Alcohol in Skin Care

No, I don't mean vodka! So what is the deal? Is alcohol a terrible ingredient? It really depends on the type of alcohol and where exactly it falls on the ingredient list. For the most part, it’s all generalized in the same category as “alcohol” but there are actually several different types and some are even beneficial!

Simple Alcohols - aka the “bad” alcohols

These are the types of alcohols that are extremely drying and potentially irritating to the skin, hair or mouth. (Think how dry your skin is when you use hand sanitizer.) They are typically used in many water-soluble quick drying products like after sun aloe vera gels, toners, peel pads, mouthwashes, water creams or hairsprays. They are also used as a preservative for its germ-killing properties, a solvent to help all the other ingredients mix together better and/or help ingredients absorb faster into the skin. Doesn’t sounds so bad right? However, the use of alcohol in personal care products isn't considered a highly toxic substance by any means, but it can absolutely dry out the skin, hair or mouth. This can lead to imbalanced skin, accelerating aging, acne and an overproduction of oil as well as strip the protective barrier layer of skin which invites environmental damage. The hair can look dry, brittle and the scalp can become irritated. Plus, dry mouth, tongue, and gums - no thanks! 

Another common personal care product that contains pretty much only alcohol and synthetic fragrance is perfume and cologne. Spraying on the neck for years and years can lead to necklines, wrinkles and photo damage. 

The Bad:

+ Alcohol (Surprise! It will sometimes be simply named "alcohol".)

+ Alcohol Denat.

+ Ethanol

+ Ethanol Alcohol

+ Denature Alcohol

+ Methanol

+ Benzyl Alcohol

+ Isopropyl Alcohol

+ SD Alcohol

+ SD Alcohol 40

Fatty Alcohols aka the “good” alcohols

Despite the name, these alcohols have the complete opposite effect on the skin! They are most often found in moisturizers and creams for their hydrating and thickening properties plus, they marry oil and water together to make emulsions. They are often derived from natural oils like coconut and palm which are rich in skin-healthy fatty acids.

Though these alcohols are fantastic for providing hydration they still may irritate extremely sensitive skin types. If you have had reactions to products that contain these guys in the past, it may be best to avoid all alcohols in skin care products.

The Good:

+ Glycol

+ C12-16

+ Cetyl Alcohol

+ Stearyl Alcohol

+ Lauryl alcohol

+ Cetearyl Alcohol

+ Myristyl Alcohol

While not a fatty alcohol these two draw water to the skin. 

+ Butylene glycol

+ Propanediol


Alcohol Ratio

Some realness - just because a product contains a small amount of simple alcohol does not mean the product totally needs to be ruled out. There are some factors to consider ratio and what type of product it is. With cosmetic formulations, there could be various reasons why a simple alcohol is in a formula such as for emulsifying, germ killing etc. Ingredient decks are listed from the most concentrated at the top of the list to the least concentrated at the bottom. That being said, if a product has a simple alcohol in it and it's one of the last few ingredients on the list, I don't get too bent out of shape about it. Especially if the rest of the ingredients are good and/or include fatty alcohols. Now, if it's the middle of the list or above I steer clear! Also, if there is a simple alcohol in a facial product I always avoid, however, I am not too concerned about a body lotion. This is just my personal feeling on the topic but feel free to avoid completly if you wish!

Two simple alcohols and two fatty alcohols at the bottom of this body lotion ingredient deck. Not too concerning in my opinion. 

Two simple alcohols and two fatty alcohols at the bottom of this body lotion ingredient deck. Not too concerning in my opinion. 

A word on Witch Hazel

While witch hazel alone is a great astringent ingredient for combination and oily skin types, keep in mind almost all commercial witch hazels have anywhere from 15-30% alcohol in them.  Unfortunately, the standard (and cheaper) commercial extraction process is steam alcohol distillation using simple alcohol. Unless the bottle specifically states "alcohol-free" it will contain it. 

Look for alcohol-free, synthetic fragrance/dye free, menthol/camphor free and with the name Hamamelis Virginiana (witch hazel) high up on the ingredient list. I recommend Thayers Witch Hazel Aloe Vera Formula - Alcohol-Free - Unscented. Plus, it's babe on a budget friendly!

Just because it says "natural" doesn't make it any better. It's still 14% simple alcohol! 

Just because it says "natural" doesn't make it any better. It's still 14% simple alcohol! 

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