There are a lot of misconceptions about alcohol in skincare products. Is it bad for your skin? And why do we put alcohol in skin care products in the first place? Stay tuned!
If we want to understand both why alcohol is in skincare products and whether or not it’s safe, we first need to explain what the term alcohol refers to. And as a caveat, today’s episode is about regular alcohol, also called ethyl alcohol or ethanol. In another episode I will discuss fatty alcohols, such as cetyl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol, and stearyl alcohol… which are completely different.
So Ethyl alcohol, also known as regular alcohol, is, believe it or not, the same alcohol that’s in alcoholic beverages, like this bottle of wine. It’s found in many skincare and hair care products including toners and hair sprays. But to avoid having skincare products taxed as alcoholic beverages and to prevent people from consuming skin care products because they contain alcohol, the alcohol used in skin care products is “denatured,” which means it has chemicals added to it which create a bitter taste. So when you see alcohol listed as an ingredient in skin care products, it usually says “alcohol denate” or SD alcohol, which means specially denatured alcohol.
Now, why is it used?
Alcohol is used in skin care products for two main reasons. First, to solubilize or dissolve other ingredients. And second, to help deliver other ingredients to the skin once they’ve been solubilized. Because alcohol is so volatile and evaporates much more quickly than water, when a product with alcohol is applied to the skin, the alcohol almost immediately evaporates leaving the active ingredient in the product on your skin with a cosmetically superior finish.
But the amount of alcohol that we're talking about in skincare products is minimal, and because it evaporates so quickly it has essentially no negative effect on the skin unless somebody has extraordinarily sensitive skin. One other potential downside to alcohol in skincare products is that it can possibly remove some oils from the skin, which can allow some unwanted drying of the skin. To put this into perspective, most skin care products contain less than 10-15% alcohol… except hand sanitizers which can contain 60-70%.
I’m happy to now share that your take away should be that normal usage of skin care products containing alcohol usually has no meaningful negative effects on the skin.