All you need to know about the bad — and the good — of alcohol in skincare
As consumers start getting more learned about skincare ingredients (yay us!), we’ve started to become more aware of what we want in or out of the products we slather on our skin daily.
And rightfully so too — who doesn’t want the best for their skin? We’re all for healthy, skin that’s well-taken care of. So we began axing “skin-harming” ingredients off the ingredients lists, and one of the most common booboos is alcohol.
What exactly is the role of alcohol in skincare?
Most commonly, alcohol is used mostly in mattifying products because of its volatile, and quick-drying nature. What this means: it provides a “degreasing” effect, drying up sebum on the skin for an oil-free, smooth finish.
There are no two ways about it — that product is likely to be harmful to your skin, no matter your skin type. The most common types of alcohol that are bad for skin, are these: SD alcohol (specially denatured alcohol), denatured alcohol, ethanol, methanol, and isopropyl alcohol. (Note: they end mostly will end with ol).
And with them being high up the ingredients list means they are used in high concentrations, which ain’t great.
While these “quick-drying” alcohol may give your results you want in the short run (matte skin, oil-free), they are actually very detrimental to your skin in the long run. A 2003 study published in the Journal of Hospital Infection reported that doctors who used alcohol-based cleansers to clean their hands found these products to be drying — the cleansers were stripping away the “barrier lipids” (healthy fats in the skin), causing the skin to lose both oils, and water.
It’s what leads to dull, unhealthy-looking skin, as the skin will start to be less effective in absorbing moisture and nutrients.
Alcohol has a tendency to slow down the skin’s regenerative function. They also cause your skin to have enlarged pores, too.
And, the biggest irony of using products with high concentrations of alcohol: They’ll dry your skin out so much, that your skin will actually start to produce even more oil to compensate for the lack of.
That said, not all alcohol in skincare are bad.
Fatty alcohol is alcohol that’s derived from the naturally occurring oils of plants and animals. The common ones include: cetyl, stearyl, and cetearyl alcohol. These tend to be better on the skin, and they work the opposite from the OL alcohol, in the sense that they can be moisturising on the skin. A study done by the Journal Of Allergy in 2011 even reported that fatty alcohol are “rare cosmetic allergens”.
They’re usually for three functions in skincare: to emulsify (hold water and oils together to create products with smooth textures); as an emollient (because of how naturally moisturising they are, they’re often included in products to hydrate skin); and to thicken (for that buttery, rich texture in products).
Cetyl alcohol, for example, is a common choice of emollient. The product veils your skin, and forms a layer on it, to trap water and prevent it from evaporating via transdermal water loss. That’s why it’s especially friendly for people with dry skin.
Is fatty alcohol entirely safe for skin?
That said, fatty alcohol still serves good for people with dry skin as it forms a protective barrier on it, preventing water loss. Products with fatty alcohol do tend to feel richer and creamier, so it’s a great ingredient for night-time moisturisers, should you sleep in air-conditioned environments.
These products with richer textures are also good skincare for when travelling to colder climates, as your skin tends to dry out easier in the cold.
So, what’s the conclusion?
Know this: not all alcohol in skincare are bad. Your first step starts with knowing how to differentiate the skin-loving from the nasties — and that all starts by cultivating a good habit in reading the ingredients list of your skincare products. Then, should you have sensitive skin, or are unsure about certain ingredients, always do a patch tests, to test your skin’s reactivity to the product.