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:

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!

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