Alcohol in skincare products continues to be a controversial debate in the skincare world. And by controversial I mean, as soon as it’s mentioned, the vast majority of people launch into a diatribe detailing how it dries your skin, it should be avoided at all costs, etc. This was something I never thoroughly understood. I could see how alcohol would be drying, but ALL alcohols? That didn’t add up. Why would so many products from a dozen different lines contain an ingredient that was “widely known” to be detrimental?
I’ll openly admit that I don’t know as much as I’d like on this subject. I’m still learning! And it wasn’t discussed much during school other than the generic, “alcohols are bad.” So, do some research of your own. Form your own educated opinion.
Here are the four sources I’ve used to supplement my education on alcohols in skincare: Milady Skin Care and Cosmetic Ingredients Dictionary, Just About Skin, Future Derm (this is just one of the very educational articles on Future Derm concerning alcohols in skincare), and Into The Gloss. The point of this post is to condense the information I’ve collected from these sources. So let’s get to it!
Alcohol is Not Inherently Bad
Nor is it inherently good. But you shouldn’t automatically skip out on a prdocut because it has some type of alcohol in it, and here’s why. In skincare products, alcohols are used for “solvent, emulsifier, antiseptic, buffer, stabilizer, preservative, penetration enhancer, fragrance fixative” (quoted from Just About Skin). Out of the three types of alcohols-simple, fatty, and aromatic-we need to be concerned with the first two: simple and fatty. Simple alcohols are the drying kind and should definitely be avoided, especially since we know that lack of moisture leads to signs of aging. Fatty alcohols are actually hydrating-these are the alcohols that do all the good things mentioned above.
Simple vs. Fatty
In the case of alcohol in skincare, keeping it simple is not best. Simple alcohols are very drying. You’ll find these alcohols in most drugstore products, as well as skincare targeted towards oily skin and acne. The reason for this is because people dealing with these problems tend to associate results with the drying effect. This couldn’t be further from the truth, but we’ve been conditioned to think this way. Simple alcohols provide cheap and immediate “results” in addition to providing a “cost-effective” preservative.
Fatty alcohols, on the other hand, are hydrating and keep mixtures thick. They also help with product penetration, which is absolutely necessary to ensuring your skin gets all the benefits of the products you’re using. These alcohols serve as solvents, antiseptics, preservatives, etc. but in a way that is much healthier to your skin.
A word about toners: they should NOT contain high amounts of alcohol. This is another thing we’ve been conditioned to accept. When your skin is dry, it feels tight. So, a lot of toners rely on a high amount of simple alcohols to “tighten” your skin. Toners should balance the pH level of your skin.
In A Nutshell
READ YOUR LABELS!!! I cannot stress this enough. You are your skin’s best advocate, and you need to know what you’re using. Labels are confusing though…something as simple as water could be listed by its scientific name, which looks scary as hell, and everything starts to run together and it’s just…yeah. Not fun. So, when reading labels to determine if it contains good alcohols or bad, remember this:
Simple Alcohols (AVOID, AVOID, AVOID):
- Anything listed as “SD Alcohol”
If the ingredients label contains any of these as the very, very last ingredient, that means it’s a very small concentration. You’re probably okay using this, but I’d still avoid it if possible.
Fatty (fancy) Alcohols:
- Lauryl (NOT laurETH. That’s a harsh detergent that should be avoided. LaurYL is okay.)
- Lanolin alcohol
Admittedly, I’ve never seen half of these on a label. But, it’s good to know.
So as you can see, alcohol in skincare is not an immediate red flag. Do your homework, avoid simple (SD) alcohol, and develop your own opinion. Shop educated! Remember that ingredients of a higher concentration are listed first in an ingredient list. And always let your conscience be your guide 😉