Alcohol can be found across the board in personal skin care products from cleansers to body washes.
When you think of alcohol, the connotations can be negative when it comes to both your health and your skincare.
It’s one of the single most misunderstood ingredients and understandably there’s A LOT of conflicting information out there. So, let’s break it down.
IN MY BOOK, THERE ARE FOUR MAIN TYPES OF ALCOHOL THAT ARE USED IN SKIN CARE FORMULATIONS:
- Aromatic/Synthetic Preservative Alcohols
1. AROMATIC ALCOHOLS
These are used as fixatives and preservatives, and the ones most commonly used is phenethyl and benzyl alcohol of the synthetic variety.
Even though they're used in small percentages and you find them towards the end of the ingredient list on your cosmetics and skin care products, there are a couple of important points to note here.
Is phenthyl alcohol bad for skin?
Synthetic alcohols can be moderately to highly toxic.
Naturally derived benzyl alcohol and phenethyl alcohol come from plants and aren't synthesised or processed. They're cheap as chips and generally used in mainstream non-certified skin care products.
Where it gets confusing is that they can be listed without being identified as synthetic because the chemical composition is identical to the naturally derived version. Synthetic benzyl and phenethyl alcohol can cause skin allergies and sensitivities.
So how can you tell the difference? The natural version is more expensive, so unless a product is independently certified as organic, then it’s likely that the synthetic version has been used. Price point will be indicative. For example, the phenethyl alcohol that we use in our skin care formulations is 100% plant derived and costs around $5000 per kilo.
Benzyl alcohol is more commonly used because even the natural version is cheaper than phenethyl but it’s also a known irritant.
2. GRAIN/ORGANIC ALCOHOLS
These are organically grown and harvested. They're found in biodynamic and organic skin care lines and hand sanitisers. They’re generally more expensive than simple alcohols because they’re not derived from petroleum or denatured. On the label look out for:
- Organic cane, wheat, grape, corn and grain alcohol
- Organic ethyl alcohol – made from sugar cane
- Whey alcohol – ethyl alcohol or ethanol made from whey
Because of the low molecular weight, certain alcohols in combination with other ingredients can actually be effective as a skin care carrier agent. It can create temporary microscopic openings in the lipid bilayer assisting with product penetration and absorption of your cosmetics and products. It’s really dependent on what else is in the formulation and the percentage used.
Keep in mind that percentages aren't required to be listed on the label (surprise, surprise) but remember that ingredients are listed in descending order of concentration, so if you're not sure, check where it falls on the label.
3. SIMPLE/DENATURED/RUBBING ALCOHOL
These are the most commonly used alcohols in skin care products and cosmetics. They’re denatured and cheaper, which means they’ve been mixed with petroleum-based additives. They might be fun for a while and appear to be making a difference in your life, but these are the bad boys that get the rap. You don’t want to have too much exposure to these alcohol's in your regime. Pure alcohol rapidly evaporates and can dry your skin out like an old shoe that’s been left outside. On the label look out for and avoid: SD alcohol, ethanol or ethyl, isopropyl and methanol.
Products marketed to acne sufferers often contain high percentages of these alcohols. Over the counter toners and astringents fall into this category. Initially, they degrease the skin and rid the surface of bacteria, but long-term usage can interfere with the skins natural barrier function and dissolve the healthy lipids that protect the skin and keep it hydrated. If the dermal barrier is impaired, the skin is more prone to allergens, bacteria and viruses. Dehydration of skin cells can also increase the development of wrinkles and fine lines and cause contact dermatitis. Test results have shown that exposure to simple alcohol can induce apoptosis or 'death' of skin cells.
GRAIN AND DENATURED ALCOHOLS ARE INCORPORATED INTO SKINCARE FOR VARIOUS REASONS:
- Preservation – A product that contains 20% or more alcohol is "naturally” preserved due to its high alcohol content in relation to the product's overall volume.
- Solvents – Assist with solubilising ingredients, usually ones that don’t mix with well with water to create a smooth cream, serum or liquid that doesn’t separate.
- Astringents – Alcohols in products like toners can tighten the skin and refine pore size.
- Penetration – Alcohols can assist with enhancing absorption of ingredients to the deeper layers.
- Fast drying – Alcohol readily and easily evaporates so it works well in products like hairsprays.
4. FATTY ALCOHOLS
Fatty alcohols are a completely different story. They’re in fact a wax derived from nuts, coconut and palm oil. Because they’re mostly naturally derived, they’re rich in healthy fats that can feed and nourish the skin in combination with other plant based oils. But, they can also be laboratory made and petroleum derived.
Side note: Most waxes used in skin care products and cosmetics have been through some form of processing even if it says on the label "coconut derived”. In a stance to help preservation of forests and animals it’s best to avoid palm oil products wherever possible. Unfortunately, it’s still used as the main processing agent in the manufacturing of surfactants and emulsifiers but that's a whole other blog post...
The function of fatty alcohols is to act as emulsifiers to help bind the oil and water components of a lotion or cream and keep it from separating. They’re like the egg in the salad dressing. They can thicken a formula making it creamy, thick, luscious and rich. Because of the fatty acid content, they also act as emollients assisting with hydration and forming a protective barrier once a product is applied. They can be used in lotions, moisturisers and cream cleansers. Fatty alcohols are also used in the manufacturing of surfactants and detergents like body washes and shampoos to increase their viscosity and foaming capacity.
THE FATTY ALCOHOLS THAT ARE MORE COMMONLY USED:
- Cetyl – An emollient extracted from coconut oil.
- Cetearyl – Obtained from coconut oil or palm oil fatty acids, it's an emulsifying wax that is used to soften and stabilised thick formulations like skin ointments.
- Oleyl alcohol – Derived from olive oil, beef fat or fish.
- Stearyl alcohol – Made from stearic acid, a naturally occurring fatty acid, coconut oil or vegetable fatty acids its used as both an emollient and emulsifier.
OTHER ALCOHOLS USED INCLUDE:
Behenyl, caprylyl/caprylate, decyl, isostearyl, lauryl and myristyl (notice the common denominator yl).
If you have super-sensitive skin, certain fatty alcohols and combinations can cause reactions such as redness, inflammation, irritation and clogged pores, so it’s best to avoid them altogether. Certain combinations of alcohols due to their fatty acid chain length can have high comedogenic (block the pores) ratings and interfere with the natural transpiration process. So, if you get any pimples or blackheads this alcohol could be the culprit.
If your skin is sensitive-oily, I’d recommend Mukti Organics Aloe Vera Moisturiser and if it’s sensitive normal-dry then the Antioxidant Facial Oil. Both these products don’t contain alcohols. If you want an astringent toner to assist with balancing your skins oil production, then our Orange Blossom Balancing Mist is your go-to.
I always recommend to avoid moisturising in areas that are generating their own oil activity. For example, if you have combination skin and an oily t-zone, then you don’t really need to moisturise this area if you were using a product like the Aloe Vera Moisturiser. Just concentrate on the outer third and the drier areas of your face.
I hope this assists in ironing out the differences between alcohols- the good, the bad and the indifferent. It’s a bit of head trip because of the lack of regulation around labelling requirements, so all the better to be informed.
In saying that, the bottom line is just because a formula has alcohol in it, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s bad and you need to freak out.
If you’re not sure about how your skin’s going to react, then I recommend trying samples before you buy and reading online reviews from other customers.