Almost no other ingredient used in cosmetics has as bad of a reputation as alcohol. Once you start reading about the use of alcohol in cosmetic products, it’s easy to quickly become confused. Information shared by individual companies is often incomplete and sometimes downright misleading.
The most important thing to understand is that not all alcohols are created equal. There are “good” and “bad” alcohols, and these have different effects on our skin. When buying products that come into contact with your skin, you should pay attention to not purchasing products with types of alcohol that cause irritation. Here’s more info on that:
What even is Alcohol?
If you’ve ever searched for a clear, concise definition of alcohol, chances are your search was not fruitful. Definitions vary, from “a flammable, colourless liquid that can be used as a disinfectant”, “ethanol”, or “the intoxicating ingredient found in liquors”. When people mention alcohol, they are usually referring to ethanol (ethyl alcohol). Ethanol is the principal active ingredient found in alcoholic drinks.
Alcohol is widely used in the cosmetics industry, as no other substance can be relied on so readily to kill bacteria and dissolve fat. For the same reasons, alcohol is also commonly used as a solvent, disinfectant, and anti-sceptic. When found in cosmetic products, it helps these keep their initial consistency over time and maintain long shelf life. In terms of cosmetics, most often alcohol can be found in perfumes, deodorants, and face toners. Cleaning products, body moisturisers, and hair dyes may also contain considerable amounts of alcohol.
What can be considered “Good Alcohol”?
When determining what kind of alcohol is good for you, try to remember that fat is your friend. Fatty, wax-like alcohols are derived from the fatty acids found in plants, meaning this type of alcohol is won from natural, raw materials. In cosmetic products, these alcohols work as emollients and thickening agents. They nourish and protect the skin, and prevent dryness from occurring due to their hydrating properties. Fatty alcohols are non-toxic, good for the skin, and suitable for all skin types. Cetyl, Cetearyl, and Stearyl Alcohol are the most widely used fatty alcohols, so if you see them listed on a product know there’s nothing to be concerned about.
What is “Bad Alcohol”?
Monovalent alcohols can easily damage skin, although the amount used in any product determines the effects this may have. Ethyl Alcohol is the poster child of bad alcohol and commonly found in spirits.
Bad alcohol used in cosmetics is labelled denatured alcohol. Alcohol that was previously suitable for drinking is ‘denatured’ using petroleum-based ingredients and thereby made unsuitable for human consumption. To do so phthalates are used. Phthalates are chemical softeners that can be dissolved in water and fat. They can be quickly absorbed into the skin and when present in cosmetics they can therefore easily enter the bloodstream. When excessive amounts of phthalates are found within the human body numerous health issues can occur, ranging from infertility to diabetes.
Denatured alcohol can lead to premature signs of aging. Cosmetics that contain denatured alcohol can be said to be “pro-aging” rather than anti-aging, making them unsuitable for cosmetics products that promote clearer, more youthful skin.
Furthermore, denatured alcohol destroys the skin’s surface, damages the skin barrier and removes moisture from the skin. The result is dry skin prone to inflammation and infection. When oily skin comes into contact with denatured alcohol, skin issues intensify. As the alcohol removes natural oils from the skin, the skin generates more oil to prevent dryness. Skin becomes oilier than before, which results in the sebum layer of the skin becoming destroyed.
If you have any skin issues, for instance, acne or eczema, you should be particularly careful in staying away from products that contain denatured alcohol.
An Overview: Good and Bad Alcohols
- Alcohol Denat
- Ethyl Alcohol
- SD Alcohol
- Isopropyl Alcohol
- Benzyl Alcohol
- Phenethyl Alcohol
- Cetyl Alcohol
- Cetearyl Alcohol
- Stearyl Alcohol
- Lauryl Alcohol
- Lanolin Alcohol
- Arachidyl Alcohol
Between Bad and Ugly: the dose makes the poison
Whether products than include alcohol are harmful to our bodies is determined not only on the type of alcohol but also the dosage. When alcohol is listed as one of the top ingredients on the INCI list, you should be particularly concerned. INCI stands for “International Nomenclature Cosmetic Ingredients"; a list that represents international guidelines for ingredients in cosmetics. Ingredients are listed in descending order according to the amount of ingredient in the product. That means when alcohol is at the top of the list, the percentage of alcohol within the formulation is particularly high, and the product is likely to be harmful to our skin.
If you’re concerned about alcohol in your skincare and cosmetics products, we recommend taking the time to look at the ingredients of the products you already own. Many products are likely to contain denatured alcohol, making them unsuitable for obtaining healthy happy skin. The best time to say goodbye to harmful and unnecessary cosmetic products is now.
Natural Cosmetics and Alcohol
Even Natural Cosmetics oftentimes contain alcohol, however, it should be noted this is the good, fatty kind. The value of alcohol as a preservative is unparalleled. For example, cetearyl and stearyl alcohol, both fatty alcohols, can often be found in natural cosmetic products.
Are “alcohol-free” products completely free of alcohol?
No, not always. Cosmetic products can be labelled alcohol-free if they do not contain bad alcohol. So, alcohol-free products can contain good plant-derived alcohol, while not being free of alcohol per se.