Alcohol is used on skin for many reasons and is found in skin care products. There are many types of alcohol used in skin care products including denatured alcohol, rubbing alcohol, ethyl alcohol, benzyl alcohol, isopropyl alcohol, or fatty alcohols.
This is a guide to the different types of alcohol in skin care products.
Alcohol Effects on Skin and Use in Skin Care Products
Denatured alcohol is the traditional form of alcohol used in skin care products. This is true alcohol, according to chemistry definitions, and is what you think of when you hear the word alcohol in association with skin care products and topical medications. True alcohols have antimicrobial abilities that keep microbes from growing in skin care products and help to extend shelf life.
True alcohol, also called simple alcohol, is a solvent that helps dissolve other ingredients and stabilizes skin care formulas. All simple alcohols have emulsifying, antimicrobial, and emollient properties. They also decrease the foaming of products by counteracting the effects of surfactants and lowering viscosity making products more fluid.
Alcohol is found in toners, essences, sunscreens, serums, moisturizers, creams, and lotions as penetration enhancers to help other ingredients get into the skin.
There are many types of alcohol in skin care products.
Why Is Alcohol Added To Skin Care Products?
Alcohol is added to skin care products for many reasons that depend upon the type of alcohol used. Many alcohols have the benefits of preventing the growth of bacteria so they are used as preservatives. Some types of alcohol in skin care are used as solvents, emulsifiers, and foaming agents.
Keep reading to see the benefits and risks of different types of alcohol in skin care.
Is Alcohol Safe In Skincare?
Alcohol is toxic orally but is safe when used topically on the skin.
The Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) board assessed the safety and dangers of alcohol in cosmetics (1) and found most forms of alcohol to be safe because most forms do does penetrate through the skin and enter the bloodstream.
The safety of denatured alcohol depends upon the safety of the substances used to denature the alcohol. In 2008, the CIR reported the following types of denatured alcohol to be safe: SD alcohol 3-A, SD alcohol 30, SD alcohol 39, SD alcohol 39-B, SD alcohol 39-C, SD alcohol 40, SD alcohol 40-B, and SD alcohol 40-C.
The CIR panel reported that the following ingredients were not necessarily dangerous, but they could not establish that these alcohol denaturants were safe: quassin, brucine sulfate/brucine, and denatonium benzoate. We recommend avoiding alcohol denatured with quassin, brucine sulfate/brucine, and denatonium benzoate but these are not commonly seen in skin care products.
The only side effect and safety concern to worry about is the drying effects of alcohol. The drying effects depend upon the amount of alcohol in the product.
For example, toners and essences typically have the highest concentration of alcohol which is why we usually do not recommend them to Baumann Dry Skin Types.
Rubbing alcohol, also known as isopropyl alcohol, can have varying effects on the face depending on individual skin types.
Rubbing Alcohol On Face to Treat Acne-
Unfortunately, there is a lack of peer-reviewed published studies specifically focusing on using rubbing alcohol to treat acne. Thus, its efficacy for acne treatment remains uncertain.
Dangers of Rubbing Alcohol
Rubbing alcohol is a harsh solvent that can strip the skin of its natural oils and disrupt the skin's protective barrier. Over time, this can lead to increased dryness, sensitivity, and a compromised skin barrier. Furthermore, using rubbing alcohol on acne-prone skin may lead to excessive drying, making the skin more vulnerable to irritation and potential breakouts. To maintain a healthy skin barrier, it is advisable to choose gentler and more appropriate skincare products suited to individual skin types, avoiding the excessive use of rubbing alcohol on the face.
Make sure you know your Baumann Skin Type and follow our skin care routine recommendations before you buy any skin care products.
Denatured Alcohol in Skin Care Products
What is Denatured Alcohol?
Denatured alcohol is the most commonly used variety for skin care formulations. You will see it on product labels as denat alcohol, Alcohol Denat, or ethanol denat. It is vegan and is seen in natural and organic skin care products.
It should not be found in “alcohol-free products”.
What does it mean to denature alcohol?
In the past, various forms of alcohol such as isopropanol and methanol have been consumed to get an alcohol effect when the consumer did not have access to ethanol- the type of alcohol that is in wine, beer and hard liquor. There are stories of people drinking mouth washes and facial toners to feel intoxicated. This is very dangerous because consumption of these forms of alcohol leads to many health issues.
To combat this problem, alcohol is denatured to make it unfit for consumption. Denatured alcohol has additives to make it taste bad. Denatured alcohol is the form of alcohol that is used in skin care products. Denatured alcohol when applied topically in skin care products does not give a rise to alcohol levels in the blood or make one feel inebriated.
Is Denatured Alcohol Bad for Skin?
Denatured alcohol can disturb the microbiome on the skin by killing healthy skin bacteria. It is also very drying and can injure your skin’s protective barrier.
Benefits of Denatured Alcohol for Skin
It is great at eliminating bacteria and otherwise disinfecting surfaces and skin. Denatured alcohol is great for helping products last longer on shelves and in your home so you don't have to buy products as frequently.
Benzyl alcohol is a commonly used ingredient in skincare products due to its properties as a preservative and solvent. As a preservative, it helps extend the shelf life of skincare formulations by preventing the growth of bacteria and other microorganisms. It is also used as a solvent to aid in the dispersion of other ingredients within the product.
Baumann Skin Types that are oily or acne-prone skin may benefit from products containing benzyl alcohol, as it can help prevent bacterial growth on skin that could exacerbate acne.
Dry or Sensitive Baumann Skin Types, benzyl alcohol may not be ideal, as it can have drying effects on the skin and potentially cause irritation or sensitization. As with any skincare ingredient, it's crucial to consider individual skin concerns and sensitivities when choosing skin care products.
Safety of benzyl alcohol in skincare products
Benzyl alcohol is generally considered safe when used within the recommended concentrations. The Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) Expert Panel has evaluated benzyl alcohol and concluded that it is safe for use in cosmetics and personal care products at specific concentrations.
Other names for benzyl alcohol are:
These names may appear on ingredient labels instead of "benzyl alcohol," so it's important to recognize them to identify the presence of benzyl alcohol in skincare products or other cosmetic formulations.
Cetearyl alcohol is a fatty alcohol commonly used in skincare products for its emollient and emulsifying properties. It is a combination of cetyl alcohol and stearyl alcohol, both derived from natural sources like coconut or palm oil.
As an emollient, cetearyl alcohol helps to soften and soothe the skin, providing much-needed hydration and improving its overall texture. It forms a protective barrier on the skin's surface, preventing moisture loss and promoting long-lasting hydration. Additionally, cetearyl alcohol acts as an emulsifier in formulations, helping to stabilize and blend oil and water-based ingredients together.
It is found in creams, lotions, and moisturizers, which require a smooth and creamy texture.
Cetearyl alcohol is well-tolerated by various skin types, making it suitable for both dry and sensitive skin individuals, as it helps replenish and maintain the skin's moisture levels.
Is cetearyl alcohol safe to use on the skin?
Yes, cetearyl alcohol is generally considered safe for use on the skin. As a fatty alcohol, it is non-irritating and non-sensitizing for most individuals. Unlike drying alcohols, cetearyl alcohol does not strip the skin of its natural oils or compromise the skin's barrier function. On the contrary, it provides moisturizing benefits, making it suitable for individuals with dry or sensitive skin types.
Cetyl alcohol is a fatty alcohol commonly used in skincare products for its skin smoothing properties. Cetyl alcohol is derived from natural sources like coconut or palm oil. It acts as an emollient, helping to soften and soothe the skin by creating a protective barrier to prevent moisture loss.
Cetyl alcohol also functions as an emulsifier, enabling oil and water-based ingredients to mix seamlessly in formulations like creams and lotions. Its presence in skincare products contributes to a creamy and smooth texture, enhancing the overall user experience. Due to its moisturizing properties, cetyl alcohol is particularly beneficial for individuals with dry or sensitive skin, providing much-needed hydration and reducing skin irritation.
Is cetyl alcohol bad for the skin?
It is generally considered safe and non-irritating when used in appropriate concentrations in skincare products. Unlike drying alcohols, such as ethanol or isopropyl alcohol, cetyl alcohol does not have the same potential to cause skin dryness or irritation. Instead, it serves as a beneficial ingredient for enhancing the skin's hydration and texture.
Ethyl alcohol, also known as ethanol, is commonly used in skincare products for its antiseptic and preservative properties. As a disinfectant, it helps to eliminate bacteria and other microorganisms that may be present in skincare formulations, contributing to the overall product safety and shelf life. Additionally, ethyl alcohol can act as a solvent, aiding in the absorption of other beneficial ingredients into the skin. In certain formulations, it also provides a lightweight, quick-drying texture, making it suitable for products like toners and astringents. However, it's worth noting that ethyl alcohol can have drying effects on the skin, which may not be well-suited for individuals with dry or sensitive skin types. Therefore, it's essential to consider the concentration of ethyl alcohol in skincare products and choose products that are appropriate for your Baumann Skin Type and skin concerns.
Isopropyl alcohol, also known as rubbing alcohol, is a common ingredient used in skincare products for its antiseptic and disinfectant properties. As an alcohol, isopropyl alcohol has the ability to kill bacteria and other microorganisms, making it effective in cleansing the skin's surface.
It is commonly found in products like toners and astringents, where it helps to remove excess oil and impurities, especially for individuals with oily or acne-prone skin.
Isopropyl alcohol can aid in the absorption of other beneficial ingredients into the skin, enhancing the overall efficacy of skincare formulations.
Is isopropyl alcohol safe to use on the skin?
Isopropyl alcohol can be harsh and drying on the skin, which may not be suitable for those with dry or sensitive skin types. Therefore, it is essential to know your Baumann Skin Type before shopping for skin care products for your skin care routine.
You should use products containing isopropyl alcohol in moderation to avoid potential irritation and it is not recommended for everyday use or for individuals with dry or sensitive skin. Regular use of isopropyl alcohol can strip the skin of its natural oils, leading to increased dryness and potential irritation. It may also compromise the skin's natural barrier, making it more vulnerable to environmental aggressors and moisture loss.
Fatty alcohols are made from fatty acids. They are not true alcohols. They come from fatty acids derived from animals or plants such as oils palm and coconuts.
Examples of fatty alcohols in skin care are:
- cetyl alcohol
- stearyl alcohol
- cetearyl alcohol
These types of alcohol may be found in “alcohol-free” skin care products.
Are Fatty Alcohols Safe On Skin?
Fatty alcohols do not need to be avoided in the same way that simple alcohols do.
Are Aromatic Alcohols Safe On Skin?
Aromatic alcohols have fragrance and are often found in essential oils. Essential oils can sometimes dry out the skin and cause inflammation, so be careful when adding an essential oil to your skin care regimen. Fragrances are a very common cause of skin allergy.
If you have any common allergies, consult your allergist before adding an aromatic alcohol to your skin care regimen.
Can I Be Allergic To Alcohol in Cosmetics?
It is common to be allergic to alcohol.
These are the most common alcohols to cause a skin allergy:
- Benzyl alcohol
- Cetyl Alcohol
- Lanolin Alcohol
Is alcohol bad for the skin?
Why should skincare be alcohol-free? “Alcohol- free” usually applies to denatured alcohol, not to fatty alcohols.
Denatured alcohol is only bad for dry skin types because it can harm the skin barrier.
If you are unsure about your skin type (Over 80% of people guess incorrectly!!) you can take the scientific skin type quiz here that dermatologists use to diagnose dry skin.
Alcohol-Free Skincare That Has Alcohol
Why was I told that I should avoid alcohol in skin care, but my dermatologist recommended a product with alcohol in it? Click here to learn why.
There is a difference between alcohol and fatty alcohol. It is confusing - I know. Fatty alcohols are not true alcohols. They do not have the chemical structure, nor do they dry skin or have the same side effects as true alcohols. You can learn more about fatty alcohols here.
Myths About Alcohol In Skin Care
- Myth: Using alcohol on the skin does not increase the production of sebum.
The science says: This has never been proven and is unlikely to be true.
- Myth: All alcohol in skin care is bad.
The science says: Small amounts of alcohol in skin care have many benefits without the side effect of drying the skin. It’s the type and amount f alcohol that is important to consider when choosing the best skin care products.
- Myth: Alcohol is the best way to clean the skin.
The science says: Alcohol disinfects the skin and kills microbes, but it is not the best way to remove sunscreen, dirt, makeup, and sweat from the skin. Alcohol is not the most effective way to clean skin because it does not penetrate through sebum to get into the pores and clean out the pores.
Choosing a cleanser for your Baumann Skin Type is a better option to clean the skin on the face.
Types of Simple Alcohols in Skin Care
Benzyl alcohol- Used as a preservative and fragrance. Helps stabilize the formula and make it more fluid (Less viscosity).
Ethanol- penetration enhancer. Same chemical as found in alcoholic beverages. Used to extract ingredients from plants. For example, this is how essential oils are made. Evaporates off skin in about 10 seconds.[ii]
Methanol- High doses are applied topically and oral ingestion can result in toxicity.[iii]
Alcohol denatured- learn more about denatured alcohol here.
Ethyl alcohol- same as ethanol
Phenethyl alcohol- Aromatic alcohol. Has an EWG rating of 1.
SD Alcohol- the same as denatured alcohol
Other names for alcohol in skin care products
Not all forms of alcohol have the term alcohol in their name. However, they usually end with the letters “-ol”.
Examples of other names of alcohols found in skin care are:
- Propylene glycol- This is an alcohol and is also in a skin care ingredient category called glycols.
- Butylene glycol
- Caprylyl Glycol
Ingredients in Skin Care Derived from Alcohol
There are ingredients derived from alcohol that are no longer considered alcohols.
These derivatives offer a range of advantages, from acting as preservatives and emollients to enhancing product texture and stability. Some notable alcohol-derived ingredients include Ethylhexylglycerin, Phenoxyethanol, Cetyl Palmitate, Steareth-20, Ceteareth-20, Glyceryl Stearate, Isostearyl Isostearate, and Isocetyl Alcohol.
List of these alcohol-derived ingredients and their benefits in skincare products:
Ethylhexylglycerin: A conditioning agent and preservative, enhances skin texture and moisture retention.
Phenoxyethanol: A glycol ether used as a broad-spectrum preservative, ensuring product shelf life.
Cetyl Palmitate: A fatty alcohol-derived emollient that softens and nourishes the skin.
Steareth-20: An emulsifier and texture enhancer that helps stabilize formulations.
Ceteareth-20: Similar to Steareth-20, it is an emulsifier and texture enhancer for improved product consistency.
Glyceryl Stearate: An emulsifier and stabilizer, keeps the oil and water-based ingredients blended.
Isostearyl Isostearate: An emollient that provides a smooth, non-greasy feel to skincare products.
Isocetyl Alcohol: An emollient that helps lock in moisture and prevents water loss from the skin.
These alcohol-derived ingredients are formulated to provide specific benefits to the skin without causing the drying effects often associated with traditional alcohols.
Is it good to clean your face with alcohol everyday?
The appropriateness of cleaning your face with alcohol every day depends on your Baumann Skin Type.
For individuals with oily or acne-prone skin, using alcohol-based cleansers occasionally can be beneficial. Alcohol can help remove excess oil and impurities, providing a thorough cleanse. However, using alcohol-based products daily can lead to excessive drying and potential irritation, which is why it is advisable to use them in moderation.
On the other hand, individuals with dry or sensitive skin should avoid using alcohol-based cleansers daily as they can disrupt the skin's natural barrier and exacerbate dryness and sensitivity.
For these skin types, gentle, non-alcohol-based cleansers are preferable for maintaining skin health and hydration. Ultimately, understanding your Baumann Skin Type and its specific needs can guide you in choosing the appropriate cleansing routine for your skin.
Best references and Scientific Publications about Alcohol in Skin Care Products
- Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel. (2008). Final report of the safety assessment of alcohol denat., including SD alcohol 3-A, SD alcohol 30, SD alcohol 39, SD alcohol 39-B, SD alcohol 39-C, SD alcohol 40, SD alcohol 40-B, and SD alcohol 40-C, and the denaturants, quassin, brucine sulfate/brucine, and denatonium benzoate. International journal of toxicology, 27, 1-43.
- Pendlington, R. U., Whittle, E., Robinson, J. A., & Howes, D. (2001). Fate of ethanol topically applied to skin. Food and Chemical Toxicology, 39(2), 169-174.
- Chan, A. P., & Chan, T. Y. (2018). Methanol as an unlisted ingredient in supposedly alcohol-based hand rub can pose serious health risk. International journal of environmental research and public health, 15(7), 1440.
- García-Gavín, J., Lissens, R., Timmermans, A., & Goossens, A. (2011). Allergic contact dermatitis caused by isopropyl alcohol: a missed allergen?. Contact dermatitis, 65(2), 101-106.
- Mohiuddin, A. K. (2019). Skin care creams: formulation and use. Dermatol Clin Res, 5(1), 238-271.
- Lachenmeier, D. W. (2008). Safety evaluation of topical applications of ethanol on the skin and inside the oral cavity. Journal of Occupational Medicine and Toxicology, 3, 1-16.
- Curry, E. J., & Warshaw, E. M. (2005). Benzyl alcohol allergy: importance of patch testing with personal products. DERM, 16(4), 203-208.
- Saiyasombati, P., & Kasting, G. B. (2003). Disposition of benzyl alcohol after topical application to human skin in vitro. Journal of pharmaceutical sciences, 92(10), 2128-2139.