Are alcohols in skincare ‘bad’?

The short answer is… not necessarily. Alcohols have developed a bad reputation when it comes to skincare, and that’s only partially due to fact. The truth is, different types of alcohols are commonly used in all types of skincare products for different purposes. Whether these alcohols are ‘bad’ really depends: on the type of alcohols, on your skin type and on the concentration of those alcohols in the product.

The role of alcohols in skincare

So why are alcohols used in skincare at all? For a number of reasons, depending on the particular types of alcohols included in each product. Simple alcohols, which you can identify on product labels as ‘SD alcohol’, ‘denatured alcohol’ or ‘isopropyl alcohol’ are usually added to improve the performance and texture of skincare, as either solvents or emulsifiers – to help other ingredients either dissolve or blend thoroughly. They also help products dry quickly and feel matte and weightless on the skin. Some alcohols, such as benzyl alcohol, act as preservatives and work to keep natural and organic products free from bacteria. Alcohols can also promote the effective penetration of active ingredients (such as Vitamin C or retinol) into the skin. However, in the same manner, they also facilitate the penetration of potential irritants such as essential oils or fragrance.

The dark side of simple alcohols

Quite often, the ‘bad’ characteristics we associate with alcohols in skincare relate to these simple alcohols. Unfortunately, while they do speed up product drying time, they also tend to take some of the water out from your skin at the same time. They can be irritating and can compromise the skin’s natural moisture barrier over time. This barrier is necessary for keeping your skin balanced, protected and healthy, and its breakdown leaves your skin vulnerable to UV damage and breakouts. Their mattifying effect might feel immediately satisfying for oily skin but the dehydration encourages the skin to produce more oil to compensate in the long term, exacerbating the condition.

These simple alcohols might sound off-putting, however they are common in all kinds of products, from budget to luxury, so harmful can they really be? The extent to which these alcohols will impact your skin really depends on how much of them is in the product. If these simple alcohols appear as one of the first few ingredients in more than one product you frequently use, it’s means you’re likely applying a high concentration which may be harmful for your skin. On the other hand, if you spot one of these alcohols lower down in the product’s ingredient list, it’s likely to be less damaging.

The benefits of fatty alcohols

Not all alcohols you’ll in skincare are simple alcohols. There are alcohols which can be really beneficial! They’re referred to as fatty alcohols and they can be identified on a product label as ‘cetyl’, ‘stearyl’, ‘behenyl’ or ‘cetearyl’ alcohol. These alcohols have the opposite effect to their simple relatives, acting as emollients which lock in moisture in addition to keeping products from separating. These alcohols are unlikely to have a dehydrating or irritating effect, however if you have rosacea, eczema or particularly sensitive skin, you should still proceed with caution and monitor how your skin reacts.

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