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Why Is Alcohol Used In Skin Care Products?

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In the coronavirus influenced world we’re currently living in, and will likely continue to live in for some time, alcohol hand gels have become a normal part of life. Not many of us go out without carrying a little bottle of hand sanitizer, or using it as we enter shops, bars and restaurants. 

But why alcohol? What does alcohol do in order to sanitise our hands? And if alcohol santisises our skin against potentially harmful bacteria and viruses, why on earth is it used in regular skin care products? Why do some skin care products designed for use on the face, containalcohol?!

Isn’t it 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 thetype of alcohol used in certain skin care products (and we’re not talking vodka vs gin here, either…). 

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…

Why is alcohol used 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 sanitizers 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 beat 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. 

Alcohol works by breaking apart the fatty outer coats of bacteria and viruses, and disrupting the proteins inside. This action renders thebacteria 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 or or isopropanol (or both). The down sides of these alcohols, is that they can cause irritation, 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? 

In terms of skin care products designed to be used on the face, ethanol and isopropanol 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, which can causedrying and sensitivities

However, there are ‘good’ alcohols that are designed for use on the face. These are generally known as ‘fatty alcohols’. Thefatty 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 in ingredients lists. 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. 

Therefore 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. 

Why are ‘bad’ alcohols used in skin care? 

Alcohols such as ethanol and denatured alcohol aren’t used in skin care products designed for the face for the same reason as they’re used in hand gels. That is, they’re not used to kill bacteria and viruses on the skin of the face. 

They’re not used at the strength (more than 60%) that would be needed to kill pathogenic bugs in products such as cleansers and moisturisers. 

Instead, there are two primary reasons why alcohol is used in skin care products. Firstly, alcohols are used to make heavy creams more light and weightless. Secondly, they’re used to help targeted ingredients such as vitamins and antioxidants penetrate the skin. 

The skin is very good at keeping things out. So alcohol is used as a sort of undercover mule, sneaking beneficial ingredients past the skin’s natural barriers, to where they’re needed. The alcohol then evaporates off, having done its job. 

The problem is, in doing so, the skin’s natural barrier function is compromised. This can then lead to skin damage, dryness and irritation. 

It’s far better to use well researched skin care from brands that have developed their products (often sadly this also means that they’reheftier 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 the need for alcohol.

Alcohols are also sometimes used as a degreasing agent in skin care products designed to be used on very oily skin. But we would suggest using these types of products with caution, as they can strip the skin of too much oil. This could then cause the skin to overcompensate and produce more oil, leading to a vicious cycle of oiliness. 

So, what are good alcohols used for then? 

Good alcohols, or fatty alcohols, are used in skin care products to thicken them and make them more luxurious. 

Crucially, fatty alcohols are also used as an emulsifier in certain skin care products. Anemulsifier 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 asmineral oil). Since they’re ‘fatty’ they’re often used tomoisturise the skin by forming a protective layer and enhancing the natural lipid (fatty) layers. 

You’ll find moisturising fatty alcohols in ourClean Slate Cream Cleanser, Side Kick Day Cream andStrength Training Serum. So if you haven’t already, why not give them a go?!


Hannah de Gruchy BSc(Hons)

About Author

Hannah de Gruchy is a freelancer writer who specialises in health and wellness. She has a keen interest in the biology of skin and loves using her words to help separate the real science of skincare from the pseudoscience of some skincare brands. Hannah has a degree in Human Biology and many years’ experience working in laboratories around London. Using this experience, Hannah enjoys turning complex science into interesting, engaging and easy to digest pieces to read. In her spare time, Hannah runs, practices yoga and loves cooking plant based foods.

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