Updated 10/10/22. As a skincare consumer, you’ve put a lot of time and effort into educating yourself on the best ingredients to use (and avoid). If you’ve done research concerning skincare ingredients, chances are you’ve come across a warning to avoid alcohol in skincare at all costs.
If there’s one thing you’ll learn from my blog, it’s that the world of cosmetic chemistry is rarely black and white. Alcohol in skincare is no exception, and I’m here to tell you it should NOT always be avoided. In fact, there are many types of alcohol that can be really beneficial in skincare. Keep reading to learn which types of alcohol can harm your skin and which can improve it!
What Classifies Something as Alcohol?
First up, what is alcohol? In cosmetic chemistry, an “alcohol” is any molecule with a hydroxyl group (-OH). This is simply a hydrogen and an oxygen bonded together. As you can imagine, this is a very broad and extremely diverse group of chemicals that all affect the skin differently.
For example, both retinol and vitamin E are technically alcohols. Neither of these acts the way we expect traditional alcohol to act, and yet, they fall under the same classification, chemically speaking. Alcohols can function as almost anything, including humectants, emollients, antioxidants, emulsifiers, surfactants, and more.
When people talk about “bad” or “good” alcohol, they’re usually referring to drying vs. non-drying alcohol.
So what causes some forms of alcohol to have a drying effect on the skin? The main factor is the size of the molecule. Drying alcohols, or simple alcohols, have a more basic molecular structure than non-drying alcohols. This means they have a relatively low molecular weight, which causes them to evaporate into the air quickly. In addition to this, they’re really good at cutting through and solubilizing oil. If drying alcohols are applied to the skin too often or in high concentrations, the result is a disrupted moisture barrier, which leads to dryness and irritation.
If you’re looking to avoid drying alcohol in skincare, here are the most common ones:
- Isopropyl Alcohol
- Denatured Alcohol
- SD Alcohols 40 & 38
Why Are Drying Alcohols Used in Skincare Products?
You might be wondering why these ingredients would ever be included in a skincare product when they have the potential to be so damaging. Cosmetic formulations are created very intentionally, and drying alcohols do have their place. Sometimes they’re used to solubilize active ingredients, such as salicylic acid, to help them get into the skin. In that same vein, alcohols can be used as a penetration enhancer to make a formula more effective overall. They can also help control the texture or stability of a formula or be used in a spot treatment that’s meant to be drying.
Should You Always Avoid Drying Alcohols in Skincare Products?
Not necessarily. It’s true that drying alcohols should be avoided in skincare products if they’re being used at more than a fraction of a percent, and of course, you wouldn’t want to use an alcohol-based product. (Think astringent toners from the ’90s. Yikes! That’s why I formulate all my toners without drying alcohol.) That said, you don’t necessarily need to write a product off just because drying alcohol is listed in the ingredients—just make sure it’s listed toward the end. I’ve written about this before, but ingredient percentages and overall formulation are everything when determining if a product will work for you.
If a small amount of drying alcohol is needed for something like penetration enhancement, it’s usually offset with a lot of other hydrating ingredients. For many people, this will be enough to mitigate any negative effects. However, if you have sensitive skin or conditions like rosacea or eczema, I’d suggest avoiding products with drying alcohols altogether (no matter how low the concentration may be).
Non-drying alcohols, often referred to as fatty alcohols, are chemically much more complex than simple, drying alcohols. (You can see this represented a bit in the image above.) Since the molecules are bigger, they have a higher molecular weight. This means they actually sit on the skin rather than immediately evaporating and leading to dryness.
Truth be told, the list of non-drying alcohols is actually very extensive thanks to the fact that so many ingredients can technically be classified under the umbrella of “alcohol.” I’ll spare you, though, and stick to listing a few of the most common fatty alcohols in skincare:
- Cetyl Alcohol
- Oleyl Alcohol
- Stearyl Alcohol
- Vitamin E (Tocopherol)
- Propylene Glycol
Why Are Non-Drying Alcohols Used in Skincare Products?
As I mentioned earlier, this category is vast and covers ingredients that serve a wide range of functions. More specifically, though, the fatty alcohols listed above are often used as hydrators or emollients. This means they either help the skin hold on to moisture (the opposite of their drying counterparts!), or they help to soften and smooth the skin. Not only are these alcohols non-drying, but they can also be very beneficial to the skin in many ways and there is absolutely no reason to avoid using them.
Should You Always Avoid Skincare Products With Alcohol?
As you can see, the answer is no! It’s true that drying alcohol should be avoided by those with sensitive skin, and no one should use skincare products with high concentrations of drying alcohol. That said, if a tiny amount is used for something like penetration enhancement, it’s usually okay for most skin types as long as the rest of the product formulation is thoughtfully crafted to offset the possible drying effects of the alcohol.
Non-drying or fatty alcohols, however, don’t need to be avoided by anyone and can be very beneficial to the skin.
I hope this clears things up! Next, learn 5 skincare mistakes almost everyone makes (and how to fix them).
Celebrity Esthetician & Skincare Expert
As an esthetician trained in cosmetic chemistry, Renée Rouleau has spent 30 years researching skin, educating her audience, and building an award-winning line of products. Her hands-on experience as an esthetician and trusted skin care expert has created a real-world solution — products that are formulated for nine different types of skin so your face will get exactly what it needs to look and feel its best. Trusted by celebrities, editors, bloggers, and skincare obsessives around the globe, her vast real-world knowledge and constant research are why Marie Claire calls her “the most passionate skin practitioner we know.”