Alcohol in Skincare: The Good and the Bad

Woman in an orange dress holding a glass of champagne.

The word “alcohol” when relating to skincare can carry a negative connotation. Alcohol can dry out your skin or cause irritation, but not all are bad. This ingredient can be highly misunderstood! Some alcohols are included with good intentions but can bring negative results. Others, though, are crucial to completing the product. Learn more about the good and not-so-good alcohol in skincare for the next time you’re reading a label.

The Good Alcohols

Let’s start on a good note to bust the myth all alcohols are bad. When reading a label, if you see fatty alcohols, don’t be alarmed – they can be your friend. Derived from vegetables, these fatty alcohols are often visually waxy and white. They work to emulsify the product, meaning they bond the oils and water to prevent separation. Acting as emollients, these “good” alcohols help protect your skin and work to lock in moisture from your skincare products. This directly contrasts the upcoming “bad” alcohols, which damage your skin’s protective barrier and dry out your skin.

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Unless you’re an ingredient pro, identifying these alcohols can be a little overwhelming. Make note of these skin-friendly alcohols for your next shopping trip: Behenyl, Cetearyl, Cetyl, and Stearyl.

Even though these alcohols are “good,” it is always best to be safe than sorry. If your skin is known to be sensitive, patch test a product first. Additionally, try to limit these alcohols to rinse-away products.

The Bad Alcohols

As mentioned previously, companies don’t necessarily include “bad” alcohols with ill intent. These alcohols are included to improve the quality and experience of the product; however, their results can make it a poorly received product. These alcohols are included in skincare with the intent of lightening the consistency (or texture) of the product, preserve the formula to last longer, and aid in the penetration of other ingredients. While this all sounds fine, these alcohols result in dry, irritated skin. This can lead to flakes, blemishes, rashes, and more, depending on the sensitivity of your skin.

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When used in small concentrations (meaning toward the bottom of the ingredient list), these alcohols can be less harmful to your skin. When at the top of the list, though, be cautious. These alcohols can damage your skin’s protective barrier, so it can’t be adequately hydrated.

When shopping, look out for these not-so-good alcohols: alcohol denat, ethanol, isopropyl alcohol, and methanol. One to specifically be mindful of is benzyl alcohol, as it is in many organic products. While not always harmful, for those with sensitive skin, it can still act as the others above do.

These “bad” alcohols are often included in toners and cleansers to absorb oil. While this might be a short-term benefit, the long-term harm isn’t worth it. For oil control, opt for ingredients such as charcoal, instead.

Including alcohol in your skincare routine is a tricky game to play, but sometimes you’re a winner. Harmful alcohol can speed the aging process, dry out your skin, cause blemishes and more damage. The “good” alcohol works to protect your skin and lock in moisture, but again, patch test products always. Make a handy list of these various alcohols so you can consciously and confidently choose your next skincare products.

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