What does alcohol-free mean?

by beautifulwithbrains
what alcohol-free in skincare means

I learned the hard way you don’t want alcohol in your skincare.

I was 15 years old. Just as beauty obsessed as I am now. But, a lot less savvy.

I had just started to put together a skincare routine for my skin and had heard toner was a must (I later learned it’s not). I had no idea how to choose one, so I’d just go with whatever was marketed formulated for teenagers.

Slowly, my skin started to become drier. Even if I switched toner, my skin wouldn’t improve. I figured dry was my skin type. Bummer!

Then, one day, I ran out of toner. For some reason, I didn’t buy one for a few days. Something weird happened. My skin wasn’t dry anymore. It had healed!

It seemed like a miracle then, but now that I’m older and wiser (at least, when it comes to skincare), I know my toners were to blame. Back then, all toners for teenagers were laden with alcohol!

Once I learned my lesson, I started looking for alcohol-free toners. But, wait, what’s that?! When I checked the label, alcohol had somehow sneaked its way in there, too. How could these brands break the rules like this?

They weren’t. You see, there are two types of alcohol: the bad kind that should have you run in the opposite direction and the good kind that keeps your skin soft and smooth. Let me explain:


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Alcohol Denat: The Bad Kind Of Alcohol In Skincare

What does it do?

This type of alcohol is like a solvent:

  1. It thins thick formulas (it’s usually what gives chemical sunscreens their super lightweight textures)
  2. It helps deliver skincare actives deeper into your skin
  3. It gives skin a tight feeling and constricts the pores

These alcohols seem innocuous enough, don’t they? But that tight feeling is a sign of dehydration. Alcohol eats up your skin’s protective barrier, leaving your skin dry and irritated.

That’s also how they help other ingredients better penetrate your skin, by the way. Once this barrier is damaged, everything can get through it.

FYI, the latest research shows you can counteract the drying effects of alcohol with a good moisturiser. As long as that toner or moisturiser you’re eyeing also has moisturising ingredients, you’re probably going to be fine. It’s when you use too much alcohol (like those alcohol-laden toners for teens) that problems start.

How Do You Identify It On The Ingredient List?

Look out for these bad boys:

  • Alcohol Denat
  • Benzyl Alcohol
  • Ethanol
  • Ethyl Alcohol
  • Isopropyl Alcohol
  • Methanol
  • SD Alcohol.

If they’re low on the ingredient list, you’re cool. If they’re high, check if the product also has moisturising ingredients. If it doesn’t, or your skin is particularly sensitive, leave it on the shelf.

Fatty Alcohols: The Good Type Of Alcohol In Skincare

What Does It Do?

This type of alcohol is called fatty alcohol. It’s the complete opposite of his bad sibling. If the latter is drying, the good type is moisturizing:

  • It thickens thin formulas (it’s what gives body butters their rich texture)
  • It moisturizes your skin, leaving it softer and smoother
  • It helps oils and water mix together

How Do You Identify It On The Label?

The main fatty acids used in skincare are:

  • Cetearyl Alcohol
  • Cetyl Alcohol
  • Myristyl Alcohol
  • Stearyl Alcohol

There are other alcohols that aren’t fatty but are still very hydrating:

  • Butylene glycol
  • Propanediol

These are friends. Don’t be scared of them.

What Does Alcohol-Free In Skincare Really Mean?

Let’s rewind back to when I was scrutinizing skincare labels to avoid anything with a drop of alcohol in it. I’d pick up a bottle labelled alcohol-free and then realise it had cetyl alcohol or butylene glycol. Surely, this was against the law?

Nope. When it comes to skincare, alcohol-free means the product doesn’t have a drop of the BAD type of alcohol (you know, alcohol denat and its ilk). Fatty alcohols are allowed.

Cos it’s not fair to paint the goodies with the same brush as the baddies.

Mystery solved!

For more misleading marketing terms that mean nothing, click on the image below and download the “Misleading Skincare Claims Cheatsheet”:

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Do you always look for alcohol-free products, too? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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12 comments

Nikki May 25, 2009 - 2:05 pm

ahh now I got it 🙂 thanks

Reply
my_makeup_mania May 25, 2009 - 10:54 pm

alcohol just good for my oily skin 🙂

Reply
fabulessbeauty May 26, 2009 - 2:34 am

I prefer my products to be alcohol free. My skin tends to be on the dry side.

Reply
Cyndi May 26, 2009 - 3:27 am

Very informative post! Thank you very much for this 🙂

Reply
prettybeautiful May 26, 2009 - 5:12 am

eeep! all the while i tot alcohol was only bad! 😀 informative indeed.

Reply
beautifulwithbrains May 26, 2009 - 11:04 am

Nikki and Cyndi: you’re both very welcome 🙂

My Makeup Mania: some alcohols can help degrease oily skin but be careful not to ovedo it as that could dy out your face too much.

Fabulessbeauty: me too. Definitely avoid SD Alcohol, Alcohol, or Alcohol Denat if you have dry skin or they’ll dry it out even more.

prettybeautiful: that’s one of the biggst misconcetions about alcohol. But some of tehm are actually beneficial and there is no need to avoid them.

Reply
JD August 31, 2017 - 4:34 am

I know that this is an old article but I just read this today. I wish I had read this article to better respond to a couple of rather emotional ladies (from one particular country) who tried so hard to get me to dump certain skin care products that I was using because they saw the word alcohol on the ingredients list. I tried to explain that it depends on the alcohol but they wouldn’t listen. Eventually, I gave up trying to convince them.

Reply
Gio September 1, 2017 - 4:42 pm

JD, that is so annoying. Unfortunately, some people believe only what they want to believe.

Reply
Mon April 24, 2019 - 6:25 am

Thanks for the article. I just realised my liquid gel foundation (Bourjois Healthy Mix Serum) has ‘alcohol denat’ listed as the 17th ingredient, out of 29 ingredients. Do you think this should be ok, or should I discontinue using? It does also seem to include moisturising ingredients too.

Reply
Gio April 26, 2019 - 9:15 am

Mon, it’s really low on the list, so it shouldn’t cause any problems. Unless you have an allergic reaction to it, I don’t see any reason to switch.

Reply
Jenna July 24, 2019 - 11:09 am

Loved this article!( like every other I have been reading) I honestly didn’T know about the good and bad alcohols in products!!
I must say I have been obsessed with your website! I have read so many of your articles and I want to thank you, I have gotten a few products from your reviews and loving them so far (at 34 I have been meaning to get quality products) Thanks again! You are doing an amazing job.
Can’t wait to read more articles!

Reply
Gio August 8, 2019 - 2:41 pm

Jenna, thank you for your kind words. So glad you’re enjoying the blog and your skin is the better for it. 🙂

Reply

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