Alcohol in skincare: is it bad for skin?

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With the huge amount of misleading information online in regards to alcohol in skincare, it’s easy to see why some people believe it really isn’t that bad for skin. However, the research (and we mean a lot of research) makes it perfectly clear: alcohol as a main ingredient in any skincare product can be a problem for the skin’s barrier and can cause a multitude of other issues.

We know we can’t convince everyone, but we hope the latest research, and, if you’ll pardon the pun, sobering facts about alcohol-based products, will help you put down the bottle if alcohol is lurking near the top of the ingredients list. So why is alcohol used in skincare? We will explain this in great detail, but first we need to clarify what kind of alcohol we want you to avoid.

Bad vs. Good Alcohol in Cosmetic Formulas

When we express concern about the presence of alcohol in skincare, sunscreen, products for acne-prone skin or makeup, we’re referring to a drying type of alcohol that you’ll most often see listed on an ingredient label as SD alcohol, isopropyl alcohol, or even denatured alcohol.

These types of volatile alcohols give a quick-drying finish, immediately degrease skin, and feel weightless, so it’s easy to see their appeal, especially for those with oily skin. For example, the addition of alcohol denat in sunscreen can be a common culprit, as it’s used to make the formulation feel less greasy. It’s also best to avoid benzyl alcohol in skincare products, which may be used to stabilise fragrance. Any short-term benefits provided by these types of alcohol are outweighed by the negative long-term consequences.

When you see these names of alcohol listed among the first six ingredients on an ingredient label, without question they will aggravate and be cruel to skin. There’s no way around that. It’s simply bad for all skin types. So, to clarify, why should you avoid alcohol in skincare? The consequences include dryness, disruption of the surface of skin's microbiome and barrier (the latter being especially bad for skin), and a strain on how skin replenishes, renews, and rejuvenates itself. Alcohol just weakens everything about skin.

What Are Fatty Alcohols in Skincare?

Just to be 100% clear, the problems tend to arise from using isopropyl alcohol in skincare or ethanol in skincare. But, there are other types of alcohols, known as fatty alcohols, which are non-irritating and can be exceptionally beneficial for 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 are fine for any skin type as they give a pleasing texture and help keep ingredients stay stable in products. It’s important to discern these skin-friendly forms of alcohol from the other more problematic alcohols to avoid in skincare products.

Likewise, you may have heard that alcohol is a good ingredient because it helps other ingredients like retinol and vitamin C absorb into skin more effectively. Although it’s true that it does enhance absorption of ingredients, the alcohol also destroys the skin’s surface and the very substances that keep your skin healthy over the long term. There are certainly other, gentler ways to get good ingredients into skin, without damaging its outer layer, an issue that causes more problems than benefits.

Alcohol in Skincare for Acne and Oily Skin

If your skin is oily, it can be tempting to use alcohol-based products because they provide an immediate matte finish; they essentially de-grease the "oil slick." The irony of using isopropyl alcohol in skincare or ethanol in skincare to control oily skin is that in the longer term, the damage from these kinds of alcohol can lead to an increase in bumps and enlarged pores.

And get this: Alcohol can actually increase oiliness, so the immediate de-greasing effect is eventually counteracted, prompting your oily skin to look even more shiny.

Conclusion About Alcohol in Skincare Products

The research is clear: alcohol harms your skin’s protective surface, depletes vital substances needed for healthy skin, and makes oiliness worse. To put it simply, it contributes to ageing your skin. Given the hundreds of skin-friendly alternatives that are available, it’s a no-brainer to abstain from products that are front-loaded with the skin-damaging forms of alcohol: such as isopropyl alcohol in skincare or ethanol in skincare.

Hand sanitisers are the sole exception to this rule. Such products require at least 60% alcohol (ethanol) in order to most effectively kill illness-causing viruses and germs. Soap and water are preferred for hand hygiene throughout the day, but in the absence of convenient access to this method, using a hand sanitiser is the next best thing. The exposure to alcohol isn’t ideal, but unlike alcohol in facial skincare, alcohol-based hand sanitisers serve a necessary health-protecting purpose.

References for this information:

 

  • Journal of Hospital Infection, August 2019, pages 419-424
  • Journal of Investigative Dermatology, October 2018, pages 2,234-2,243
  • International Journal of Cosmetic Science, April 2017, pages 188-196
  • Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology, November 2014, pages 109-117
  • Drug Design, Development and Therapy, November 2015, pages 6,225-6,233
  • The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology in Practice, March 2013, pages 195-196
  • Biochimica et Biophysica Acta, May 2012, pages 1,410-1,419
  • Experimental Dermatology, October 2009, pages 821-832
  • Journal of Occupational Medicine and Toxicology, November 2008, ePublication
  • International Journal of Toxicology, Volume 27, 2008, Supplement pages 1-43

 

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Related articles

Sources

  • Biochmica et Biophysica Acta (BBA), volume 1818, issue 5, May 2012, pages 1410–1419
  • Skinmed, January-February 2011, pages 15–21
  • Journal of Investigative Dermatology Symposium Proceedings, August 2009, pages 20–24
  • Clinical Dermatology, September-October 2004, pages 360–366
  • Journal of Investigative Dermatology, volume 120, 2003, pages 275–284
  • Journal of Hospital Infection, volume 55, issue 4, December 2003, pages 239–245
  • Dermatology, January 2003, pages 17–23
  • Alcohol, volume 26, issue 3, pages 179–190
  • Dermatologic Clinics, volume 16, issue 1, January 1998, pages 25–47
  • http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh27-4/277-284.htm.

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