Alcohol is widely misunderstood in the personal care word. It is assumed to be that big, bad, ugly guy that strips off and dries the skin, leads to skin irritation and aggravates pre-existing conditions such as acne, eczema, rosacea, psoriasis, dermatitis, etc. But what if I told you there is a good kind and a bad kind? Again, good and bad are described on a relative basis here. What might work for one, or for a particular concern, might not work for the other. It’s what you decide to make of anything after information has been presented to you on it.
So, let’s discuss:
What is an alcohol? Well, in the simplest terms, an alcohol is merely a substance (more specifically, an organic molecule) to which a hydroxyl (-OH) group is attached. Going by the strict definition of it, there are a lot of ingredients that could be classified as alcohols (glycerin, glycols, cetyl alcohol, sucrose, even retinol) and alcohols aren’t just the substances that end in -ol (like ethanol, methanol, propanol, etc.)
Still in with us? OK, let’s now dig a little deeper on the individual alcohols commonly made use in cosmetics to deliver benefits for our skin. (Remember: if there wasn’t a reason to use them, companies wouldn’t do so. But they do, and all you have to question now is, why? Point to reflect upon.)
It is also referred to as denatured alcohol, alcohol denat., ethyl alcohol, and SD alcohol. It’s what people mostly refer to when talking of alcohols and is found in alcoholic drinks, as in your cosmetic products. It can be drying and severely irritating for the skin, no doubt, but consider why it is used in cosmetic products:
– Helps dissolve active ingredients into the formula
– Helps extract beneficial extracts from a plant
– Helps ‘clean off’ excess oil from the skin
– Helps products penetrate deeper into the skin
– Can offer some preservation benefit to cosmetic formulae
– In terms of product feel, it improves texture and spreadability
– Can kill bacteria (this is not necessarily a benefit as we need ‘good bacteria’ – also known as skin flora – residing on our skin for best skin health)
Studies have proven that ethanol can cause damage to skin cells and disrupt the skin’s natural balance. However, less than 3% of what’s applied really stays on the skin (ethanol is volatile and evaporates quickly). Considering that no more than 5-10% is used in most cosmetic formulae, you have only about 0.15-0.3g of it being left off on your skin to benefit from. This shouldn’t be a major cause for concern. For most of us.
If your cosmetic product contains ethanol in it, try to make sure:
– It is in a lower percentage
– Is mixed with emollients such as glycerin and fatty alcohols
– You use it less frequently (1-2x per day)
– Your skin doesn’t feel ‘squeaky clean’ after its use
That said, ethanol still isn’t the best choice for application on your skin, especially if you have dry or aggravated skin. There are now, other, far better alcohols that can perform the same function without the potential risks that this alcohol carries with it.
Note: Higher percentages of drying alcohols are usually acceptable/beneficial for spot treatments.
2. Methanol, propanol, isopropyl alcohol, etc.:
These are other simple alcohols quite like ethanol and pose similar threats and benefits to the skin.
These are more complex alcohols. While the previously discussed alcohols possessed only one -OH group in their carbon chain, these contain two. They acquire their name depending on the length of their carbon chains (examples: ethylene glycol, propylene glycol, butylene glycol, etc.) Chemically, they are similar to humectants (read more on humectants here) such as glycerin and sorbitol.
They are used in preference to simple alcohols as they pose the same benefits for the skin without the risk of drying out or agitating it. In addition, they also:
– Are excellent emollients and humectants
– Can be metabolized to AHA’s in the skin, providing mild exfoliation properties
– Safe for use by all skin types, provided you do not have an allergy to any one of them (which is very rare, by the way)
4. Fatty alcohols:
Derived most commonly from plant sources, these function mostly as emulsifiers and disperse ingredients in a nice, creamy base. They provide spreadability and a nice skin feel, and have the opposite effect of dehydrating the skin. They are non-drying and non-irritating. You could consider them as emollients and occlusives for your skin.
Examples: Cetearyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol, behenyl alcohol, isostearyl alcohol, cetyl alcohol, etc.
5. Aromatic alcohols:
OK, this might come off as a little surprising to you. Some alcohols, such as benzyl alcohol, are derived from aromatic sources such as essential oils for their fragrance and aroma. These do carry with them the potential risk of skin irritation such as those associated with ethanol, but again, it’s upon the formulator to respect their nature and use them wisely. The EU requires that all such allergens present in essential oils be calculated and noted on the cosmetic label, if used beyond a certain limit. If you want to steer clear of this group of compounds, make sure you opt for fragrance-free products.
Final note: Alcohols can be helpful but can also damage the skin’s natural balance. You, as a consumer, have to be just a little careful when picking products containing alcohol for your skin. Yet, oftentimes, even after knowing, you can make a misinformed choice because you don’t understand the overall recipe and which ingredient interacts with which in what way. And that’s no problem – simply ask. Always ask and never allow the opinion of uninformed individuals spoil your experience for you.