Should you worry if alcohol is in your skincare products?

Zara Kassam, BSc (Hons), MRes, PhD researcher.
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Should you worry when you see ‘alcohol’ listed as an ingredients in your skincare products? Not necessarily. Zara Kassam explains why.

Most of us turn to the internet for advice on skincare these days, but there’s a lot of deceptive information out there – especially when it comes to alcohol in skincare products. It’s easy to assume that alcohol would bad for skin as it dries it out, but that’s not necessarily the case – some do serve a purpose and can even be beneficial.

So what is the function of alcohol in skincare? Well, Alcohols are introduced into skincare for many reasons. These include being used as:

  • a solvent to dissolve substances such as oils on the skin’s surface,
  • an antiseptic to kill any unwanted bacteria living in the skin,
  • As a buffer to balance out the pH,
  • To improve delivery of other ingredients into the skin.

To understand their properties we need to understand that there are three main kinds of alcohols that are used in the skincare industry. The first one being: Simple Alcohols.  Simple alcohols such as methanol, ethanol and isopropyl alcohol, are derived from natural sugars and are used for their antibacterial properties.  This type of alcohol is used to dissolve the oils of the surface of the skin; however overuse of this type of product, especially by those who suffer from dry skin, can cause irritation; this formulation is targeted at those who suffer from acne and oily skin – but even then they have a down side.

red-wine-skin-care-journal

 

These simple alcohols are most commonly found in ‘high street’ toners or astringents, with their target audience typically being teenagers with acne.  Ultimately these products will dry out your skin even more, making the skin produce even more oil which is probably not what you want.  It’s better to look for a product that will hydrate the skin as well as help clear it, the down side of this however that is these products can be more pricy.

Different alcohols, different roles

Taking that step up we move into what are known as ‘fatty alcohols’. These tend to have a waxy texture and some of the most common are Lauryl alcohol, Stearyl alcohol and Myristyl alcohol.  These are non-drying unlike the simple alcohols. They are used for their emollient or moisturising properties for skin concerns such as dullness, uneven texture and fine lines and wrinkles, with the purpose to ultimately repair the skin’s barrier.

The third type of alcohols used in skincare are referred to as ‘Aromatic alcohols’; they are used as preservatives or as an element of a fragrance. The most common Aromatic alcohol being used is Benzyl alcohol. Don’t be alarmed I know it sounds rather terrifying, but Benzyl alcohol is actually a naturally occurring product, most commonly found in fruits such as apricots and cranberries; as well as a variety of essential oils including ylang-ylang and jasmine.

Benzyl alcohol is used as a bacteriostatic preservative at low concentration typically 5% in both cosmetics and topical creams to help reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles as well as illuminating the skin with continual use. When using products that contain Benzyl alcohol caution must be taken; Benzyl alcohol has been reported to cause skin allergy, however the prevalence of allergy to Benzyl alcohol is unknown. It is important with products such as these introduce the importance of patch testing.

So, there you have it. Just because an ingredient has the word “alcohol” in it doesn’t make it a bad ingredient. Alcohols tend to be primarily introduced into products for those suffering with oily skin but it makes sense to choose the ones that will nourish the skin as well as control the oiliness. Don’t stress out about whether an ingredient has alcohol in it, a lot of products we use in skincare do. And you’ll know right away if a product is drying out your skin simply by trying it.

 

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Boelsma, E ; Hendriks, Hfj ; Roza, L. Nutritional skin care: health effects of micronutrients and fatty acids. American Society for Nutrition 2001; 73(5): .

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EJ Curry; EM Warshaw (2005), “Benzyl alcohol allergy: importance of patch testing with personal products.”, Dermatitis (16): 203–8

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The Merck Index: An Encyclopedia of Chemicals, Drugs, and Biologicals (11th ed.), Merck, 1989, 1138

Swarupa G Kulkarni; Harihara M Mehendale (2005), “Benzyl Alcohol”, Encyclopedia of Toxicology1 (2nd ed.), Elsevier, pp. 262–264

EJ Curry; EM Warshaw (2005), “Benzyl alcohol allergy: importance of patch testing with personal products.”, Dermatitis (16): 203–8

[9] Goossens A, Claes L, Drieghe J, et al. Antimicrobials: preservatives, antiseptics, and disinfectants. Contact Dermatitis 1998;39:133–4.

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