What Is Alcohol?
This may seem a bit of a silly question as most of us will be familiar with alcohol, whether it be through a glass of wine, hand sanitizer or indeed your skincare. Alcohol is one of the most common skincare ingredients, however its listing on the back of a package can make some people wary. This is mainly because alcohol is considered to be a drying ingredient. But not all alcohols are created equally.
The main controversial alcohols that are used in skincare are ethanol, ethyl alcohol, SD alcohol or alcohol denat. Much of the controversy that surrounds these ingredients has to do with the rumours that they speed up aging, damage the skin’s natural barrier and create inflammation in the skin.
Firstly, before we dive into these issues, it is best to understand what an alcohol is. An alcohol is any carbon-based molecule that contains an OH or hydroxyl group. This includes ethanol, glycerin, sugars and fatty alcohols. As you can probably imagine, they all have very different properties and uses, hence, no alcohols are created equal.
Some alcohols can be beneficial to the skin, however when people are talking about alcohol in skincare they usually mean one type of alcohol, ethanol.
Ethanol, ethyl alcohol, SD alcohol and alcohol denat are essentially the same thing. They are all the same as the alcohol in your glass of wine, with a few small differences.
How Is The Alcohol That Is Used In Skincare Different From Other Types of Alcohol?
Alcohol that is used in cosmetic or skincare products is a version of ethanol. Ethanol in skincare has usually undergone a process called denaturation. Denaturation allows your skincare products and cosmetics to avoid the large taxes that are placed on alcohol containing beverages.
Denaturation essentially means that the alcohol is made to taste bad through the use of a denaturant, making is unsuitable for drinking.
You may see an ingredient on the ingredients list of your product called alcohol denat or ethanol denat. This is an example of alcohol that has been denatured for cosemtic use.
Why Is Alcohol Used In Skincare Products?
There are a number of different reasons why alcohol may be used in your skincare products. The list below outlines some of the most common reasons for its inclusion.
Ethanol is a solvent which means it helps other key ingredients to dissolve easily in your product. It is used when the ingredient isn’t able to be dissolved in an oil or water-based product. One example of this is salicylic acid, the well known and much loved skincare ingredient that helps reduce the appearance of acne.
It also is often used to dissolve plant extracts which can be hard to dissolve in water. Alcohol allows products to have an even distribution of the key ingredients throughout the formulation.
Traditionally, alcohol has been widely used in skincare products designed to cleanse the skin. Products such as astringent toners and make up removers use alcohol to remove oils, waxes and fats from the skin.
While this product is mainly out of fashion due to the drying nature of the product, its use in these product types was once a permanent feature of many skincare routines. This is probably where alcohols get their bad reputation from.
Preservative and Antibacterial
Alcohol, as you will probably be aware, is a great antibacterial ingredient. This is why it is often used in hand sanitizers, alcohol swabs and household cleaning products. This can be beneficial to the skin as it can help to reduce bacterial growth.
This benefit can also be applied to your skincare or cosmetic product. While it isn’t used very commonly anymore, alcohol was once widely used as a preservative for skincare products, salves and cosmetics.
Alcohol is an ingredient that can be used to improve the penetration of other ingredients. Think of it as an ingredient that delivers key ingredients deeper into the skin.
Alcohol can also be used as a thinner agent. This means that it thins out the product so that it can be applied evenly and smoothly to the skin.
This one is mostly self explanatory, ethyl alcohol can also act as an anti-foaming ingredient, helping to prevent foam from forming when the product is shaken.
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 are derived from sugars, starches and other carbohydrates but can also be made synthethically, reducing the number of natural resources used in the process.
These alcohols can include denatured alcohol 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 of alcohol is fatty alcohol. Fatty alcohols include cetyl, stearyl and cetearyl alcohol as well as propylene glycol. 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. Their benefits are actually very different from ethanol as they hydrate the skin and prevent transepidermal water loss or TEWL.
Another category of alcohol is aromatic alcohols, such as benzyl alcohol which are used in products with fragrance.
Are Alcohols In Skincare Bad?
When talking about alcohols in general the answer is, most often they are actually good for the skin. When we are talking about ethanol and its derivatives specifically then the story becomes a little clearer when we look at the research.
The research available looked at the impact of alcohol based products on the skin in the context of disinfectant products such as hand sanitizers or swaps. The research was conducted to look at the potential negative side effects of extende use of alcohol products on the skin in hospital context, such as what nurses experience on the daily.
The research suggests that ethanol was not linked to any issues with increased inflammation in the skin, when applied topically. As for drying, some studies have suggested that alcohol can dehydrate the skin and others not so much. It is the drying effect that is often linked with the premature aging arguement. Generally, if you don’t need to use a high alcohol content product such as an astringent toner, then it probably is best that you don’t.
Now, as for the skin barrier, at high concentrations and high frequency exposure some effect on the transepidermal water loss count was seen. Transepidermal water loss or TEWL refers to the water that is lost to the air when the skin’s natural barrier is damaged, compromised or when you are in a dry environment. As you age, the ability of the skin to maintain hydration levels is dimishished, in part due to a reduction in the natural oils that the skin produces. Unless you are using an astringent toner with a more than daily frequency the likelihood that you would experience any change to your skin barrier is fairly low. However, as a general rule if you don’t need a drying product, dont use it.
Who Should Use Alcohol Based Products?
Most high concentration alcohol based products are unnessary for most skin types. The only skin type that may benefit is ance prone or blemish affected skin. This is because high concentration alcohol products can help to dry out blemishes, helping to support their healing.
As for products that use alcohol as a solvent, thinning agent or preservative, it is unlikely that alcohol would have any signinifcant negative effect on the skin.
Should Rosacea Sufferers Avoid Alcohol in Skincare?
Rosacea is a common skin disorder characterized by red bumps, severe inflammation and breakouts. 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, may cause dryness and irritate the skin.
Obviously this advice does not apply to other types of alcohols like fatty alcohols which can actually help support the treatment of rosacea and other skin conditions.
Should People With Acne Prone Skin Avoid The Use Of Alcohol?
Generally, any high concentration alcohol based product should be used sparingly and with low frequency. This lends these kinds of products to spot treatments and occasional toners.
For lower concentration products, they are generally fine for most skin types to use.
Keep in mind, while it is tempting and many of us have been told to use alcohol based products if we have acne or oily skin, there is some evidence to suggest that it may disrupt the natural oil production of the skin. This may result in a compensatory overproduction of oil and sebum.
Is Alcohol Vegan?
Short answer, yes. Alcohol or ethanol is almost always vegan. However if you are researching fatty alcohols, some of those ingredients can be derived from both animal and plant-based sources so it is always best to check with the brand you are thinking of purchasing.
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 or a patch test is beneficial to check for sensitivity.
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 Benzyl Alcohol?
Benzyl alcohol is an aromatic alcohol that is derived from fruit. It is used in a similar way to ethanol and has many of the same benefits to products and the skin.
According to the Contact Dermatitis Institute, benzyl alcohol is naturally found in 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.
What About Fatty Alcohols?
In general fatty alcohols do not cause dryness or irritation to the skin. However, fatty alcohols can come with their own benefits. Fatty alcohols generally help to moisturise the skin and may help support the health of the skin’s natural barrier.
Löffler H et al., How irritant is alcohol? Br J Dermatol 2007, 157, 74-81.
Lübbe J et al., Irritancy of the skin disinfectant n-propanol, Contact Dermatitis 2001, 45, 226-31.
Winnefeld M et al., Skin tolerance and effectiveness of two hand decontamination procedures in everyday hospital use, Br J Dermatol 2000, 143, 546-50.
Boyce JM, Kelliher S & Vallande N, Skin irritation and dryness associated with two hand-hygiene regimens: soap-and-water hand washing versus hand antisepsis with an alcoholic hand gel, Infect Control Hosp Epidemiol 2000, 21, 442-8.