Good and Bad Alcohols in Cosmetic Products

The alcohol in skin care products causes a lot of confusion.

Alcohol in cosmetics has “bad” reputation and people try to avoid it because of very common belief: alcohol dries your skin up.  It is partially true and there are “bad” alcohols.  However, not all of them are bad.  It all depends on what kind of alcohol is used in a cosmetic product and in what quantity.  

You see, there are several types of alcohol that you can find in cosmetics and skin care products; and not all of them damage your skin.

What function does alcohol perform in cosmetic products?

Alcohol can be used as:

  • Solvent (dissolves hydrophobic liquids like Vaseline, beeswax etc. or dilutes the mixture);
  • Emulsifier (allows you to mix two different substances);
  • Antiseptic (kills bacteria);
  • Buffer (balances pH);
  • Stabilizer (prevents separation or adverse reactions);
  • Preservative (minimizes bacterial growth or damage);
  • Enhances absorption of some products (improves the delivery of the ingredient to the skin);
  • Keeps fragrance

As you can see alcohol plays several important roles in cosmetic products, so you cannot really get rid of alcohol completely.

Types of alcohol in cosmetics

Alcohol is a molecule with one or more hydroxy groups -OH. The properties of alcohol depend on the number of hydroxyl groups and the main molecule to which they are attached.

There are three main types of alcohol, which are most often used in cosmetics:

Simple – methanol, ethanol, isopropyl and denatured alcohol  – BAD

Aromatic – benzyl alcohol  – OK, but could be bad if used in large quantities

Fatty – caprile, cetyl, stearyl alcohols and others (read further) – GOOD

what is ethanol
Still or Distillation Apparatus, vintage engraved illustration. Industrial Encyclopedia – E.O. Lami – 1875

How much alcohol do your cosmetic products have?

It is difficult to estimate the exact alcohol content of the product.  As you probably noticed the package does not indicate the amount of each ingredient in the products.

However, we can figure out the approximate concentration of the ingredient in a given product.

Look at the list of ingredients.  Most of the products usually contain  5-20 ingredients (some of the m 50 or more).  Note the order of the ingredients: the ingredient that has the highest concentration in the product will be listed first.  All other ingredients are printed according to their concentration in the product: from highest to the lowest.

So if you noted Ethanol on the 2nd or 3rd place in the list of ingredients, you can be sure that the concentration of this alcohol is quite high and probably not beneficial for your skin.

But even if alcohol is included in the top ten, it does not mean that it will dry the skin. It depends on what else is in the formula. There may be some emollient or fatty ingredients that smooth out the drying effect.

Too many things to consider.

I usually look at the ingredients, if I see simple BAD alcohols in first 10 ingredients, I won’t buy a product.

winter skin care tips cetyl alcohol for skin

Let’s explore which alcohols are bad for skin, and which ones are fine.

Simple Alcohols

Simple alcohols are mainly used as an antiseptic as they have anti-bacterial properties.

They are produced by fermenting sugar, starch and other carbohydrates. These alcohols look like water, but have strong definitive smell.

Here are some examples of simple alcohols:

  • Methanol/MethanolEthanol
  • Isopropyl alcohol/(Isopropanol)
  • Denatured alcohol (SD-alcohol or alcohol-denat)/Alcohol Denaturant

Manufacturers like to use this type of alcohol for skin care products for several reasons:

1.        As solvents of thick and non-water soluble ingredients like bees wax; this way final product comes out as a liquid or cream.

2.       Some toners and cleansers contain simple alcohols for short-term pore tightening effect.  So the initial effect from the product will be amazing, but, as you can guess, effect won’t last long.

3.       Simple alcohols improve absorptions of other ingredients by your skin (alcohols do that by breaking upper layer of the skin so assisting in deeper penetration of other ingredients – bad, bad, bad idea for skin in a long run).   

4.       Preservatives: alcohols have antiseptic properties, so manufacturers use them to prolong shelf life of cosmetic product. 

Here’s what simple alcohols do to the skin:

1.        Dry and irritate the skin.  They “break” the natural acid membrane of the skin, dehydrating cells, and potentially increase the chance of facial wrinkles. The use of ethanol is associated with skin irritation or contact dermatitis.

2.       Disrupt protective outer lipid barrier function. The skin has a natural barrier that helps to lock moisture inside and protect against environmental stresses and other damaging elements. Alcohol breaks this barrier, leaving the skin more vulnerable to exposure to irritants, allergens, bacteria and viruses.

3.       Simple alcohol is often added to cosmetics because of their anti-bacterial and matting properties.   Alcohol can quickly remove skin oil excess and matt greasy shine.  Because oil excess is removed it does not clog pores and people might notice improvement in acne appearance.

4.       Unfortunately results in #3 are temporary and in a long run alcohol causes way more damage than benefit.   First of all, it damages and dries outer protective layer of the skin.   Dry skin starts producing more and more oil to compensate for dryness.   As a result your skin will become way more oily that it was before you started using alcohol

Next, more acne will start forming, because pores now are clogged with too much skin oil (acne causing bacteria thrives in oil plugged pores.

Simple alcohol uses and rating

  • Ethanol
  • Rating: BAD
  • Category: solvent, preservative, preserve fragrance of essential oils
  • How it works: accelerates the absorption of cream into the skin, easily evaporates from the surface of the skin. It dissolves essential oils well, preserving their fragrance. In addition, it acts as antiseptic and disinfectant.

Ethanol is very, very drying to your skin

  • Isopropyl alcohol
  • Rating: BAD
  • Category: solvent, foam, preservative
  • How it works: often used in foam washing cleansers.  You can also find it in lotions, rinses and aftershave creams.
  • Denatured alcohol
  • Rating: OK (BAD in large quantities)
  • Category: degreaser agent, antiseptic, solvent, foam.
  • How it works: this type of alcohol is often found in non-foaming face cleansers,  shampoos, lotions, rinses, aftershave creams.

Denatured alcohol should not be applied alone to the skin, but it is a perfectly safe and non-damaging ingredient when combined with other ingredients and does not exceed recommended amount.

isopropyl alcohol uses

Fragrant alcohols

This type of alcohol performs a similar function of simple alcohol, but has some aroma to it. Its function in cosmetics is to preserve fragrance in perfumes,  skin care products, and essential oils

  • Benzyl Alcohol
  • Rating: OK (BAD in large quantities)
  • Category: preservative and fragrance
  • How it works: this is an organic alcohol that occurs naturally in some fruits (apricots, cranberries) and teas. The high content of benzyl alcohol can give a noticeable floral aroma to cosmetic product.  

In large quantities benzyl alcohol can cause serious irritation, it is safe to use it in minimal quantities.

So, look at your product label and see where benzyl alcohol is positioned.

  • Cinnamyl alcohol
  • Rating: BAD
  • Category: fragrance
  • “Cinnamyl alcohol has a distinctive odor described as “sweet, balsam, hyacinth, spicy, green, powdery” and you can mostly find it in perfumes and deodorants.
  • Cinnamyl alcohol is naturally occurrent only in small amount, so its industrial demand is usually fulfilled by chemical synthesis starting from cinnamaldehyde“ (Wikipedia
  • How it works: this alcohol makes many people very sensitive and gives bad reactions.  You probably will not find it in many cosmetics because its use was restricted by IFRA (International Fragrance Association).

	cetyl alcohol for skin

Fatty alcohols

And now we got to the most interesting. There is a whole class of substances that are chemically “alcohols” but they differ in their appearance and effect on the skin.

Fatty alcohols do not dry and have emollient and occlusion properties (slowing water evaporation). Unlike simple alcohols, they have a thick, waxy texture and some of them can be even solid.

Fatty alcohols give   products a softer feel and make a product application easy and smooth.

  • Rating: GOOD
  • Category: emulsifier and thickener
  • How it works:  these types of alcohol help to mix water and oils together creating pleasant consistency in creams and lotions.  They also create thick “fatty” creams (we like those creams for cold winter months when our skin needs extra protection and moisture).  And, as you probably guessed, fatty alcohols create a breathable protective barrier on the surface of the skin to prevent moisture from escaping and our skin over drying.

Examples of safe fatty alcohols: 

  • Stearyl alcohol
  • Category: thickener/emulsifier, softener.
  • How it works: softens the products and preserves ingredients to prolong products’ shelf live.
  • Stearyl Stearate
  • Category: softener, product texture improver.
  • How it works: It is vegetable wax made from natural fatty acids in combination with synthetic fatty spirits. It functions as a softening, occlusive agent for moisturizing the skin.
  • Dodecanol or Lauryl Alcohol
  • Rating: BEST
  • Category: softener, improves product texture
  • How it works: works as an enhancer so other ingredients can be absorbed better by the skin.  It is a safe ingredient in cosmetics
  • Panthenol
  • Rating: BEST
  • Category: vitamins
  • How it works: this ingredient is an alcoholic form of pantothenic acid.  You probably know this alcohol as Vitamin B5.  It is an excellent moisturizer and very safe, so almost all cosmetic companies love adding this alcohol to their products.
  • Glycerin
  • Rating: BEST
  • Categories: emulsifier and softener
  • How it works: it is a very well-known ingredient and I think there is no moisturizing product that does not contain glycerin.   This ingredient makes our cosmetics smooth, thick and very moisturizing.
  • Phytosphingosine
  • Rating: BEST
  • Category: preservative for other ingredients; strengthens skin protective barrier
  • How it works:  by creating protective breathable barrier phytosphingosine assist in strengthening our skin
  • Cetearyl alcohol
  • Rating: BEST
  • Category: thickener and softener
  • How it works: this type of alcohol thickens cosmetic products and makes them soft and smooth to apply (source).

As you can see things as well as alcohols are not that simple as it seemed before.  Not all alcohols are “bad” and some of them are actually quite beneficial for our skin and can really improve skin moisture, elasticity and strengthen the protective barrier.

So, know the alcohols and which ones are the bad ones. You should beware of simple alcohols, especially ethanol, methanol and isopropyl alcohol. Be very careful with denatured alcohol and benzyl alcohol, with the exception of certified organic cosmetics, where in the general formula it is safe. 

You also have to keep in mind the quantity of the alcohol in the product.  As we discussed, look at the product label and note the order of the ingredients: the further to the end the ingredient is, the less its concentration is in the product.

Be smart about ingredients you are applying to your face, so you can enjoy your glowing and clear skin.

Stay beautiful!!!!

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