Is alcohol for skin, really? Whenever your skin feels tight and dry after using a new skincare product, it’s easy to jump to conclusions and blame it all on alcohol. 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… Or so its critics say. But then… why is it everywhere?! Are brands ignorant or is alcohol another victim of distorted science? It wouldn’t be the first time an ingredient got an underserved bad reputation. Only science can settle the debate once and for all. Here’s what it says:
- What Is Alcohol?
- Benefits Of Alcohol Denat For Skin
- Alcohol Denat Side Effects?
- Should You Avoid Alcohol In Skincare?
- What Are The Best Alcohol-Free Products?
- The Bottom Line
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.
Good Types Of Alcohol For Skin
The good types of alcohol in skincare are called fatty alcohols. Why? They contain fatty acids that are super moisturising for skin. “Fatty alcohol, which is derived from coconut or palm oil, is sometimes used to thicken a formulation and can be nourishing for the skin,” says Maryam Zamani, MD.
HYDRATING alcohols include:
- Butylene glycol
- Cetearyl Alcohol
- Cetyl Alcohol
- Myristyl Alcohol
- Stearyl Alcohol
If you see any of these on an ingredient list, don’t run away. They won’t dry out your skin or cause any harm.
The Bad Types Of Alcohol For Skin
The bad type of alcohol for skin, the one everyone has a problem with and has given a bad rep to all other types of alcohol used in skincare, is ethanol. Ethanol thins the texture of skincare products (super helpful in sunscreen lotions) and helps active ingredients, like Vitamin C, better penetrate your skin, so it works better and faster.
FYI, this is 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!).
Ethanol has different names in skincare. You’ll find it on the label listed as:
- Alcohol Denat
- Ethyl Alcohol
- SD Alcohol
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:
Benefits Of Alcohol Denat For Skin
For the rest of this article, we’ll be focusing on Alcohol Denat (Ethanol) as this is the type of alcohol everyone has a problem with it. Why on earth would you put alcohol in skincare products?! Turns out, Alcohol Denat 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?
Alcohol Denat 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. In other words, most of the alcohol won’t stay on your skin long enough to cause any harm to your protective barrier.
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).
The results? Researches concluded that Alcohol Denat is well-tolerated by skin and should be the active of choice.
Does Alcohol Disrupt Your Skin’s Protective Barrier And Cause Dryness?
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.
VERDICT: 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 Denat 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. What does that mean? If your sunscreen contains Alcohol Denat and a bunch of moisturising natural oils, the latter counteract the potentially drying effects of the formula.
Instead, stay away from skincare products, especially toners, that contain alcohol denote and little else. Without moisturising ingredients to the mix, there’s a chance these products may dry out and irritate skin. Plus, Alcohol Denat alone has no real benefit for skin, so why use it?
Is Alcohol Denat Safe For Sensitive Skin?
While most people can tolerate Alcohol Denat well, especially when paired with moisturising ingredients, sensitive skin may still throw a tantrum. “”Ethanol in toners can also be quite drying for sensitive skin types, so watch out for that, too. The higher the alcohol is on the ingredients list, the higher the concentration and the stronger it will be on the skin,” says Zamani.
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.
When testing the inflammation potential of Alcohol Denat, scientists look at how much redness (a visible marker of inflammation) it causes to skin. 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, too.
Related: Adult Acne: Why It Happens And How To Treat It
Should You Avoid Alcohol In Skincare?
Not all types of alcohol are created equal. If you take a strict “no alcohols at any cost,” you’ll miss out on the moisturising properties of fatty alcohols. But should you avoid Alcohol Denat in skincare at all costs. Unless you know YOUR skin can’t tolerate it, there’s no reason to avoid alcohol completely.
‘Bad alcohols’ “are acceptable when used in spot treatments since the goal is to dry up the infection, and alcohol can do that,” says aesthetician Renee Rouleau. “Sometimes they will also be used to decrease any surface oil before an esthetician applies a professional chemical peel to ensure the peel gets into the skin the deepest.”
What Are The Best Alcohol-Free Products?
If you have sensitive or damaged skin and want to avoid alcohol, here are some alcohol-free products for you to try:
- CeraVe Alcohol-Free Hydrating Toner For Sensitive Dry Skin ($11.99): A hydrating toner enriched with ceramides to strengthen the skin’s protective barrier and repair dry and sensitive skin. Available at Ulta.
- First Aid Beauty Ultra Repair Wild Oat Hydrating Toner ($24.00): A hydrating toner with colloidal oatmeal to moisturise dry skin and soothe irritations and sensitivities. Available at Dermstore, and Sephora, and Ulta.
- Kiehl’s Cucumber Herbal Alcohol-Free Toner ($25.00): A soothing toner with cucumber, aloe, and chamomile to soothe sensitive skin. Available at Boots, Kiehl’s, and Ulta.
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, even “drying” alcohols like Alcohol Denat don’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. Otherwise, don’t be scared by it. And never avoid fatty alcohols – they’re very moisturising for skin.