Alcohol in skincare creates a lot of confusion.
In fact, there is a lot of contradictory information available concerning alcohol in skincare, and whether or not it should be included in the products that you use on a daily basis. But while there are a number of factors that need to be taken into account, the bottom line is that you don’t need to rule out certain products just because they contain alcohol. Instead, certain types of alcohol can even be beneficial to your skin.
The key here is to know what to look for when shopping for cosmetic products so that you can achieve the most comprehensive results for your individual skin type and condition.
What is alcohol’s function in skincare?
Most of the beauty advice about alcohol is negative. You are told to avoid alcohol. (We say this too, but only when it comes to astringent toners). The problem with this rule is, alcohol is a general term. There are different types of alcohol which have very different properties and uses! So calling alcohol bad for skin is inaccurate.
Alcohol’s function could be as a solvent (dissolves something or thins out a mixture), emulsifier (allows two different substances to blend together), antiseptic (kills bacteria), buffer (balances the pH), stabilizer (prevents separation or unwanted reactions), preservative (minimizes bacterial growth or spoilage), penetration enhancer (improves delivery of an ingredient into skin), or fragrance fixative.
Indeed! Alcohol is a versatile ingredient that can perform a range of functions.
What are the different types of alcohol in skincare?
There are 3 kinds of alcohol that you can find skincare:
1. Simple Alcohols
Simple alcohols are mostly used as an antiseptic – to give the product antibacterial qualities. They are derived from sugar, starch and other carbohydrates, and are usually water-like. Composed of substances such as methanol, ethanol, propanol and denatured alcohol, these alcohols can dry out the skin if applied alone or in large enough concentrations. However, when combined with the right ingredients in the proper ratios, these alcohols shouldn’t negatively affect the skin and may aid in ingredient delivery.
The best thing to do is try the product on your skin before you buy. Generally, drugstore toners or astringents have a lot of simple alcohol because they are geared toward those with an oily skin. In fact, astringent toners dry out your skin, which makes oily skin worse in the long run. You should avoid buying toners or astringents in drugstores (almost all of them are for acne or oily skin). Instead, pay more for a toner from a beauty retailer or department store. These are the kinds that are hydrating.
2. Fatty Alcohols
Fatty alcohols are the non-drying type. They have emollient and occlusive properties, which makes them good for slowing down water loss. Unlike simple alcohols, they tend to have a thick, waxy texture. Some are even solid, and are used to give products a smooth, velvety feel, thus, giving it a nicer slip. Some of the most common examples of fatty alcohols used in skincare products include cetearyl alcohol, cetyl alcohol and isostearyl alcohol. These ingredients can actually help to keep the skin hydrated, making them beneficial in many types of topical products.
3. Aromatic Alcohols
Skincare products that contain fragrances may utilize aromatic alcohols such as benzyl alcohol or components of essential oil concentrations. These ingredients may cause skin irritation or dryness, especially for those with sensitive skin. To avoid this type of alcohol, choose fragrance-free products.
What to do if your products contain alcohol?
What if your go-to cleanser or toner contains alcohol? While you should avoid simple alcohols that rank super high on the ingredient list of products (the top five ingredients in the list), in small amounts they can help create a smooth matte finish that can absorb skin-loving ingredients better. So no need to fret if your favorite products have some alcohol in them.
Also keep in mind, there are other alcohols that appear on skin care labels too, and these are much less skin-scary. Fatty alcohols such as, cetyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol, and lauryl alcohol are one of them.Derived from fats (typically synthetic ones, but some also come from natural sources like coconut oil) these alcohols are processed to develop a waxy texture. They’re typically used as emulsifiers and stabilizers in products and contribute more to texture and moisturization than anything else, but they’re also not harmful and can be a good fit for those with dry skin.
For those looking to skip out on the alcohol altogether, here are some of our recommended alcohol-free skincare products: