Face If I Have Oily/Acne Prone Skin?
Over cleansing with alcohol is not the best solution for acne or oily prone skin, no matter how good an astringent or strong cleanser can feel in the moment. According to the AAD, “skin with acne is oily, so it can be tempting to apply astringent and acne treatments until your face feels dry. Don’t. Dry skin is irritated skin. Anytime you irritate your skin, you risk getting more acne.”
The AAD suggests using acne treatments as directed and applying a moisturizer formulated for acne-prone skin. Moisturizer should be applied twice a day, and the AAD suggests avoiding using astringents, rubbing alcohol, and anything else that can dry out the skin. Many people with acne or oily prone skin reach for a strong facial cleanser, thinking it will whisk away their excess oil and keep it under control. As the AAD notes, using a face wash that is too harsh can irritate the skin and trigger increased oil production. Instead, look for a mild, gentle face wash.
For anyone who is prone to acne or oiliness, the key is to cleanse and moisturize the skin but to keep it balanced. This means not using products that will kick sebum production into overdrive. As a general guideline, a skincare routine could include a gentle cleanser, an alcohol free toner, and perhaps a gentle exfoliator with salicylic acid to help get rid of pore clogging dead skin cells.
Should Rosacea Sufferers Avoid Alcohol in Skincare?
Rosacea is a common skin disorder characterized by red bumps and pimples. Drinking alcohol is known to be a rosacea trigger, but skincare products containing alcohol may also make it worse. According to the National Rosacea Society, astringent alcohols, along with methanol and benzyl alcohol, can cause dryness and make skin even redder. But that isn’t the case with all alcohols. The NRS notes that “common harmless alcohols include cetyl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol, lauryl alcohol and stearyl alcohol, among other” while astringent alcohols “may have drying and irritating effects on the skin depending on the amount included in the product.” These include alcohol, ethyl alcohol or ethanol, methanol, isopropyl alcohol, SD alcohol, and benzyl alcohol. The NRS suggests that “If your skin is prone to dryness, you may want to avoid products that list astringent alcohols among the first few ingredients. And with any new product, it’s a good idea to test it on a small patch of skin before using it on your entire face.”
What About Benzyl Alcohol?
Benzyl alcohol is an alcohol with a fragrance, and can be found in certain essential oils, such as Peru balsam. It acts as a preservative and has antibacterial properties, and is often found in organic skincare. However, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) lists it as a known allergen in the EU. According to the Contact Dermatitis Institute, benzyl alcohol is also a component of essential oils such as hyacinth, jasmine, and ylang ylang oils, and is found in hair dyes, deodorants, shampoos, facial cleansers, sunscreens, fragrances, and cosmetics. It is also found in head lice products.
Should All Simple Alcohols Be Avoided?
Deciding whether or not to avoid all simple alcohols is not always a clear cut decision. It comes down to your skin type – anyone with sensitive skin, rosacea or oily/acne prone skin may choose to avoid simple alcohols. But it also depends on how much simple alcohol is used in a product, which often isn’t easy to determine. In that case, a little trial and error (along with a patch test) to check for sensitivity may be needed. And there are circumstances where you may want to try a product with simple alcohols, such as applying an acne cream just on a blemish. When used only in small areas, over drying may not be an issue in those situations.
What About Fatty Alcohols?
In general fatty alcohols do not tend to cause dryness or irritation to the skin as much as a simple alcohol can, but some skincare professionals point out that as they are derived from vegetable sources, such as coconut or palm oil, they may clog pores. Some people may also be allergic to the ingredient. As with all products, it is always a good idea to do a patch test first.