Alcohol in Skincare Products: Is it Bad for Our Skin?
In the post-coronavirus influenced world we’re living in, alcohol hand gels have become a normal part of life. Not many of us go out without carrying a little bottle of hand sanitiser, or using it as we enter shops, bars and restaurants.
But why alcohol? What does alcohol do in order to sanitise our hands? Isn't simple alcohol a dangerous solvent or a harsh preservative? If alcohol sanitises our skin against potentially harmful bacteria and viruses, why on earth is it used in regular products designed for use on our skin and hair? Why do some skin care products designed for use on the face, contain alcohol?!
If alcohol in your skincare is bothering you or you're wondering if it's bad for your skin, here's all you need to know about alcohol and alcohol based ingredients in skincare.
Should We Avoid Alcohol in Skincare Products?
Isn’t alcohol a bit harsh to be using on our skin, especially that of our face? Well, the short answer is, not always. It very much depends on the type of alcohol used in certain skin care products (and we’re not talking vodka vs gin here, either…) and our own particular skin type.
Not all alcohols are considered the same when it comes to skin care. So here’s the Sönd take on alcohols in skin care, and why we’ve chosen to use certain types of alcohol in our cleanser, day time moisturiser and serum. But first…
The Effects of Alcohol in Hand Sanitiser
Hand sanitisers are a convenient way of keeping our hands free from nasty bugs when we’re on the go and we don’t have access to soap and water. Whilst hand washing facilities will get rid of dirt and grime, hand sanitiser won’t, as they’re not designed to be rinsed away.
But hand sanitisers do kill pathogenic bacteria and viruses, and this is all down to their alcohol content. In order to work effectively, hand sanitising gel needs to be at least 60% alcohol. Anything less, and you run the risk of a false sense of security as it might not be effective enough to kill something like the coronavirus.
How Do Alcohol-Based Hand Sanitisers Work?
Alcohol works by breaking apart the fatty outer coats of bacteria and viruses, and disrupting the proteins inside. This action renders the bacteria or virus inactive and unable to replicate or spread.
So it definitely makes sense to use alcohol hand gels when we’re out shopping, travelling, eating or drinking.
These hand gels tend to contain one or two types of alcohol, usually ethanol (sometimes called ethyl alcohol), isopropyl alcohol (or both). The down sides of alcohols like these, is that they can cause irritation and dehydrate the skin, especially if they’re used often, on a daily basis. So using them on delicate skin such as that of the face, is a big no no.
So before you think we’ve used this kind of alcohol in our skin care products, think again! As we mentioned above, there are different types of alcohol, some good, and some bad.
What Are the Good Alcohols and Bad Alcohols in Skin Care Products?
When it comes to skincare ingredients and products designed to be used on the face, ethanol and isopropyl are considered ‘bad’. They’re too harsh to be used on the face and especially around the eye and mouth area.
Another bad alcohol to look out for is denatured alcohol, often referred to as alcohol denat, which can cause drying and sensitivities. This type of alcohol is one of the more common types of alcohol used in skincare but it can disrupt the skin's barrier and leave the skin feeling tight, red and irritated. If you have sensitive skin or a skin condition such as rosacea, you will want to avoid products containing alcohol denat.
However, there are ‘good’ alcohols that are beneficial in skincare and are designed for use on the face. These are generally known as ‘fatty alcohols’.
Making Sense of the Type of Alcohol in an Ingredient List
The fatty alcohols include confusing names such as cetyl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol and stearyl alcohol. They can also include more familiar names such as coconut alcohol. It also matters where the word ‘alcohol’ or other types of fatty alcohols appear on ingredients labels. Just like in the ingredients lists of foods, the higher up the list, the more there is of a particular ingredient.
This is why ‘water’ (or ‘aqua’) is often the first ingredient listed in skin care products - because water is often the ingredient that appears in the greatest quantities in a product.
Is Cetearyl Alcohol Bad for Skin?
If a product lists ‘alcohol’ far down near the bottom of ingredients, it’s likely to be present in very small amounts. Also, if a product lists something like ‘cetearyl alcohol’ nearer the top of the list, then that’s fine because it’s a type of fatty alcohol that isn’t harsh on the skin.
Are Ethanol and Other Bad Alcohols Used in Skin Care?
Alcohols such as ethanol and ethyl alcohol aren’t used in skin care products designed for the face for the very reason they’re used in hand gels - they're strong enough to kill bacteria, and can therefore also disrupt the skin. For this reason, they're not used to kill bacteria and viruses on the skin of the face, even in skincare products recommended by board-certified dermatologists to manage severe acne.
They’re not used at the concentration (more than 60%) that would be needed to kill pathogenic bugs in products such as cleansers and moisturisers.
The Purpose of Alcohol in Skin Care
Instead, there are two primary reasons why alcohol is used in skin care products. Firstly, alcohols are usually used to make heavy creams more light and weightless. This means that products such as a moisturiser might contain a fatty alcohol like cetyl alcohol in order to form a protective barrier on the skin, whilst not being too heavy and greasy (ideal for those of us with oily skin caused by too much sebum).
Secondly, fatty alcohols can also be used to help targeted ingredients such as vitamins, retinol and antioxidants penetrate deeper into the skin. The skin is very good at keeping things out. So alcohol is used as a sort of undercover mule, sneaking beneficial substances past the skin’s natural barriers, so that these ingredients penetrate the skin to where they’re needed. The alcohol then evaporates off, having done its job.
Alcohols, Sensitive Skin and the Skin Barrier
The problem is, even 'good' alcohols that evaporate away can still mean that the skin’s natural barrier function is compromised. This can then lead to skin damage, dryness and irritation.
So it’s far better to use well researched skin care from brands (like ours) that have developed their products (often sadly this also means that they’re heftier in price, but worth it) to contain ingredients with a lower 'molecular weight'. This might sound very scientific, but what it basically means is that the ingredients are small enough to penetrate the skin’s natural barrier without alcohol being necessary to keep the benefits of the ingredients.
Alcohols are also sometimes used as a degreasing agent in skin care products designed to be used on very oily skin, such as an astringent toner. But we would suggest using these types of products with caution, or having a patch test, as they can strip the skin of too much of it's natural oils. This could then cause the skin to overcompensate and produce more oil, leading to a vicious cycle of oiliness.
Fatty Alcohols, Their Moisturising Effect and Their Use as a Skin Penetration Enhancer
Good alcohols, or fatty alcohols, definitely have a place in skincare, as they're often used in products to thicken them and make them feel more luxurious.
Crucially, fatty alcohols are also used as an emulsifier in certain skin care products. An emulsifier is a substance that helps to blend oil based ingredients and water based ingredients so that we don’t have to mix them each time we use them at home.
Fatty alcohols are generally derived from the fatty acids naturally present in plant based oils (as opposed to petroleum by product based oils such as mineral oil). Since they’re ‘fatty’ they’re often used to moisturise the skin by forming a protective layer and enhancing the natural lipid (fatty) layers.
This article is not meant to treat or diagnose. Please visit your doctor for advice about any health concerns you may have.