Alcohol in Skincare Products: Pros and Cons
D o any of your skincare products leave a tingling feeling on your skin, complete with a sort of sharp, chemical smell? Take a look at the ingredients list. It’s probably made with some kind of alcohol, and not the fun kind you order at a bar. What’s that stuff doing in skincare products?
What Is Alcohol? What Does It Do?
Alcohol is actually the name for a whole family of molecules that have countless different uses. The major characteristic of all alcohols is a hydroxyl group (-OH) bonded to a carbon atom. The kind of alcohol you might find in your toner or cleansing gel is called a simple alcohol, which includes ethanol (the kind we drink), as well as denatured and isopropyl alcohol. Alcohols are astringents, which means it shrinks or constricts bodily tissues, namely skin.
Skincare manufacturers put alcohol in their products for several reasons. It’s an effective disinfectant and helps keep bacteria out of the product, from a practical standpoint. Consumers also find that alcohol-based products have a distinct lightweight feeling that make them pleasant to apply, and the alcohol’s astringent properties leave even the most stubbornly oily face feeling matte and dry. Alcohol also helps other products in your skincare routine sink more deeply into the skin, so you feel the full effects of their formulas.
I won’t sugarcoat it—the negatives of using alcohol-based products far outweigh the positives. As an astringent, alcohol tightens up pores and dries up skin oils, which is the last thing people with already dry skin need. Not only that, but people struggling with rosacea (excessive redness) oftentimes find their skin even more irritated after a supposedly soothing alcohol-based cleanse.
So products with alcohol are definitely not for all skin types, but to top it all off, it’s not even good for the skin types it’s supposed to help. Dr. Maryam Zamani, a facial aesthetics doctor, warns that the primary benefit of stripping away excess oil may actually do more harm than good. In the long run, alcohol makes your sebum glands work overtime to replace the oils that it strips away, leaving you with oilier skin and larger pores than when you started. So, if you have an oily skin type, maybe stick to the blotting papers.
Another issue with alcohol-based products is their potential to damage your skin barrier. Alcohol sometimes does its job a little too well, and strips away not just oils, but the microbiome that keeps irritants and bacteria from sinking into your skin. Too much alcohol can dry that natural barrier right up and leave your skin vulnerable, dirty and dull.
Is It All Bad?
Actually, no! While simple alcohols usually do more harm than good, their cousins, fatty alcohols, can be quite helpful for multiple different skin types. This type of alcohol is often found in cleansers and moisturizers as a thickening or emulsifying agent. They’re non-irritating and hydrating, and have the same benefits as simple alcohols, like helping your skin absorb vitamins better. Check the product’s ingredients list for cetyl, stearyl, and cetearyl alcohol.
So, should you cut out simple alcohols altogether? Also no. What’s important is moderation. Sometimes a splash of alcohol-based toner can really freshen up an oily face and leave it feeling cooled and clean in ways other products can’t. Too much of it, though, and you’ll risk skin damage. Again, check the ingredients list—if alcohol is far down the list, it won’t be in a high enough concentration to do any harm. But if it’s the second or third ingredient, we suggest putting it back on the shelf.
As with everything, be an informed consumer! Use as much or as little alcohol in your skincare routine as you feel is right for you, and don’t be afraid to change things up! Check out our skincare stock here at Keshoume and maybe try something new!
Rowan Thompson - September 21, 2020
Metrus, Lindsey. “The One Common Skincare Ingredient That's a Total Red Flag.” Byrdie, 20 Nov. 2019, https://www.byrdie.com/alcohol-in-skincare.
Migala, Jessica. “Alcohol in Skin Care: Is It Ever Okay? : Everyday Health.” EverydayHealth.com, 7 Apr. 2020, https://www.everydayhealth.com/smart-skin/alcohol-in-skin-care-is-it-ever-okay/.
n.a. “Alcohol in Skin Care: The Facts: Paula's Choice.” Shop Paula's Choice, n.d, https://www.paulaschoice.com/expert-advice/skincare-advice/basic-skin-care-tips/alcohol-in-skin-care-the-facts.html.