If you’ve ever taken a look at the ingredients label on the majority of skin care products out there, you are likely to have seen alcohol-based ingredients listed a couple of times. While you may not have paid much attention to this in the past, it is so important for you to understand exactly what these alcohols are doing to your skin, so that you can decide for yourself whether or not you want to continue using those products.
Different Types of Alcohol in Skin Care
Many believe that the alcohol found in skin care products is different to the regular alcohol that people drink, but this is not exactly true…
The only difference between the two is that the alcohol in your skin care products has been mixed with an additive, so that they smell and taste unpleasant.
Simply to prevent people from drinking it!
The additives that are mixed with the alcohol tend to be made in a laboratory, and are usually derivatives of liquid petroleum. These are a few examples that you will find in skin care products:
- Benzyl Alcohol
- Isopropyl Alcohol
- SD Alcohol
- Denatured Alcohol
These alcohols listed above are referred to as simple alcohols.
Benefits of Simple Alcohols
If you are someone that prefers your skin care products to be as natural and beneficial as possible, then you may have often wondered why alcohol is included in so many different formulas.
There are actually a number of reasons for this…
1. Simple Alcohols Can Kill Germs
To begin with, alcohol is often used for preservation reasons, as it is able to kill germs. This is why it is so commonly used in the medical world, when it comes to dealing with wounds and other similar injuries. Alcohol has been used for this purpose for centuries now, and its germ-killing abilities mean that products are able to enjoy a much longer shelf life.
2. Simple Alcohols Are Non-Greasy
Alcohol is also fast-drying, and, when added to rich and thick formulas, can make them feel almost weightless. This makes the products feel much more pleasant when applied to the skin, as they will not leave a greasy or sticky residue behind.
3. Simple Alcohols Are Great Emulsifiers
In many cases, certain ingredients in skin care products are not soluble in water, which is another reason why alcohol is added to them. The alcohol helps all of the ingredients to blend together well, resulting in the smooth end product that you will see. The alcohol also increases the rate at which ingredients are absorbed by the skin, making it far easier for them to penetrate into your skin’s layers and work their magic.
4. Simple Alcohols Are Astringents
Finally, alcohol can act as an astringent, meaning that it can reduce the size of pores and tighten the skin, which is why you will often find it in cleansers and toners.
Harms of Simple Alcohols
After reading through the reasons why alcohol is added to skin care products, you may now be wondering if alcohol is really that bad, especially since some of those reasons mentioned above are quite justifiable.
While there are many downsides to alcohol being used in skin care formulas, the benefits often outweigh these…
1. Simple Alcohols May Dry Out the Skin
As mentioned above, alcohol causes skin care products to quickly dry on the skin, but they also cause your actual skin to dry out too. Alcohol is severely dehydrating to skin cells, meaning that, when used in the long run, they can actually cause wrinkles and fine lines to look more pronounced.
However, this does depend on the amount of alcohol that has been used in a product. Many times, the alcohol concentration will be miniscule, and, when this is the case, you are unlikely to notice any detrimental effects on your skin.
When it comes to irritation, alcohol is known for doing this too. There are a couple of studies out there that link ethanol in particular with contact dermatitis and skin irritation, but there are also others that disprove this, meaning that more research into this is needed.
Keep in mind that the quality of the overall product makes a difference too. While low-quality, drugstore brands may contain alcohols that dry out your skin, higher end skin care products will be formulated in a way that enhances the benefits that alcohol can have.
2. Simple Alcohols May Damage Your Skin Barrier
The outer layer of your skin consists of a natural barrier that not only protects your skin from environmental damage, but also prevents moisture from evaporating. This barrier is so important when it comes to healthy skin, and everyone should be trying to strengthen their natural barrier as much as possible.
However, skin care products that contain too much alcohol can cause damage to this natural protective barrier. If your skin feels red or raw after using a certain product, then this could be because the ingredients are just too harsh for your skin type.
On the other hand, if you use the product in the way that it is meant to be used, meaning that you do not over-apply it, your skin’s barrier will end up benefitting from this, rather than being damaged.
3. Simple Alcohols May Cause Skin Cell Death
There are several studies out there that point to the way in which alcohol can actually cause the death of skin cells, but, on the other hand, there are also studies that counter this claim.
One study discovered that after using ethanol on the skin for just two days, this could lead to a 26% increase in the death of skin cells.
This means that the younger, newer skin cells end up rising to the surface. While you may think that this would give you a fresher, more youthful, appearance, these skin cells are not fully matured, meaning that they will not be able to provide the protection your skin needs, resulting in irritation and breakouts.
However, these studies have only really been carried out in labs, rather than on actual human skin. The way in which alcohol reacts to actual skin is quite different, which is why there are many studies out there that disprove the fact that alcohol causes skin cell death.
In fact, many of these studies claim that alcohol is able to support skin cells and help to strengthen them, prolonging their lives.
4. Frequent Use of Simple Alcohols Can Trigger Acne
Alcohol is often marketed as an ingredient that can really help with acne, and this is because of the way in which alcohol has the ability to destroy bacteria and germs. When acne-causing bacteria settles onto your skin, the alcohol in acne products is able to clear these away, preventing breakouts from occurring.
Alcohol is also good at removing oil and de-greasing the skin, which is why you will find so many anti-acne products out there that are formulated with different types of alcohol.
However, keep in mind that you do need to keep usage of these products to a minimum.
Well, while alcohol does do a great job of clearing away oil and bacteria from the surface of the skin, applying these products too often will end up stripping away all of your skin’s natural oils.
This happens with just about any product that you use to cleanse your skin. Once your natural oils have been stripped away to such an extent, this then triggers your oil glands to go into overdrive, producing even more oil than it did before.
This results in skin that is even oilier, exacerbating the rate at which you experience breakouts.
What About “Good” Alcohols?
Contrary to popular opinion, there are alcohols that are different from the simple alcohols we’ve discussed here.
When it comes to alcohols, there’s one category of alcohols that are all-round beneficial to your skin.
These alcohols are referred to as fatty or wax alcohols, and work in a way that is completely different to the simple alcohols mentioned earlier.
Here are a few examples of fatty alcohols:
- Cetyl Alcohol
- Stearyl Alcohol
- Cetearyl Alcohol
While these alcohols are often created in a laboratory, they can also be derived from natural sources, such as coconut oil, and work as a natural wax in nature.
What Do Fatty Alcohols Do?
A number of positive things:
- These alcohols are naturally moisturizing, and are great for hydrating the skin
- Fatty alcohols are effective at thickening skin care formulas, resulting in the perfect consistency
- Fatty alcohols are also good emulsifiers, meaning that they can effectively mix together oils and water, resulting in a smooth, well-mixed end product
While this may all seem great, there are still studies out there that show that these fatty alcohols can still be damaging to those with sensitive skin, making it wise for those with this skin type to still steer clear of products that are highly concentrated with alcohol.
Fatty Alcohols Derived from Palm Oil
While fatty alcohols may be beneficial to the skin, a number of them are actually derived from palm oil.
If you are someone who is aware of environmental conservation, then you likely already know about the environmental destruction that palm oil harvesting can have. For this reason, try to stay away from alcohols that have been derived from palm oil, even though they may be natural.
What About Organic Alcohols?
Just like with just about every other ingredient out there, alcohol comes in an organic form too. This means that they have been grown and harvested in a way that makes use of a minimal amount of chemicals, and will not be derived from petroleum.
Here are a few examples of organic alcohols:
- Milk Whey Alcohol
- Organic Ethyl Alcohol, also known as Organic Ethanol
- Organic Cane, Grape, Corn or Grain Alcohol
These alcohols will contain far fewer chemicals than their non-organic versions, making them a great option to opt for if you are trying to keep your skin care routine as organic as possible.
Keep in mind that since these alcohols are grown organically, the products that contain them may be more expensive than those that contain non-organic versions.
Understanding Ingredient Lists
Now that you know which alcohols to avoid, and which ones are beneficial, you need to ensure that you are always checking the ingredient lists of new skin care products before purchasing them.
Skin care products will usually contain a number of different ingredients, and, even though you may spot one of the damaging simple alcohols on the list, this does not necessarily mean that you need to completely avoid that product.
Well, it does also depend on exactly how much of that alcohol a product contains.
So, how do you go about determining this?
Ingredient lists are organized in a way that lists their most concentrated ingredients first, ending with ingredients that are only used in an extremely small amount. This means that, by taking a look at exactly where alcohol is listed on each product, you will be able to gain a good idea of how much alcohol that product actually contains.
If there are simple alcohols mentioned at the beginning of an ingredients list, especially in the top three ingredients, then yes, you will probably be best off avoiding that product. However, if the alcohol is only listed at the end, then this may still be a product that is worth trying.
In addition to scrutinizing the ingredient list to see the alcohol concentration within a product, there are also a few other factors that you should take into account when deciding whether or not to purchase a product containing alcohol:
- The type of alcohol – as mentioned above, fatty alcohols can actually benefit the skin, while simple alcohols do not cause damage at low concentrations
- The use of the product – products such as hand sanitizers will usually always contain alcohol to kill germs, whereas moisturizers for sensitive skin should never contain simple alcohols
- Your skin type – everybody’s skin reacts differently to different ingredients, and those that have dry or sensitive skin will be much more susceptible to the damaging effects of alcohol in skin care products
So, Do You Need to Completely Avoid Alcohol?
The answer is no, because, as mentioned above, certain alcohols can be beneficial.
However, you do need to be aware of the differences between good and bad alcohols, so that you know which ones to avoid. Naturally-derived alcohols will always be better than synthetic versions, and the concentration of these in products makes a huge difference too. In general, you want to go for fatty alcohols like cetyl or stearyl alcohol, and organic alcohols like organic grain alcohol. Avoid simple alcohols like ethanol, especially if you’re concerned with skin issues like acne.
No matter what, when using a new skin care product for the first time, always be sure to perform a patch test first on a small area of your skin, leaving this for 24-48 hours. This will give you the opportunity to see how your skin reacts to the alcohols in a product, before you apply it to the rest of your body.