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Alcohols in Skincare: Functions, PROs & CONs [ Dermatologist Approved]

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This article is medically reviewed on July 19, 2020 by:

Picture of Rina Allawh, MD, FAAD

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Which alcohol is used in cosmetics?

Is alcohol in cosmetics good for your skin?

Is alcohol in cosmetics bad for your skin?

Should you avoid alcohol in skincare?

Alcohol is a very controversial ingredient when it comes to skincare and cosmetics. Some people avoid all kinds of alcohol and alcohol-derivative ingredients at all costs, while others don’t mind them in the ingredients list of their personal care products.

In reality, the cosmetic industry uses different types of alcohol that may have both beneficial and harmful effects on different skin types. For that reason, it’s important to understand the function and purpose of this ingredient!

This article will guide you through the functions, pros, and cons of cosmetic alcohols.

Now, let’s dive in!

Which alcohol is used in cosmetics?

There are four main types of alcohol used in cosmetics: isopropyl, ethyl, aromatic, and fatty alcohols.

Isopropyl (also called rubbing alcohol).

It’s mainly used as a preservative and disinfectant, as it kills bacteria, microorganisms, and germs. Besides, it acts as an antifoaming agent and solvent. [1]

Ethanol (also called ethyl or grain alcohol).

Yes, that’s the type of alcohol that we use for cocktails! However, companies don’t use ethyl alcohol for skincare products. Instead, they use denatured alcohol, which is a particular form of ethanol (unsuitable for drinking). You can find denatured alcohol listed as Alcohol Denat or SD Alcohol. It’s usually used as a preservative and solvent, due to its antimicrobial properties. [1]

Aromatic alcohols.

As the name suggests, those alcohols have aromatic properties and are used to add fragrance to the product. Besides, they have antimicrobial effects and are also used as preservatives. The most common aromatic alcohol is benzyl alcohol. [3]

Fatty alcohols.

They enable water and oil in cosmetics to work together by emulsifying them. Fatty alcohols are often used as thickeners (as they improve product texture), as well as humectants. The most common fatty alcohols are cetyl, cetearyl, and stearyl.

The advice from Dr. Allawh (Board-Certified Dermatologist):

Enhance product absorption: Certain types of alcohol have a purpose in skincare: Improve absorption of other ingredients in the skin and dissolve easily into water. Low molecular weight alcohols, SD alcohol, for example, help the active ingredients absorb faster into the skin.

For oily skin: Low molecular weight alcohols are also recommended for those with oily or acne-prone skin as they help remove excess oil.

Moisturizing: Alcohols are thought to be all drying; however, that is not true. There is a class of alcohols called “fatty” alcohols which are thick, moisturizing and help trap moisture into the skin. Examples of these fatty alcohols include cetyl alcohol, isostearyl alcohol and cetearyl alcohol.

For dry, sensitive skin: Fatty alcohols are often found in various facial and body moisturizers as they protect the skin barrier and draw in moisture back into the skin and advantageous for those with dry, sensitive skin. Those with eczema or history of allergic contact rashes may be sensitive to any type of alcohol (see “irritation” below), so it is important to discuss with your dermatologist products that are safe to use on the skin.

Irritation: Some alcohols are derived from plant-based products, primarily the fatty-based alcohols. If a product is derived from a plant or is “botanical” is not equivalent to safe to use on the skin. In fact, many plant-based products are common skin irritants and may cause allergic reactions, rashes and worsen dry skin and acne. It is essential to read the label of the product and test the product on a small area either on the back of the hand or the forearm to test for skin allergy to the product (i.e. look for itching, redness, peeling, rash).

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Is alcohol in cosmetics good for your skin?

Although limited, skincare products containing alcohols may actually have positive effects on the skin:

  • Isopropyl, ethyl, and denatured alcohol don’t have a direct positive effect on your skin. They ensure that cosmetic products are disinfected, sanitized, and safe to use. They evaporate quickly and stimulate the penetration of other active ingredients into the skin (like vitamin C, niacinamide, acids etc.) Those alcohols give airy and lightweight texture to the cosmetic products making them less greasy.
  • The benefits of aromatic alcohols include increased shelf life and safe usage, as those ingredients limit bacterial growth inside the product (even after you open it). This way, cosmetics containing benzyl alcohol, for instance, don’t go off soon after you start using it. However, this ingredient has no beneficial effect on the skin.
  • Fatty alcohols, unlike other cosmetic alcohols, may have a direct beneficial effect on the skin. They can make the skin smoother, improve water retention, and moisturize the skin by attracting water and creating a protective barrier on the epidermis (top skin layer). For that reason, fatty alcohols can be a great alternative for people with dry skin or individuals who are sensitive to ethyl, isopropyl, alcohol denat, or other alcohol.

Is alcohol in cosmetics bad for your skin?

The short answer is: Yes! Most of the alcohol used in cosmetics can cause skin irritation, dryness, and barrier damage. However, the effect strongly depends on your skin type, other ingredients in the product, as well as alcohol concentration. Let’s see the details:

  • Isopropyl, ethyl, and denatured alcohol can have drying and dehydrating effects, as they evaporate the water from the skin surface. Besides, they may stimulate the penetration of not only active ingredients, but also allergens and other irritating ingredients like phenoxyethanol, sulfates, or essential oils. This way, those alcohols may lead to irritation, damaged lipid barrier, and over-dryness (not only for people with sensitive and dry skin types but also for people with oily or acne-prone skin). [4]
  • Aromatic alcohols are usually very concentrated, and a small amount of them is used in cosmetic products. However, as they are allergens, they can cause irritation like contact dermatitis and urticaria. [5] Those may also dry the skin and damage its protective barrier.
  • Fatty alcohols are the ones that are least harmful to your skin, BUT they may have a negative effect on sensitive skin types when used in high concentrations. Evidence suggests that those alcohols can have sensitizing effects on skin that’s affected by chronic or long term eczema, dermatitis, or other condition damaging the epidermis. [6]

Should you avoid alcohol in skincare?

Not necessarily, as alcohols come at different concentrations and in a combination of different ingredients.

For instance, while people with sensitive skin, dermatitis, or rosacea may find alcohol highly irritating, people with dry skin may actually benefit from the moisturizing effect of fatty alcohols.

And even though it’s true that drying alcohols in high concentrations can harm both dry and oily skin (as over-dryness may stimulate sebum production), moderate concentrations of isopropyl, alcohol denat, and benzyl alcohol can indirectly improve skin condition by stimulating the penetration of other beneficial ingredients (which wouldn’t be absorbed as efficiently if those alcohols weren’t present in the ingredients list). .

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