Served neat or on the rocks, is alcohol beneficial to liver or skin? NO.
However, alcohol is an extremely versatile skincare ingredient, also one of the most misunderstood. It acts as:
- A Penetration Enhancer: a vehicle that improves the delivery of an ingredient to skin
- Emulsifier: allows different substances to blend together
- Solvent: thins out or dissolve a substance to make the formula light-weight or fast drying
- Preservative: Minimizes bacterial growth
- Stabilizer: prevents the separation of a mixture
- Buffer: to balance pH (read more on the importance of pH in skincare)
Many of our daily go-to products like sunscreen, moisturizer and shampoo contain alcohol.So why does alcohol in skincare get such a bad rap?
There is no short answer, but the key lies in understanding that not all alcohols are created equal. There are 3 types of alcohol commonly found in skincare – the good, the bad and the indifferent.
The Bad: SIMPLE ALCOHOLS or DENATURED ALCOHOL
Uses: As a solvent, preservative, penetration enhancer
The Sunny Side: Makes the product feel light-weight. As the alcohol evaporates, feels like the product is absorbed quickly into the skin.
The Downside: As the alcohol evaporates, it mops up all the surface oil, dries out skin and disrupts the delicate balance of the skin’s acid mantle. In turn, our skin produces more oil to compensate for the dryness. You know those lips balms that feel good at first but end up making your lips drier in the long-term, where you constantly need to apply more balm? Probably the work of a simple alcohol.
Derived from: Sugar, Starches, or Glucose and mixed with petroleum-based additives
Your label will contain: SD alcohol, Alcohol Denat, alcohol, ethanol or ethyl alcohol, isopropyl and methanol.
The Good: FATTY ALCOHOLS
Uses: Emulsifier, stabilizing agent, fragrance or thickener
The Sunny Side: It’s emollient or occlusive nature prevents moisture loss from the skin. The healthy fats help moisturize the skin.
The Downside: Maybe a potential irritant for those with sensitive skin
Derived from: Natural oils & fat (like olive oil, palm kernel, coconut oil) or can be synthetically prepared.
Your label will contain: Cetyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol, lauryl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol, myristyl alcohol, behenyl alcohol, oleyl alcohol
The Indifferent: AROMATIC ALCOHOLS
Uses: Perform similar functions to simple alcohols
The Sunny Side: Pleasant fragrance
The Downside: Maybe a potential irritant
Derived from: Essential oils or can be made synthetically (mixing benzyl chloride with sodium hydroxide)
Your label will contain: The most commonly used one is benzyl alcohol or its synthetic version
Judging your skincare by its label - Things to remember:
- Typically, skincare ingredients are listed in descending order starting with the ingredient present in the largest quantity (in most cases, water). The first 6-10 ingredients compose the majority of the product.
- Higher the concentration of simple alcohol, the more drying it is. So, for everyday products like sunscreen and moisturizer, avoid formulas that feature a simple alcohol high up on the list.
- If simple alcohols are present lower down the list, the product might be fine to use. It may be mixed with other ingredients that counteract the drying effect.
- Stay away for toners and astringents that contain alcohol high up on the list
Nowadays, there are many cosmetically superior options available that contain little to no alcohol ! We adore this alcohol-free sunscreen, this intensely hydrating Mizon All in One Snail Repair cream and this alcohol-free exfoliating toner.
So there you go! Just like the occasional sangria or beer, the word ‘alcohol’ doesn’t make the skincare product inherently bad. The type of alcohol, however, is what you must pay attention to.
Until next time, your friendly neighbourhood skincare addict @redlipsgoldskinned