Alcohol can be found in everyday products from shampoos and moisturisers, to masks, toners, sunscreen and make up. Alcohol that is used in skincare and cosmetics products is any carbon-based molecule that contains an OH or hydroxyl group. This includes low molecular weight alcohols like ethanol and denatured alcohol and high molecular weight alcohols like glycerin and cetyl alcohol. ‘Denatured’ alcohol, which is found in beer, wine, and spirits, has been made unfit for drinking but can be used for domestic purposes.
Both types of alcohol contain different properties therefore serve different purposes in skincare products. They can also cause different effects on your skin.
Low molecular weight ‘simple alcohols’ are derived from sugars, starches and other carbohydrates. They act as solvents that help other ingredients that don’t dissolve in water. They are also an antimicrobial agent.
High molecular weight alcohols, known as fatty alcohols, are derived from natural fats and oils. They are used as emollients and thickeners in skincare to create the desired consistency. These alcohols are hydrating to the skin and prevent trans epidermal water loss. Trans epidermal water loss refers to when the skin's moisture is lost into the air when the skins natural barrier is damaged or compromised.
Let’s delve a little deeper into why these alcohols are used in skincare
As mentioned above ethanol alcohol helps other key ingredients dissolve into the product. An example of this is salicylic acid, an ingredient known to help reduce the appearance of acne.
Ethanol allows products to have an even distribution of ingredients throughout the formulation.
Alcohol has been widely used in skincare products to cleanse the skin. Traditional astringent toners, eye makeup and makeup removers use harsh alcohol to remove oils, waxes and fats from the skin. This causes the skin irritation and to dry out, which is probably where the bad reputation for alcohol in skincare stemmed from.
Alcohol is a great antibacterial ingredient which is why it’s often used in hand sanitisers, first aid swabs and home cleaning products. It can also be beneficial to the skin as it reduces bacterial growth.
Alcohol can be used in skincare products as a thinning agent, allowing the product to be applied evenly and smoothly to the skin.
Alcohol has been said to improve the penetration of other ingredients allowing deeper delivery of these into the skin.
Ethyl alcohol can act as an anti-foaming ingredient, preventing foam forming when the product is shaken.
Which alcohols are best to avoid?
Not all alcohols used in skincare products are bad, some are great for your skin. However, many that are evaporative alcohols like SD alcohol 40, isopropyl, denature and ethanol (simple alcohols) all have a dehydrating effect to the skin. They give products an initial quick-drying, weightless finish to the skin, which can seem appealing to those especially with oily or acne prone skin.
Your skin should never feel dry, aggravated or tight after using a cleanser, for example. If it does, it’s likely due to the ingredients used in the product and the type of alcohol and its concentration in the formulation.
These astringent alcohols as well as methanol and benzyl alcohol can lead to increased irritation and dryness for people with already inflamed or sensitive skin. It can also make oily skin worse.
Alcohol strips your skins protective surface making you more susceptible to damaging your skin barrier. Disruption to your skin’s microbiome effects the way your skin regenerates and renews itself. Generally, if you don’t need to use a product front-loaded with alcohol such as an astringent toner, you’re best to skip it from your routine all together.
Examples of denatured alcohols you’ll want to look out for in ingredients lists are:
There are so many more skin-friendly, gentle alternatives you can use. However, on the flip side, some of these volatile alcohols in skincare products serve a purpose in your routine if used appropriately.
Using a product as a spot treatment (to dry out a blemish) can be beneficial. Retinols also contain alcohols and have been proven to help the skins overall surface appearance. Again, when used appropriately for your skin type or skin concern.
TIP: The higher the alcohol is on the ingredients list the higher the concentration will be in the product.
If I have Rosacea, should I avoid alcohol in skincare products?
100% YES! Avoid at all costs.
Drinking alcohol is known to be a rosacea trigger, so applying skincare products containing alcohol will 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.
What about Acne prone skin and Alcohol in Skincare products?
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, acne prone skin is usually oily. So, it’s tempting and has been said to use astringent products (containing alcohol) to dry out the skin.
But dry skin is irritated skin and 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, which means you run into the risk of producing more acne.
What to do instead
Use acne treatments as directed. If your skin feels dry, apply a moisturiser made for acne-prone skin. You’ll want to apply the moisturiser twice a day, after washing your face.
You also want to avoid using astringents, rubbing alcohol, and anything else that can dry out your skin.
So Fatty Alcohols are, A. Ok?
Yes, high molecular fatty alcohols are beneficial in skincare products. They help draw and hold in moisture, nourish and support the skins natural barrier and are non-irritating.
As mentioned, fatty alcohols are derived from plants, coconut or palm oil. Their function is to act as an emulsifier, binding the oil and water components together to create the desired consistency. The fatty acid content acts as an emollient which helps support the skins hydration and locking it in.
Examples of fatty alcohols you’ll want to look out for in ingredients lists are: