Not all alcohol is created equal. There’s the alcohol behind the bar, the alcohol in hand sanitizer, and the alcohol in your skin care. So is using a toner with alcohol in it the same as rubbing vodka on your face? Well, no, but it’s a multifaceted answer that warrants an entire blog post, so keep reading to find out what type of alcohols are in skin care and what they do to our skin.
What exactly is alcohol
Alcohol is an umbrella term used to describe any organic compound where a hydroxyl group (an oxygen atom bonded to a hydrogen atom/-OH) is bound to a carbon atom. The only thing that all alcohols have in common is that hydroxyl group, but other than that, the molecule structure can be completely different.
In skin care there’s a multitude of alcohol ingredients that may be included in the formula. Some good, and some… the complete opposite. So let’s break all the different alcohol ingredients down so you can be an expert skin care mixologist.
Types of alcohol commonly found in skin care
The alcohol most commonly found in skin care is Ethanol, also listed as ethyl alcohol, SD alcohol or alcohol denat, which is essentially the same alcohol that’s found in alcoholic beverages. Isopropyl alcohol which is the alcohol found in rubbing alcohol is also common in skin care.
These may also be listed on ingredient labels as denatured alcohol, alcohol Denat or SD Alcohol, which is simply the pure alcohol mixed with a small amount of an extra ingredient (such as pine oil or methanol) mixed in to discourage people from consuming it.
Many skin care products use these alcohols, known as simple alcohols, as solvents to help dissolve other ingredients in water based solutions, and aid in your skin’s absorption of the product.
Cleansers and toners aimed at acne-prone, oily skin may also choose to use alcohol to reduce oil production and dry up breakouts. Simple alcohols dry out skin quickly and provide that tight, refreshed feeling which at first seems like an easy solution for oily skin, but there’s a difference between diminishing oil to a healthy point, and completely dehydrating your skin.
Negative effects of alcohol in skin care
Alcohol can completely strip your skin of oil, and at first you may get the matte look you desire, but after time, your skin will lack some vital natural oils, and become dull and flaky. Your skin can ever realize how parched it is, and begin to overcompensate by producing an excessive amount of oil, completely negating the initial intention of the alcohol.
It can also be too harsh and abrasive for your delicate skin. Alcohol breaks down the barrier of the skin which can make skin more prone to breakouts, inflammation, and redness, and continued usage could lead to damaged cells which causes rapid signs of aging.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, it can cause further inflammation and redness for those with existing skin conditions like rosacea and eczema. If you have any type of skin condition, it’s best to find a skin care routine that helps and soothes your symptoms rather than one than exacerbates them.
Not only does alcohol itself have an effect on your skin, but one study shows that adding alcohol to products may make your skin more susceptible to absorbing other harmful and toxic ingredients that are present.
So in general, alcohol is not a friend to your skin.
Alcohol ingredients that are not bad for your skin
However, there’s a whole other side to alcohol ingredients, and not all alcohol ingredients are drying and damaging to your skin. Fatty alcohols like cetearyl, cetyl, propylene glycol, and stearyl alcohol are derived from amino acids and are not common irritants.
While simple alcohols break down the lipids (essential fats in your skin barrier), fatty alcohols can actually help restore them which will help provide protection from environmental stressors, bacteria, and allergens, and aid in locking moisture into the outer layer of skin.
What to avoid, and what to embrace
Fatty alcohols are generally safe for your skin (unless you have a specific allergy or sensitivity. Remember to always check with a doctor or dermatologist if a new product is irritating you) and can be beneficial for your skin’s barrier and overall health.
Very small amounts of simple alcohol ingredients aren’t the end of the world, and can be efficient in spot treating acne, but using it all over your face almost completely ensures dryness, redness, and a weakened skin barrier. So if you see a skin cream, toner, or serum with one or more simple alcohols on the ingredient list, it’s best to leave it on the shelf.
Now that you have a general knowledge of the typical types of alcohol found in skin care, you can go forward and seek out what’s best for your skin.
Will isopropyl alcohol in skin products be fine?