Is alcohol really bad for skin?
This controversial ingredient is accused of every possible skin crime you can think of:
It terribly dries out and dehydrates skin.
It kills skin cells.
It makes your skin age faster.
And on and on and on…
But then… why is it everywhere?! Are brands ignorant or is alcohol another victim of distorted science?
So many questions! Time for some answers:
What Is Alcohol?
In chemistry, an alcohol is any organic compound whose molecule contains one or more hydroxyl groups attached to a carbon atom.
But not all alcohol is created equal. In skincare, there are 2 main types of alcohol: hydrating alcohols and ethanol.
Hydrating alcohols include:
- Butylene glycol
- Cetearyl Alcohol
- Cetyl Alcohol
- Myristyl Alcohol
- Stearyl Alcohol
These alcohols are moisturising and good for skin. No one has a problem with them.
It’s ethanol that has gained a bad rep. It goes by lots of different names:
- Alcohol Denat
- Ethyl Alcohol
- SD Alcohol
It’s the same alcohol you find in alcoholic drinks – but with a small amount of methanol or other unpleasant ingredient to discourages people from drinking it (NEVER eat or drink your skincare, ladies!).
Related: What Does Alcohol-Free In Skincare Really Mean?
Struggling to find skincare products that don’t irritate your sensitive skin? Download your FREE “Skincare Ingredients To Avoid” cheatsheet to find out what the most common culprits are and cut them out of your skincare routine:
What Does Alcohol Denat Do In Skincare Products?
Why on earth would you put alcohol in skincare products?!
Turns out, alcohol is very versatile. Here are all the jobs it does on a regular basis:
- Distillation: It helps extract ingredients from plants through a distillation process. For example, this is how you extract essential oils from plants.
- Penetration-Enhancer: It helps active ingredients penetrate deeper into your skin, so they work better and faster.
- Preservative: In high concentrations, alcohol prevents germs and bacteria from growing in your skincare products. But high concentrations are irritating, so if you see a product that uses alcohol for this, leave it on the shelf.
- Solvent: Alcohol dissolves oily ingredients, like salicylic acid and plant oils, that water can’t. (Fun fact: some hydrating alcohols do this too, but they leave a shiny residue on your skin).
- Texture-Thinner: It helps thin the texture of heavy and greasy skincare products (hello, sunscreens!) and make application easier and more pleasant.
Bet you didn’t know alcohol did so much! But is it worth using or are the side effects greater than its benefits?
Related: The Battle Of The Preservatives: Which Is The Best Alternative To Parabens?
Does Alcohol Denat Have Any Side Effects?
Scientific studies show that Alcohol Denat can cause inflammation (the main cause of premature aging), kill skin cells, and decrease enzyme activity.
Scary, right? Sounds like the critics have a point (or two).
But, there’s a catch…
These studies were done in vitro on isolated cells or skin samples – NOT on real skin.
This matters for two reasons:
- Protective barrier: Your skin has a protective layer that protects it from harsh weather, bacteria, pollutants, and everything else that’s trying to harm it. To seriously damage skin, Alcohol Denat must make it past this barrier. In vitro studies don’t tell us if Alcohol Denat can do this.
- Volatility: In vitro studies used lower concentration of alcohol than those found in skincare products. BUT, they seal it in for 24 hours, preventing the alcohol from evaporating. When you apply a toner or sunscreen, more than 97% of the alcohol in it evaporates pretty fast. The rest remains on the skin, but does it penetrate it? We’re back to point one again.
This is just an example of how you can’t take just any study to prove a point. If you want to know if Alcohol Denat is bad for skin, you need to study its effects based on the way skincare products are used.
Unfortunately, there are no studies on that. But, we have the next best thing. Most of the studies on real skin mimic the way nurses use Alcohol Denat to disinfect their hands to keep patients safe.
In other words, they use higher concentrations of alcohol (60% – that’s what’s needed to kill bacteria and viruses), multiple times a day (from 5 to 100!), on the forearm (thicker than your facial skin).
Does Alcohol Disrupt Your Skin’s Protective Barrier?
If alcohol must get past the skin’s protective barrier to cause real damage to the skin, let’s start there.
In vitro studies show that Alcohol Denat disrupts the production of lipids (the building blocks of the skin’s protective barrier) and removes them from your skin. Cue dryness, dehydration, and irritation.
What happens when you apply alcohol to real skin? These in vivo studies measures TEWL (trans-epidermal water loss). The more damaged your protective barrier is, the more water evaporates out of it.
A 2017 study shows that 70% Alcohol Denat didn’t cause any significant changes in TWEL when applied 20 times a day.
Even if you’re using more than one skincare product with alcohol, you won’t reach 70% or 20 daily applications.
When applied to real life usage, Alcohol Denat doesn’t seem to disrupt your skin’s protective barrier and cause significant damage.
Related: How To Strengthen Your Skin’s Protective Barrier (And Why It Matters)
Does Alcohol Cause Dehydration?
If Alcohol Denat doesn’t significantly disrupts the skin’s protective barrier, why are some people reporting dehydration when using it?
Studies don’t help us much here:
- A 2007 study says that rolling 80% alcohol on skin 50 times over 5 minutes twice a day decreased skin hydration, compared to water only.
- A 2017 study says that 70% alcohol applied up to 100 times a day causes no significant changes in water loss, compared to using just water to cleanse skin.
Who’s right? We don’t know. What we DO know is that adding hydrating ingredients, like glycerin (which is 99% of skincare products!) can reduce any dehydrating or irritating effects.
P.S. If a toner contains alcohol and little else, there’s a small chance it may dry out and irritate your skin. These types of alcohol have little to no benefits for your skin, so leave them on the shelf. Just in case.
Related: How To Treat Dehydrated Skin
Does Alcohol Denat Cause Inflammation (And Premature Aging)?
Inflammation is the worst thing that can happen to your skin. It causes:
- Dark spots
- Premature wrinkles
…and pretty much any other skin evil you can think of.
Studies on real skin show that 70% ethanol applied up to 100 times a daily doesn’t cause any changes in redness, compared to water.
Skincare products use a much, much lower concentration and are used up to a couple of times a day – looks like we’re safe here.
Related: Adult Acne: Why It Happens And How To Treat It
The Bottom Line
In-vitro studies are scary, but real usage paints a different picture. When used in the small concentrations found in skincare products loaded with hydrating ingredients, Alcohol Denat doesn’t seem to cause any serious issues. I recommend you avoid alcohol only if it’s pretty all that’s in a product or you have very sensitive skin that reacts badly to it.