Ingredient Spotlight – Understanding Alcohols in Skincare


I sometimes find researching particular ingredients really frustrating, as the more controversial ingredients, information is all over the place and there are so many arguments for and against. My internet browser ends up having about 10 tabs open and I am reading through all the information discussed in forums, blog posts and at the same time trying to decipher what some of the actual scientific studies mean. I thought I would start a section on my blog on Deciphering Ingredients where I have the opportunity to surmise some of many the sources and information found, the studies conducted and explain it in a way most people can understand. It is a great way for me to share my findings but also a good way for me to learn more and get a better understanding on what is actually going into my skincare and its effects on the skin. 

As my first Ingredient Spotlight post, I thought I would talk about alcohols as they do get a pretty bad wrap but it is important to remember that not all alcohols are the same. There are some good types out there as well that have some great benefits to the skin, especially in terms of hydration and moisture retention. In saying that, as many of you also know, alcohols can be bad for the skin, but how? And in what way?

I have tried my best to explain everything as clearly as possible but if there are any mistakes, or if anything else can be added, let me know! I am learning too and any extra information or other takes are always great!

What is an Alcohol?
An alcohol, scientifically speaking and defined in the Oxford Dictionary is an organic compound whose molecule contains one or more hydroxyl groups attached to a carbon atom. In the world of skincare and cosmetics, alcohol comes in a variety of different forms and are used in a variety of different ways. They can be used as an absorbent, surfactant, emollient, emulsifier, preservative etc. It is also very important to understand that not all alcohols are made equal, or rather just because it is an alcohol or has alcohol in the name, doesn’t necessarily mean it has the same properties nor does it do the same things on a chemical level. To make things a bit easier, alcohols can be catergorised into 3 different types – simple alcohols, aromatic alcohols and fatty alcohols. 

Simple Alcohols
Simple alcohols are generally derived from carbohydrates such as sugars and starches, or can be synthetically produced and have a fluid water like appearance. Simple alcohols that we see in skincare are ingredients such are: alcohol, ethanol, alcohol denatured, alcohol denat., SD alcohol, isopropanol, isopropyl alcohol, IPA, methanol, methyl alcohol. 

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Many simple alcohols are much like those that we drink in beer, wine or spirits except that they would have undergone a further chemical process called denaturing. It is a requirement that any of these simple alcohols which are not to be consumed must undergo a process of ‘denaturing’ whereby it makes the ingredient taste bad (and therefore we do not want to consume it). 

Simple alcohols are the types of alcohols that actually give anything with the term alcohol in a skincare ingredient list a bad wrap. The reason being is that these types of alcohols are actually quite drying for the skin when used in excessive quantities. Simple alcohols have what is called a low molecular weight which allows the compound to sink into the skin easily. It does this by dissolving the oil on the skin but at the same time, whilst dissolving the oil, it also dries out the skin. It also potentially weakens the skin’s protective barrier making the skin more prone to irritations. Simple alcohols are a popular ingredient for many cosmetic companies due to the fact that they aid the product in feeling weightless and allows the product to absorb into the skin easily, it is also a common preservative/antibacterial as it does kill bacteria and is a fantastic solvent to mix together nicely to give the product a nice smooth, silky texture.  

So Why Do Simple Alcohols Get a Bad Name?
Simple alcohols used in high amounts have the potential to damage the skin’s natural barrier function. The barrier function of the skin is important to skin heath as it basically shields our skin from small micro-organsims such as bacteria, irritants such a pollutants, the elements etc. In a study conducted in 2003, scientists looked into hand hygiene of medical professionals and their skin health. This study found that doctors who used cleaning agents such as detergents or alcohol based antiseptics had a damaged barrier function and that the healthy fats in the skin (the barrier lipids) were low or not present within the skin. This made the medical professionals prone to an increased growth of bad bacteria in the skin, thus leading to skin problems or the skin being more prone to irritants. 

Another study conducted in 2002, has also found that simple alcohols (ethanol was used in this study) have the potential to cause cell death as it enhances an inflammatory response in the cells. A similar study was conducted in 2011, exploring the effects of alcohol cell death and if substances such as hyaluronic acid can help repair the cells, it also concluded that alcohol does have the potential to cause cell death. The jury is still out on this particular claim as it is very important to note that this study was done in a lab with lab samples. These lab samples have different characteristics to living, breathing, actual skin cells. In saying that, further studies will most likely need to be done to test these sorts of claims.

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Alcohol has also been reviewed and found to potentially make acne worse. In a review published in a journal article in 2011, it was discussed that many ingredients used in traditional acne medication and skincare (such as alcohol) can actually make acne worse over time. The reason being as the ingredients used in conjunction with alcohol dry out the skin and cause the skin to become more irritated. Alcohol in acne medication is used as an astringent to tighten pores, kill bacteria and also to manage the oil on the skin. How alcohol manages the oil on the skin, is simply the fact that it dissolves it, but it also dissolves those good oils that are vital to your skin health as well. As mentioned before, some of the oils on the skin are actually good for you and protect your from bacteria, irritants, etc. Damaging levels of these oils leaves your skin to be exposed to more bacteria and more irritants which can trigger more acne. The over production of oil in our skin (linked to acne) can also be simply due to the fact the skin is actually dehydrated. Dehydrated skin is not a skin type but an actual condition and therefore has nothing to do with the amount of oil produced. You can be an oily skin type but also have dehydrated skin from harsh products (ie. high in alcohol), change in weather or exposure to the elements. The skin can overproduce oil to compensate for the dehydrated  skin which in turn can clog pores and create pesky blemishes and breakouts.

For me, it is obvious that these simple alcohols are to be avoided especially those products that have simple alcohols listed as the first few ingredients on an ingredients list. Simple alcohols have the potential to dry out your skin and potentially cause further skin problems later on. If a product has one of these alcohols listed as one of the last 2 or 3 ingredients, I do not think there is a risk in reconsidering it and don’t completely rule it out. In saying that the product must be pretty fantastic too and of course your skin doesn’t react or break out from it, so take a sample where you can. Generally for me though, to keep it safe, I avoid any products with these simple alcohols in the ingredient list. I have tried products that are high in alcohol before and for me personally, it didn’t sit well with, my skin was irritated and very dry at the end of the day. It is for that reason, I make an effort to look out for simple alcohols when purchasing new products, as I know my skin doesn’t really like it too much. 

Aromatic Alcohols
Aromatic alcohols are very similar to the simple alcohols listed above, the main difference is that it has a pleasant smell to it (thus aromatic). It is generally found in fragrances or in some skincare which has a fragrance to it. They are generally derived from essential oils and can act as a fragrance enhancer or a preservative. The most common type of aromatic alcohol used in skincare is benzyl alcohol. 

Benzyl alcohol is a special type of alcohol as many organic or natural skincare companies will use this or have to use this as a preservative for the product for it to get approval to be sold commercially. In small doses, it is deemed to be safe when used in concentration of less than 1%. Benzyl alcohol is also produced quite naturally in plants such as jasmine or ylang ylang which is why many natural or skincare companies will favour it as their choice of preservative. However, it is actually still very similar to a simple alcohol in structure and in high doses can be very drying to the skin, especially when produced synthetically. It is also a possible irritant as per a study conducted in 2008. Benzyl alcohol used in organic skincare is favoured as this type of alcohol can be naturally derived from plants and botanicals. 

Generally speaking, aromatic alcohols such as benzyl alcohol specifically is considered to be safe in small doses. I can understand why many natural skincare companies use it as it is already in some botanicals. For these companies, a preservative of some sort is a requirement to keep the product stable. 

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Fatty Alcohols
Fatty alcohols are the ones you should not rule out on an ingredient list as these alcohols can actually be quite good for your skin! Fatty alcohols are generally derived from natural fats and oils such as coconut, palm oil, jojoba, etc but also can be derived synthetically as well. The types of fatty alcohols we see on an ingredients list are the following: cetyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol and myristyl alcohol. They appear to quite thick and almost wax like in appearance and texture.  I am sure that you can see already, they sound very different to the simple alcohols discussed earlier.

In skincare, fatty alcohols are typically used as emollients due to their wax like, oily properties. Emollients have the properties of soothing and/or softening the skin – which is an important feature in skincare. Cetyl alcohol is a good example of this, as it acts to help form a barrier layer of the skin so that water cannot escape, therefore locking in moisture to keep it nice and hydrated. Fatty alcohols can also be used as an emulsifier whereby the product can be mixed with water to give the finish of the product a smooth creamy consistencies. Another use for fatty alcohols is that it also acts like a thickener which is why we sometimes get those beautiful thick and luxurious creams.

Are All Fatty Alcohols Safe?
Whilst for most people, fatty alcohols do wonders for the skin, those with very, very sensitive skins also do need to be a little bit cautious of these alcohols as there have been studies that have shown that it can irritate the skin. In 2011, a review published in the Journal of Allergies discusses briefly how cetyl alcohol can be a potential irritant. It does go on to say, that the likelihood is low, but there have been cases of those have have become irritated to some fatty alcohols causing contact dermatitis. 

Another study published in 1996, looked into the occurrence of contact dermatitis (a type of eczema caused by an irritating factor) and fatty alcohols in topical creams. It tested 5 different types of fatty alcohols on 146 patients who suffer from contact dermatitis and found that 34 patients reacted to a patch test of the fatty alcohols, 33 of those patients reacted to a particular type of alcohol called oleyl alcohol and concluded that those who often suffer from contact dermatitis have a likelihood in reacting to this type of fatty alcohol in comparison to other fatty alcohols. 

As a general rule and from what I have read, I would conclude that fatty alcohols are generally safe for most people but those with very, very sensitive skin would be advised to patch test first with any products containing this alcohols just incase you get a reaction. The benefits of these alcohols are great for the skin, they hydrate the skin, keeping it plump and soft. It also has the anti-ageing benefits (in conjunction with other ingredients) of smoothing out fine lines in the skin over time. Fatty alcohols are great as they do help lock much needed moisture in our skin and also can have the benefits of soothing our skin when is it angry as well.  

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Final Words
So as you can see, not all alcohols are made equal in the world of skincare. Just because an ingredient listing says alcohol in it, doesn’t necessarily mean that it is bad for you or your skin. As discussed above, they all have very different properties and uses in the the cosmetics industry which I find fascinating. When looking at an ingredient list it is important to be aware exactly what alcohol you are looking at and what type of alcohol it is. From what I have read and understood, I think that fatty alcohols are generally quite safe to use and are quite good as its properties are mainly to moisturise and soften the skin. I also think that aromatic alcohols such as benzyl alcohol are generally safe, especially if it is plant derived and is used as a preservative in natural/organic skincare. Those with super sensitive skins may have to still be wary as it is known to be a potential irritant. The simple alcohols however, I try to avoid at all costs as it is conclusive that it is drying the the skin. The studies on cell death can be inconclusive but there is no argument that if used in excess doses, it can be drying.  However, if it is one of the last 3 ingredients then I MAY consider it depending on what the actual product can do for my skin. 


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