Is Alcohol in Skincare Bad? A Chemist and Dermatologist Break It Down
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There are many controversial ingredients in skin care, but one that remains high on the list is alcohol. You may have seen warnings about alcohol in skin care on TikTok and Reddit, with people talking about how alcohol is drying and can cause inflammation and maybe even speed up aging. But is any of this really true? If the ingredient is so bad, why do so many skincare products contain it?
We all want to be conscious consumers when it comes to what we put on our face—or anywhere on our body for that matter—so it’s important to make sure to get the facts straight. To get to the bottom of whether or not alcohol in skin care is bad, we talked to two experts—a dermatologist and a cosmetic chemist—who broke it down for us. Because of its many different names and types, it can be sneaky, so here’s what you should be on the lookout for the next time you go shopping for skin care.
What is alcohol?
“In science, the term alcohol is a generic term that refers to a broad range of organic compounds,” says Onyeka Obioha, M.D., a Beverly Hills-based board-certified dermatologist. "For instance, some brands use 'fatty alcohols,' which are waxy substances derived from plant sources to help stabilize moisturizing creams and lotion and even act as an emollient, delivering moisture to the skin as they are derived from oils. Other alcohols are cetyl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol, and behenyl alcohol, she explains. So when people refer to alcohol in skin care, they could be talking about several types.
Why is alcohol sometimes used in skincare products?
"There are two reasons that alcohol is used in some skincare products," says Dr. Shuting Hu, a cosmetic chemist and founder of Acaderma. The first is to reduce sebum secretion or minimize the appearance of pores for those with oily skin. The second is that alcohol is used as a solvent of active ingredients, but the percentage is very low and people usually don’t need to worry about it, Dr. Hu tells us. This can help to allow creams and serums to feel lighter while helping other active ingredients to better penetrate and absorb into your skin.
"Some skincare brands use certain types of alcohol to help increase the penetration of key skincare ingredients," Dr. Obioha explains. "The inclusion of [these alcohols] ensures there are no residual surface oils on the epidermis, which may inhibit an unbuffered delivery of skin actives."
One other reason alcohol may be present in skin care is to provide long-lasting fragrance. These are known as aromatic alcohols, and one of the most common examples is benzyl alcohol. It occurs naturally and is found in the fragrance makeup of several essential oils (such as jasmine), but it can also be chemically produced in order to stabilize certain scents. However, it should be noted that high amounts of aromatic alcohol can irritate sensitive skin.
Alcohol as an ingredient in skin care is generally considered safe, which is why it appears in products. "There are no countries or regulating entities that have alcohol on a banned list of ingredients to use," says Dr. Hu. "However, it’s important to educate yourself on how alcohol can affect your skin so that you can choose the right products for your skin type and skin needs."
Is alcohol in skin care bad?
If alcohol is not on any banned lists of ingredients, it can't be all bad—and some types are quite helpful for allowing other ingredients to work properly. On this, Dr. Obioha says, "Not all alcohol is created equally, yet it gets a bad rap in skin care."
It all comes down to being a smart and informed consumer. One thing to look out for is the percent of alcohol concentration in any given product. While small percentages (less than 1%) used as solvents are typically fine, according to Dr. Hu, one dermatological study conducted by the University of Toronto and the Departments of Clinical Pharmacology, Dermatology, and Medicine found that products with just 3% of alcohol (in the form of ethanol) resulted in more rapid skin cell death/aging by 26%.
"When looking at the ingredients of your skincare products, you should look out for some of the 'bad alcohols,' like benzyl alcohol and methanol, as they contain a lot of impurities," advises Dr. Hu. "The impurities in the 'bad' alcohols can be toxic and cause a lot of problems for your skin. These alcohols can damage the skin barrier and strip away the skin’s natural oils," she says. In short, they're too strong for the skin and can cause more harm than good, including breakouts, skin irritation, and redness, along with causing more visible aging.
Another alcohol to look out for and avoid is isopropyl alcohol, which is the main alcohol type you see in hand sanitizers. "These can be irritating to the skin," says Dr. Obioha. According to her, a good rule of thumb is to try to avoid "simple alcohols" on your face, which are typically evaporative solvent alcohols like SD alcohol 40, ethanol, isopropyl alcohol, and denatured alcohol. "These are, for the most part, drying and potentially damaging for many skin types, particularly anyone with dry or sensitive skin or who has rosacea," she says.
However, Dr. Oboiha says that there are generally non-irritating types of alcohol, too. These are known as fatty alcohols and include types such as cetyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol, and cetearyl alcohol. As opposed to the simple alcohols, these can actually help improve skin texture and complexion while also protecting it and keeping it moisturized. Typically, she says these types of alcohols are safe and non-irritating for all skin types and are okay to use on your face.
All that being said: "If you want to avoid adverse reactions, be sure to double-check the ingredients label before adding a new product to your skincare routine," advises Dr. Hu. "And if you're unsure about an ingredient on the list, click over to the Environmental Working Group's website to quickly uncover whether or not it's safe for your skin type."
Should people try to avoid alcohol in skin care?
Not necessarily. Both our experts say that when it comes to alcohol in skin care, it's important to know your skin type and be conscious about what works for your face versus what might irritate it.
For example, if you tend to have dry, sensitive, or rosacea-prone skin, you should stay away from skincare products with a high alcohol concentration. Since many toners are formulated with alcohol, you should opt for an alcohol-free option. However, people with oily skin may benefit from a toner with a bit of alcohol as it could help control excessive oil.
The bottom line: Some alcohols are safe to use without any skin damage, but some aren’t. As a rule of thumb, Dr. Hu says that skincare products with an alcohol content greater than 1% can be irritating or dehydrating for those with already dry skin. However, if the alcohol is added as a solvent (meaning it's added to help with absorption), it is usually found at the bottom of the ingredient list and is not harmful or worrisome. According to Hu, in these cases, "the concentration is too low to have a significant impact on the skin."