Alcohol is one of the most controversial and unpopular ingredients in the skincare industry. While there is a lot of contradictory information surrounding alcohol in skincare, should you toss out every skincare product with alcohol from your stash? While even a little content of alcohol can be too drying or sensitizing for some people, we believe that there are a lot of factors that should be taken into account in a formulation and alcohol can also be a good addition in the arsenal to create a better skincare experience for another skin type. So, let’s learn about the two sides to every story of alcohol.
What is alcohol?
Alcohol in chemistry terms actually means a molecule with a hydroxyl group at one end and it encompasses a vast number of organic molecules. This includes alcohol that you drink, rubbing alcohol for your wound to even retinol. Although fall into the same group of ‘alcohol’ they can have a very different structure, weight, and properties.
However, when we are talking about skincare, alcohol is closely linked to ingredients that are irritating and drying for your skin that originates from the nature of ‘ethanol’. Although it may be right for a certain type of alcohol by itself, however, there are a lot of other factors that have to be taken into account. On top of that, there are a lot more other types of alcohol that can actually benefit and hydrate our skin!
Types of alcohol
Here are the two types of alcohol we commonly see in skincare products:
Simple alcohol is low molecular weight alcohol. Meanwhile, fatty alcohol derived from the fatty acids in plant/vegetable oils leaves a thick, waxy texture at room temperature as an emollient in skincare.
Fun fact: glycerin and butylene glycol which work as a humectant on your moisturizer are also alcohol since it holds the –OH hydroxyl group. Contrary to popular belief, this type of alcohol is super moisturizing instead.
Benefits and drawbacks of alcohol
Simple alcohol in skincare:
Simple alcohol is a volatile ingredient that evaporates pretty quickly. The fear behind simple alcohol came from the fact that simple alcohol at much higher concentration (60-80% alcohol) has been shown to be irritating and damaging the skin barrier. This comes irrelevant sometimes when it comes to skincare since they serve their own purpose in a formulation for some of these reasons:
• Dissolves ingredients (solvents)
Water and oil just separate and won’t be able to dissolve together. This is where alcohol comes into play and dissolves these ingredients. For example Salicylic acid (oil-soluble).
• Facilitate penetration
It helps several types of active ingredients reach the deeper layer of the skin and increase effectiveness. For example vitamin C or vitamin A
• Extraction of plant extracts
Alcohol is often used in the process of plant extraction due to its solubility.
At a high percentage, it can be used as a preservative (rarely).
• Improves texture
It helps the formula to set and spread better on the skin while giving its thin and desirable texture. For this reason, products with simple alcohol in them may be more desirable for oily skin types who seek lighter texture products that won’t leave skin feeling heavy/greasy.
Fatty alcohol in skincare
It is emollient and is often used as part of moisturizing products. It is commonly used in skin care product as:
Hold products together so it doesn’t separate
• Texture enhancer
Used to reach the desired texture of products in a formula
It makes the surface of our skin feel smoother and softer by filling in the gaps between our skin cells.
Due to their properties, fatty alcohol is desirable for those with dehydration and drier skin type since it really helps to seal in the moisture on the skin.
Moderation is key
We believe that moderation is key in life and skincare. Too much of anything is good for nothing.
At a high percentage and accumulatively from several products at once this simple alcohol may be drying or irritating those with very sensitive skin shown as redness, flaky skin, or burning sensation. On top of that simple alcohol may at the same time accelerate the penetration of active ingredients as well as potential irritants to the deeper layer of our skin which induce negative reactions.
That’s why people with sensitive skin (eczema, rosacea) are advised to avoid alcohol in their skincare product just to be safe to prevent flare-ups. Since formulation does matter and some people even with sensitive skin can still tolerate a little amount of alcohol in their skincare products. Although it is not an absolute rule and doesn’t apply to ALL skincare products with ‘alcohol’ in them.
The same goes with fatty alcohol, due to their naturally-derived source, it still carries an irritating potential for some skin that is particularly allergic to the natural source component, like coconut or palm oil. On top of that, due to their thick nature, it has the potential of clogging the pores, especially for an oilier skin type.
Think of alcohol like chili in your dish, it adds flavor but the ‘amount’ you put on it greatly determines how it tastes for you. Someone may like it, but some may not, but overall it does add up to the flavor. What the fear-mongering marketing has highlighted is how drying alcohol is by itself, is like thinking about how spicy chili can be eaten by itself, without taking into consideration the other spices or ingredients put in a dish!
So, should I avoid alcohol in my skincare?
Not really. We should not look into ‘alcohol’ as the bad guy in skincare since there are always two sides to the story in alcohol.
Overall, there are many types of alcohol and it can’t be generalized looking into the variety of formulations available in the market. If you have oily skin, you may even prefer and like those with simple alcohol in them. If you have dry skin, you may love fatty alcohol since it helps hug in all the water your skin needs.
We should keep in mind that alcohol may play its own role in a formula that creates the final desirable effectiveness and texture. Ultimately, it comes back to your skin type and listens to what your skin really needs.