Alcohol is going to kill your skin cells!
Alcohol leads to premature aging!
Alcohol is drying and destroys the skin barrier!
I bet you have heard that before. But if it is true, why is it still present in skincare? Are companies deliberately trying to harm their customers?
I don´t think so. But let´s talk about it: the different kinds of alcohol, the benefits of using it in skincare and the possible side effects it can have.
What is an alcohol and what different kinds are there?
Going back to basic chemistry, an alcohol is a carbon based structure with a hydroxyl group (OH). As that is rarely printed on the INCI list though, I will give you some actual ingredient names instead:
First, the so-called „drying alcohols“ which, you guessed it, are the ones mainly referred to when you talk about „bad“ alcohol. They are listed as:
- Alcohol denat.
- SD Alcohol
Then there are so called „fatty alcohols“ like Cetyl Alcohol which due to their chemical structure are used as emollients, so a completely different thing than the „drying“ ones.
And lastly Glycerin, which you probably know as effective humectant, but which by structure also qualifies as alcohol.
Then there is the kind of alcohol you will not find in skincare: Methanol.
Methanol is absorbed through the skin and can lead to seizures or other neurological symptoms – something that quite recently led to a recall of DIY hand sanitizers.
So yes, not all alcohols are created equal.
As I am no chemist though and had to dig deep in my memory to come up with the information provided above, let´s stick to the main culprit, the „drying alcohols“ from here.
Benefits of using alcohol in skincare products
As I mentioned before, I do not believe that companies are going out of their way to harm their customers, so there must be a reason why alcohol is still present in so many formulas. Or, actually, several reasons:
Alcohol is a solvent
If you want to combine different ingredients, you need to get them to mix. The most common solvent used is water, but some ingredients (like Salicylic Acid for example) don´t mix very well with water, so you need something „stronger“.
This is especially important when it comes to formulating a sunscreen – in sunscreens, the protecting filters need to form an even layer. Patchy application reduces the protection you get (see more here), so you will often find alcohol used as solvent in sunscreens or BHA products.
Alcohol is used to extract beneficial ingredients from plants
If you want to get the beneficial parts of a plant, you need to extract them from the leaf/flower/root/wherever you want to take them from. As alcohol is great at solving things, especially oily ones, it is often used in that process. And if the alcohol isn´t completely gone by the time you are done extracting and you put the plant extract into your product, alcohol will be listed on the INCI list.
Alcohol improves texture
Alcohol is very volatile, meaning it evaporates from your skin. So if you have it in your formula, it disappears when applied to the skin, which makes the pro-duct „dry down“ or „sink in“ quicker. It basically feels much more lightweight than it would otherwise.
Alcohol is a penetration enhancer
On a microscopic level alcohol leads to changes in the skin barrier due to changes in the lipid structure and some enzymes. This is only temporary, but means that ingredients that are applied alongside alcohol have a bigger chance of penetrating deeper into the layers of the skin. Great if you deal with ingredients that have a hard time penetrating otherwise!
Side effects of alcohol in skincare
What I said in the beginning does sound kind of scary and while it is of course not true, it is not without some truth, so let’s play a game of True or False.
Alcohol is going to kill your skin cells – True or false?
True – if you put your isolated cells in a petri dish and soak them in pure alcohol, which couldn´t be further away from the way we use it in skincare.
Alcohol itself is volatile, meaning it evaporates when it is exposed to air, so the majority of alcohol from your product goes up in the air, which then again means that the concentration of alcohol actually on your skin is too low to do damage to your cells.
On top of that your skins upper layer is made up of already dead cells – no harm to be done here or, to quote Game of Thrones
„What Is Dead May Never Die!“
It is unlikely that alcohol would penetrate deep enough to reach any living cells, and even if it did, again, the concentration would be way too low to do any harm.
Alcohol leads to premature aging – True or false?
False – alcohol in itself will of course not make wrinkles magically appear, but alcohol in high concentrations might lead to irritation, which can lead to inflammation, which again is responsible for skin aging.
But how high is that risk?
Thanks to the recent pandemic we have seen an increased use of mostly alcohol based hand sanitizers used frequently without a report of skin inflammation on the hands. In addition these hand sanitizers were looked at in a few studies to determine the risk for irritation, used in much higher concentrations and much more frequently than alcohol-containing skincare products would have been used, and no adverse reaction was found.
Alcohol is drying and destroys the skin barrier – True or False?
True-ish, I guess? I mentioned before that alcohol leads to microscopic changes in the upper layer of the skin, which makes them more permeable, both for ingredients that want to go in as well as for water that wants to go out. That change is temporary, so surely it is not a destruction of the skin barrier, merely a small alteration, but it could lead to dry skin.
… we talk about pure alcohol only. As always in skincare, the formula is much more important than the individual ingredient, so if you pair alcohol with hydrating ingredients, it will probably not be drying at all, but instead rather moisturizing.
Bottom line – Is alcohol in skincare bad for you?
Alcohol in skincare has many beneficial effects that outweigh the negative by far, especially if you take into account that these side effects occur if you use high concentrations of pure alcohol rather than the carefully formulated versions you get in skincare.
Do I recommend seeking out alcohol as skincare ingredient? No, but there is absolutely no harm in using a product that works well for you, but contains a certain amount of alcohol denat.