Alcohol in skin care: Is it good or bad?
Are you perplexed by the ingredient list on your cosmetics? Feeling bombarded by strange words and various forms of alcohol? In the world of skin care, not all alcohols are made equal; in fact, some alcohols can be harmful to your skin. So let's clear the air and set the record straight.
Whether or not you drink, alcohol is a part of our lives. You can find it inside our skin care products, hand sanitizer, toothpaste, cleaning products… even vanilla extract!
What is Alcohol?
The chemical compound combination of alcohol is carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. This is often referred to as a hydroxyl group. As long as this combination is present, it’s an alcohol.
Chemistry jargon aside, there can be loads of variations happening alongside this group of compounds, which brings a variety of alcohols with different qualities.
Why is it inside skin care products?
You might already be aware of some of the downsides of alcohol, like drying out your skin and irritation. So you might be wondering, why do we even have it? And can we go without it?
There are several uses for alcohol in skin care products. Alcohol can be used to promote product absorbability, act as a preservative, and to adjust skin care products to the desired consistency. Some alcohols are even hydrating for your skin!
If you’re someone who looks for that alcohol free label, we hear you. Ingredients get confusing, and sometimes it’s easier to take that black and white stance. But there is a place for alcohol in skin care, and once you understand the good and the bad, you’ll get to reap the benefits whilst avoiding the downfalls! And interestingly, alcohol free doesn’t actually mean that it’s free of alcohol entirely. Alcohol free labels refer to the product being free of simple alcohols (more on that later.)
Alcohols found in skin care
In this section we’ll help you get to know some of the alcohols found in personal care. You’ll get to know the names they go by, their purpose, and their effects.
If you aren’t concerned about the nitty gritty-ness of it, feel free to skip ahead to the next section where we’ll discuss the overall picture on how to distinguish the “good” from the “bad”. You’ll also find a cheat sheet to accompany you whilst purchasing skin care products!
The most common alcohol found in skin care is Ethanol. It also goes by the pseudonyms SD alcohol, ethyl alcohol, or alcohol denat. Not only is it found in our skin care, but it’s also the type of alcohol that we find in our alcoholic beverages!
Ethanol in skin care helps increase product absorption. It also acts as a powerful antibacterial agent, and is found in high quantities inside hand sanitizers.
Although the most popular, Ethanol can cause some nasty irritations. If you are someone who is prone to dry skin, be cautious of this ingredient because it can have a drying effect. Your skin barrier is your best friend when it comes to flawless skin, yet unfortunately Ethanol alcohol may also cause it damage.
Isopropyl Alcohol also goes by the household name “rubbing alcohol” and you may find it listed in the label as 2-propanol. It is used in a range of cosmetic products for hair, nail and skin care. Its antiseptic qualities are of benefit. However, just like Ethanol, Isopropyl Alcohol is also irritating and drying to your skin.
Like Ethanol, Isopropyl Alcohol is also found in hand sanitizer, and has antibacterial properties. Isopropyl alcohol acts as a preservative inside cosmetics and personal care products. It helps products penetrate the skin and also lightens up creams to the desired consistency.
Phenoxyethanol is utilized as a preservative in skin care and is deemed safe in small concentrations. When concentrations are too high, irritation may occur. Phenoxyethanol can be found naturally occurring in green tea although in cosmetics it’s often lab derived. Doing this creates a nature identical form. Phenoxyethonal is one of the safest preservatives in skin care and it’s often found inside products centered on natural ingredients.
Cetearyl is a fatty alcohol, with a different consistency than you might anticipate. It has a thick, somewhat waxy texture to it. It’s used to thicken up products and provides a nice glide-like feel.
You can often find Cetearyl alcohol inside moisturizers, skin creams, conditioners and mascara. This alcohol is actually soothing and healing for dry skin so do not be alarmed if you find it high up in an ingredient list.
You may not know it already, but glycerin is an alcohol too! More specifically, it’s a fatty alcohol. As a fatty alcohol, it’s texture is thick and waxy just like Cetearyl Alcohol. It works as a humectant, which means it pulls moisture from the air, to your skin. Glycerin is a safe ingredient for use inside skincare.
How to distinguish the “good” from the “bad”
Now you’re aware about the variety of benefits and consequences alcohol can bring… but you might still be struggling with the overall picture. We didn’t list every single alcohol used in skin care, and break them all down into detail. That would take you a lot of screen-time for you to read.
Another way of understanding the “good” from the “bad” is to separate them into different types of alcohol. Each type comes with its own theme of benefits or consequences.
3 types of Alcohol
There are three types of alcohol when it comes to skin care.
Common fatty alcohols used in skin care include glycerin, cetyl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol and isostearyl alcohol. They may have a different texture than you anticipate, they are thick and somewhat waxy. They are used in skin care as emollients and thickeners.
Simple alcohols such as Ethanol, SD alcohol and isopropyl alcohol assist by acting as a preservative and help ingredients combine together. They also help increase product absorption, and are highly antibacterial and antiseptic, found in many hand sanitizers. If you have sensitive skin, eczema or suffer from dermatitis, we recommend you avoid these simple alcohols as they can cause damage to however this is at the cost o f stripping away at your skin barrier.
The most commonly used aromatics are benzyl alcohol and phenethyl. Their purpose is to bring the product long-lasting fragrance, or to act as a preservative.
To put it simply, fatty alcohols are beneficial to your skin because they have a hydrating effect whereas simple alcohols can be drying and damaging to your skin barrier. Aromatic alcohols, for sensitive skin, may also be irritating in high doses.
However, it’s important to note that simple alcohols do have their place! They act as powerful preservatives due to their antibacterial properties. Isopropyl alcohol and Ethanol are the main ingredients inside hand sanitizer, and with the state of the world lately, hand sanitizer has been essential!
It’s important to evaluate ingredients on a case by case basis whilst weighing up the pros and cons. Ask yourself, “what am I looking to achieve with the product?”.
If it’s hydration, fatty alcohols can help you achieve that goal and simple alcohols will be hindering it.
If you’re looking for optimal product absorption because you really want to get that serum into your skin, then simple alcohols can help you with that. Just remember to use simple alcohols with caution. High concentrations, or too frequent use can cause irritation.
Check out the Kadee Botanicals skin care range!
Our products are formulated with care for your skin, overall health and the environment.
Hydrating Day & Night Cream - Filled to the brim with natural goodness to plump away those fine lines and wrinkles! It’s powerfully anti-aging whilst remaining light and absorbable. Not to mention, it’s jam packed with antioxidants to protect your skin cells from free radicals.
Kadee Botanicals Eye Cream - Brighten up those darker circles with the highest source of vitamin C out there, Kakadu Plum. This soothing eye cream has cucumber oil and jojoba oil at your service to fade out those fine lines. Antioxidant rich thanks to Australia's finest, Kakadu plum!
Kadee Botanicals Renewing Exfoliant Mask - An innovative face mask, not only can you use it to exfoliate your skin but it also doubles up as a spot treatment! Formulated with jojoba oil, avocado oil, and shea butter. This face mask gently polishes away dead skin cells. Karvouniaris