Alcohol in Skincare: The Facts

Alcohol is a carbon-containing compound, which has a hydroxyl (-OH) functional group attached to a carbon atom. Alcohol has been used for centuries as a beverage, solvent and medication. The antiseptic properties of alcohol have been well known since ancient times, though its use as an antiseptic has been documented only since the nineteenth century.

The preservative and solvent properties of alcohol have encouraged its use in cosmetics and skincare products. However, recently there have been several reports about the harmful effects that alcohol can have on your skin. Let’s take a look at the different types of alcohol that are added to skincare products, the reasons they are added and what harm or benefit they may cause to your skin.

Different Types of Alcohol in Skincare Products

The different types of alcohol that are used in skincare products are:

  1. Simple/denatured/rubbing
  2. Aromatic
  3. Fatty

Simple alcohol

Simple alcohols are alcohols with the general formula CnH2n+1OH. Methanol and ethanol are the two common alcohols in this group. They can either be produced from natural sources or they can be synthesized.

Simple alcohols are usually mentioned on cosmetic labels as ethanol, alcohol, SD alcohol, alcohol denat, alcohol denatured, IPA, isopropyl alcohol, methyl alcohol and methanol. On labels, the term “alcohol” by itself indicates ethyl alcohol or ethanol.

Denatured alcohol

Denatured alcohol is also known by other names such as methylated spirit or denatured rectified spirit. It is nothing but ethanol to which substances (especially petroleum-based) have been added to impart a foul-smell or bad taste and to even make it poisonous. This is to prevent human consumption for social activities.

Denatonium is a substance that is commonly added to denatured alcohol to make it bitter. Pyridine and methanol are often used to make rubbing alcohol poisonous. Denatured alcohol is used as a fuel and a solvent.

A modified version of denatured alcohol is special denatured alcohol (SDA). SDA is a combination of ethanol and ethyl acetate, the latter being added to make it unsuitable for consumption. SDA is commonly used in cosmetic products (as it is cheap) and in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries. You can identify the presence of SDA on cosmetic product labels by noticing the abbreviations SDA 29, 35, 35 A (ethanol + ethyl acetate) and SDA 40B (ethanol + tert-butyl alcohol/denatonium benzoate).

Rubbing alcohol

Rubbing alcohol or surgical spirit is commonly used as a topical antiseptic in the clinical setting. It is also used in industry and in households. It is extremely volatile and flammable and is also poisonous when inhaled or consumed.

These alcohols are often utilized in cosmetics and skincare products. You should avoid too much exposure to these alcohols as they evaporate quickly and dry out your skin. Anti-acne skincare products often contain high amounts of these alcohols. Astringents and toners available over-the-counter are a perfect example of these products.

On initial usage, they help in degreasing your skin and removing surface bacteria. However, when used for a long time, they interfere with the barrier function of the skin and dissolve the lipid layer which helps in protecting your skin and keeping it hydrated. When the skin barrier is impaired, it becomes prone to viruses, bacteria and allergens. When skin cells are dehydrated your chances of getting fine lines and wrinkles are increased. It also increases the risk of contact dermatitis.

Why do manufacturers add alcohols to skincare products?

Alcohols are good organic solvents

Alcohols are good solvents of substances that are not soluble in water. They help integrate the various ingredients in a formulation by increasing their solubility. This results in a well blended and smooth serum, cream or lotion that can be evenly applied to the skin and does not separate.

Alcohol has astringent properties

Alcohol removes water from the surface of the skin and causes the tightening of skin and the temporary closing of pores on the skin. Alcohols are common ingredients in toners and cleansers.

Alcohol increases the absorption of the active constituents in skincare formulations

Alcohols enhance the absorption of the active ingredients in creams and lotions, which encourages their use in skincare products. Alcohol increases the absorption of active constituents such as retinol and vitamin C by helping them penetrate into the deeper layers of the skin.

Alcohol is a good preservative

Alcohol has good antiseptic properties, which makes it useful in clinical settings. This anti-microbial property of alcohol makes it function as a preservative in skincare formulations and prevents microbial contamination of products. A skincare product which has 20% or greater quantity of alcohol is preserved naturally because of the high content of alcohol present in relation to the overall volume of the product.

Alcohol has quick-drying properties

Alcohols are volatile and when they are applied to the skin they have a cooling effect. This is because they evaporate from the skin surface quickly. The fast-drying property of alcohol makes it an ideal ingredient in products such as hair sprays so that the hair dries quickly once the hairspray has been applied.

Why is alcohol so commonly used in skincare products?

  • Alcohol helps to kill the bacteria that cause acne on the skin surface.
  • Alcohol de-greases the skin quickly, making these products appealing to individuals with oily complexions.
  • Alcohol gives the skin a cooling, refreshing and tight sensation.
  • It is a cheap ingredient, serving multiple purposes in the skincare products and having many short-term benefits for the skin.
  • Alcohol is capable of making a thick product feel weightless and creates a deceptively pleasing aesthetic look.
  • Your skin tries to keep the beneficial substances such as enzymes, lipids and antioxidants in the skincare products from getting inside. Alcohol helps ingredients such as vitamin C and retinol to penetrate your skin more effectively.

Why is Alcohol Bad for Your Skin?

Though alcohol in a skincare product may give you an initial cooling and refreshing feeling, it is bad for your skin when used in the long term. The following are some of the bad effects of alcohol on your skin:

Alcohol disrupts the skin’s barrier function

Prolonged use of formulations containing ethanol can harm the skin’s naturally protective sebum layer. This natural barrier helps protect the skin and prevents the entry of microbes, environmental pollutants and other irritants.

In a study published in The Journal of Hospital Infection, it was demonstrated that in medical professionals who often sanitized their hands with alcohol-based products, the healthy fat present in the barrier layer of their skin had been depleted as the alcohol had entered the skin. This made them prone to skin infections and skin irritation. It was found that replacing detergent cleansers with non-detergent hand soaps solved the issue.

Alcohol irritates the skin

According to a study done in 2008, the constant use of alcohol-based liquid hand cleansers can also irritate your skin and increase your risk of contact dermatitis. Moreover, the use of rubbing alcohol for disinfecting open wounds is discouraged as it has been found to delay skin healing. Iodine, sterile water or saline are better options for wound cleaning.

Alcohol has a drying effect on the skin

Alcohol has hygroscopic properties so it extracts water from the skin. It has been found that moisturizing creams containing ethanol initially moisturize your skin; however, on repeated application, the ethanol in these creams dries your skin further and you are forced to use more and more of the cream to prevent skin drying.

If the alcohol content in your formulation is 5% or less, it may not dry your skin as this small amount of alcohol evaporates as you apply the formulation.

Alcohol can cause the death of skin cells and harm the skin

In a 2002 study published in the journal Alcohol, alcohol was reported to cause the death of skin cells by activating an inflammatory response in them. Cultured skin cells were treated with different concentrations of ethanol and it was found that ethanol, even at low concentrations, has the potential to damage skin cells. Further, the higher the dose of alcohol and the longer the time of exposure the more damage was caused to these cells.

Another 2010 study published in the journal Clinical Biochemistry reported similar findings that alcohol can cause the death of skin cells.

Alcohol can aggravate acne symptoms

In a research study, it was shown that conventional formulations used to treat acne contain alcohol, which can worsen acne symptoms. What alcohol does here is

  • Help kill the microbes on the affected skin and remove excess oil from the skin. Its astringent properties can help shrink and tighten the skin pores.
  • Removes the excess oil from the skin by dissolving it.

However, it doesn’t differentiate between good and bad oils and it also removes the nutritious oils from the skin, thus stripping the skin of nutrition. Moreover, these oils help protect your skin from microbes, pollutants and irritants. Due to the removal of these oils, your acne can actually get worse over time. Alcohol causes dryness and skin irritation, leading to more oil production, which results in the clogging of skin pores; thereby, worsening your acne.

Aromatic alcohol

Aromatic alcohols are compounds that contain a –OH group attached to a carbon atom that is in turn attached to the aromatic ring. They have properties similar to simple alcohols and are obtained from essential oils.

Unlike simple alcohols, aromatic alcohols have a strong fragrance. They are used in perfumes and skincare products for their anti-microbial and aromatic properties. They are used as preservatives and fixatives. These alcohols are added to skincare products in small amounts. They are usually indicated at the end of the list of ingredients on the label of your skincare and cosmetic products.

The most common aromatic alcohol used in skincare formulations is benzyl alcohol. The other commonly used aromatic alcohol is phenethyl alcohol.

Some quick facts about benzyl alcohol:

  • Commonly recommended preservative that is approved by the regulatory bodies. It is obtained from the jasmine plant and is, therefore, a preferred preservative and aromatic agent for companies selling natural skincare products.
  • Considered safe when its concentration in formulations is less than 1%.
  • However, at high concentrations, it can dry the skin and cause harmful effects similar to simple alcohols. In a research study published in The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, benzyl alcohol was identified as a possible irritant.
  • Benzyl alcohol from natural sources is a commonly preferred choice rather than benzyl alcohol synthesized from synthetic sources.

Aromatic alcohols can also be synthesized from synthetic sources and these may be highly toxic. They can cause skin sensitivities and allergies. The problem arises from the fact that the synthetic version can be listed on the label without being given an identification of being synthetic as it has an identical chemical composition to natural version.

So how are the natural and the synthetic versions differentiated?

The natural aromatic alcohols are more expensive; hence, unless a skincare product is certified independently as organic and natural, then it is highly likely that the aromatic alcohol used in the product is of a synthetic type. The price of the product is also an indicator of whether the natural or synthetic version has been used in a skincare product. For instance, phenethyl alcohol derived from plants costs approximately $5000 per 2.20 pounds. Benzyl alcohol is used more commonly as even the version derived from plants is cheaper in comparison to phenethyl alcohol.

Fatty Alcohols

Fatty alcohols are generally considered to be good alcohols. They are produced from natural sources such as palm oil, jojoba oil and coconut oil. They can also be synthesized from synthetic sources such as petroleum. Commonly used fatty alcohols that you can identify on skincare product labels include:

  • Oleyl alcohol: It is derived from beef fat, fish or olive oil.
  • Stearyl alcohol: It is derived from stearic acid, a fatty acid occurring naturally from vegetable fatty acids or coconut oil. It can be used either as an emulsifier or emollient.
  • Cetyl alcohol: It is derived from coconut oil.
  • Cetearyl alcohol: It is derived from palm oil or coconut oil fatty acids. It is a type of emulsifying wax, which is used to stabilize and soften thick formulations such as skin ointments.

Other fatty alcohols include Behenyl, decyl, caprylyl/caprylate, lauryl, myristyl and isostearyl.

When reading a label, you can find a fatty alcohol by noticing the common ending ‘-yl’ in each alcohol name.

On certain cosmetic labels they may mention that their product is alcohol-free; however, the product may still contain the fatty alcohols. It is important that you read the entire label carefully.

Fatty alcohols are thick and wax-like in its consistency. This makes them a good choice as emollients to soften and smooth the skin. Cetyl alcohol is a common choice of emollient. It forms a layer on the skin, which traps the water on the skin and prevents it from escaping, thereby inhibiting skin dehydration.

Fatty alcohols are also used as emulsifiers to form uniform formulations with a creamy and smooth finish. They are also used to thicken formulations yielding thick and creamy products. Fatty alcohols have a good moisturizing effect and can make the skin soft and smooth. They also have anti-aging properties and prevent wrinkles from forming. The benefits that fatty alcohols render outweigh any harm that they may cause.

What are the harmful effects of fatty alcohols?

Fatty alcohols are considered relatively safe when compared to simple and aromatic alcohols. However, they may cause allergic reactions in people who have sensitive skin. Though the probability is lower, some fatty alcohols such as cetyl alcohol can behave as allergens and cause skin conditions such as contact dermatitis.

A research study was conducted in patients suffering from contact dermatitis where a patch test was performed with fatty alcohols. The results showed that compared to other fatty alcohols the number of patients who reacted to oleyl alcohol was higher. Oleyl alcohol may not be safe for patients with contact dermatitis.

How can you recognize that alcohol is present in a skincare product?

While reading a skincare product’s label you can recognize a bad alcohol (simple alcohols) by a name ending in “ol” and good alcohol (fatty alcohols) by a name ending in “yl”.

Who started this Idea that alcohol is bad for your skin?

Paula Begoun, also known as “The Cosmetics Cop”, has written quite a lot against using alcohol in skincare products. According to her, alcohol is a problem when present as a major ingredient in a skincare product. She stated that though alcohol evaporates quickly from the skin, it still starts harming the skin immediately when applied and this harm continues for a long time even after its evaporation.

Once the barrier of your skin has been broken by alcohol, the skin is no longer the same and is not capable of protecting itself from damage caused by other ingredients such as cleansing agents. She quotes a 2003 study which demonstrated that when your skin is regularly exposed to skincare products containing alcohol, it gets damaged and is no longer capable of keeping cleansing agents and water from entering its deeper layers.

She further stated that nowadays most healthcare professionals don’t utilize alcohol for the cleaning of wounds. She stated that alcohol is not only destructive but also ineffective in sterilizing open and wounded skin. According to a report published in the journal Dermatology Clinics, it has been demonstrated in various studies that alcohol has little benefit in disinfecting and sterilizing open wounds. Antiseptics and alcohol get inactivated by organic matter including serous fluid, pus, foreign bodies and clotted blood. Though alcohol is able to disinfect skin, applying it to open wounds is harmful. According to WebMD, applying alcohol to clean a wound or an injury may delay healing and harm the tissue.

Paula Begoun also quoted the Neuman study and stated that a small quantity of alcohol, when applied to skin cells in the lab over a period of two days, increased cell death by 26%. Alcohol also destroyed substances present in cells which help in the reduction of inflammation and fight free radical damage.

Does an alternate perspective exist about the use of alcohol in skincare?

A company called Madara Organic Skincare has presented certain facts that put forward an alternate perspective on the use of alcohol in skin care.

  1. The company claims that alcohol does not dry your skin because, in a research study, it was found that no transepidermal loss of water occurs after application of ethanol on the skin surface. It also cites a research study where the results show that ethanol-based hand sanitizers have a better anti-microbial effect than washing the hands with soap and water.
  2. The company claims that scientific data shows that alcohol does not cause irritation of skin even when applied in its purest form (100%). It also claims that ethanol has been used topically as surgical spirit (it contains 70-80% of ethanol in water) for centuries and its irritant effect has not been a concern for people. A patch test study on skin was done using 100% ethanol demonstrated no redness of the intact skin.
  3. The company claims that allergic reactions to alcohol have not been clearly documented so far.
  4. The company claims that the amount of alcohol that penetrates the skin from skincare products is very low. It cites a research study where topical application of even high concentrations of ethanol did not result in the detection of alcohol in the blood. It states that alcohol is not absorbed in the skin partly because it is lost due to evaporation and partly due to its molecular structure. It also cites studies which demonstrate that topical preparations containing ethanol are safe and do not cause significant alcohol absorption.
  5. The company claims that alcohol cannot damage the skin as it rapidly evaporates from the skin with a half-life of 11.7 seconds. Since it is not retained on the skin for a long period of time it cannot damage the skin. It is a safer preservative in skincare products compared to other preservatives, which are retained on the skin. It also cites toxicity studies, which reveal that natural alcohol is a safer preservative in comparison to butylparaben and phenoxyethanol. In fact, it is the most gentle compound on the skin.

Another website, also writes that alcohol is safe to use in skincare products. The website claims the following about alcohol in skincare:

  1. Alcohol, when applied topically, does not release free radicals. Alcohol ingestion in excessive amounts causes the release of free radicals in the body which results in damage to the cells and DNA. However, drinking alcohol and applying it topically are two different things. Even if you take them as the same thing, it can be argued that alcohol consumption in moderate amounts is considered good for a person’s general health. It protects the heart by relaxing the blood vessels, increasing levels of HDL cholesterol, decreasing levels of LDL cholesterol, preventing clot formation and reducing platelet aggregation. Hence, even if the alcohol present in cosmetic products gets absorbed into the body, it will amount to moderate consumption which is beneficial for your health.
  2. The author of the article states that using cell cultures is not the same as applying alcohol topically to a living organism, thereby challenging the Neuman study that was published in the journal Alcohol. According to the author, if alcohol is capable of causing destruction and it actually destroys important protective layers of the skin, then why do physicians use rubbing alcohol in the cleaning of a wound?
  3. The author states that though alcohol is drying when it is used in a well-formulated skincare product, it can be beneficial as it thins out the solution and increases its penetration in the skin and its efficacy.

In conclusion…

Alcohol has been used by several civilizations since ancient times. It is the oldest known antiseptic and sedative. Since the advance of the pharmaceutical industry, alcohol is commonly used as a preservative and solvent in skincare products. There are several reports indicating the possible harmful effects of alcohol. There are also alternate claims that alcohol is indeed safe.

As consumers, it is your responsibility to make an educated choice on a case by case basis about whether to use alcohol-based products or not. Before deciding, clarify with your healthcare provider if you are prescribed alcohol-based skincare products. Moreover, you can avoid the drying alcohols and go for products containing fatty alcohols which have fewer harmful effects on the skin. You can also opt for alternate safe and equally efficacious skincare products that are alcohol-free and are readily available on the market.