Safe and unsafe alcohols in skincare

When it comes to skin care products and their mysterious ingredients, we need to give alcohol a much-deserved moment of clarity since it is often perceived only as harsh for skin due to misleading information found online. There are safe and unsafe alcohols in skincare and it’s important to know more about them.

There are many kinds of alcohols with different uses and different health effects. Some are considered safe for topical use while others are not. However, we should keep in mind that research says that alcohol as a main ingredient in any skin care product is a problem.

First, let’s get technical. Alcohol is an organic compound that carries at least one hydroxyl functional group (−OH) bound to a saturated carbon atom. A hydroxyl group is an oxygen atom bonded to a hydrogen atom, and it’s found on a truly vast number of organic molecules.

Alcohols are diverse, encompassing everything from wine to rubbing alcohol to retinol and beyond. All alcohols do share that hydroxyl group, but they can have vastly different structures.

There are ways to help you determine if your skin care product has ‘good’ or ‘bad’ alcohol content. It’s important to discern these skin-friendly forms of alcohol from the problematic types of alcohol.

If you buy a new beauty or cosmetic product that has an alcohol as a main ingredient, it’s fair game to consider this a red flag. Still, there’s no need to steer clear of all alcohols, all the time.

The drying type of alcohol that you’ll most often see listed on an ingredient label as SD alcohol, denatured alcohol or isopropyl alcohol are volatile alcohols that give products a quick-drying finish with an immediately degrease skin and feel weightless on skin. Added in cosmetics, they will make a product feel lighter on the skin and dry quickly in case you have oily skin. But those short-term benefits end up with negative long-term consequences.

You might have heard that alcohol is a great ingredient because it helps other ingredients like retinol and vitamin C absorb into skin more effectively. It is true that it enhances absorption of ingredients, but the alcohol also destroys skin’s surface. There are certainly other gentler ways to get good ingredients into skin, without damaging its outer layer.

The alcohols known as fatty alcohols are non-irritating and can be beneficial for the skin. Examples you’ll see on ingredient labels include cetyl, stearyl, and cetearyl alcohol. All of these are good ingredients for dry skin, and in small amounts fine for any skin type as they give a pleasing texture and help keep ingredients stable in products.

  • Unsafe Alcohols for Skin: SD alcohol, denatured alcohol, isopropyl alcohol, ethanol, methanol, benzyl alcohol

  • Safe Alcohols for Skin: cetearyl alcohol, glycol, cetyl alcohol, C12-16, stearyl alcohol, myristyl Aalcohol, lauryl alcohol

Let’s talk a bit more about the unsafe alcohols. In some skin care products, simple or denatured alcohols can be found, which are created using petroleum-based ingredients. While some are used as preservatives; others are used to get skin care formulas to the right textures. They help liquid formulas dry quickly on your skin and they can also help reduce excess sebum. It can be tempting to use these products because they provide an immediate matte finish. These being said, certain denatured alcohols can have short-term positive effects for oily complexions. But when used repeatedly, these alcohols can also weaken your skin’s natural barrier, making it harder for your skin to retain moisture and elasticity while also making your skin vulnerable to environmental stress like UV radiation. Repeated use of these alcohols can significantly increase symptoms of aging and loss of elasticity. These alcohols may be capable of causing breakouts, skin irritation, and wrinkles but these ingredients are unlikely to have a harmful effect upon your overall health.

How to differentiate the bad from the good? In contrast to denatured alcohols made using petroleum products, fatty alcohols are derived from natural ingredients like coconut and nuts. These fatty alcohols (cetyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol, propylene glycole), are rich in healthy fats and are generally used as emulsifiers, to help create a thick texture which can be nourishing for the skin. Fatty acids lock in moisture and help to bolster your skin’s defensive barrier. While fatty acids are safe for use on most skin types, they may not be suitable for sensitive skin.

Truth be told, there are many natural and safe alternatives that can be used in their stead. Consider seeking out a product that features natural astringents, like green tea or witch hazel. Natural ingredients like radish root ferment filtrate can also be used instead of harmful preservatives in order to lengthen products’ shelf lives, without putting a consumer’s health at risk.

The risks and benefits of different alcohols are often misunderstood. Fatty alcohols have a place in skin care formulas, as they benefit the skin by boosting moisture retention. We recommend seeking out natural alternatives to denatured alcohols wherever possible, and carefully monitoring your skin while using any alcohol-based product!

alcohol in skincare