Alcohol in skincare is one of the more confusing issues when it comes to the question “is it good or bad for my skin”.
Firstly, thankfully there are good alcohols. These are called fatty alcohols and are listed as cetyl, cetearyl, stearyl or behenyl alcohol. These alcohols bear no relation to the bad types of alcohol. These fatty alcohols are used as emulsifiers (making oil bind with water) or thickeners in creams and are not harmful to your skin and can actually be moisturising. They are derived from vegetable sources, like coconut.
Then there are the bad alcohols. These alcohols are listed as alcohol, alcohol denat (denatured alcohol), ethanol or ethyl alcohol. This is basically the alcohol we are all familiar with found in our beers, wines and spirits. These types of alcohol are usually derived from the distillation of grains or grapes and are therefore claimed as a ‘natural ingredient’ by many skincare brands.
Worse and less wholesome by far are the synthetic types of ethyl alcohol and denatured alcohol. Denatured alcohol (alcohol denat/SD alcohol) means that a substance has been added to make them undrinkable, thus avoiding tax and making them very cheap. These types wreak havoc on your skin and should be avoided at all costs, especially if they appear high up on the ingredients list.
Bad alcohols, whether natural or synthetic, are used mainly as preservatives, but since alcohol evaporates so quickly, they are also used to make a heavy cream feel lighter. They strip away grease and, it is claimed, drive beneficial ingredients through the lipid barrier. However, this is at the expense (over time) of completely destroying the lipid layer of the skin, meaning our skin is less able to look after itself.
People with acne/oily skin love products containing alcohol because of its oil stripping properties but as well as destruction of the lipid barrier, it also encourages the skin to produce more oil, thereby starting a vicious cycle of more oiliness, irritation, redness etc. It has also been found to prevent the absorption of Vitamin A (a highly rated anti-ageing ingredient).
What’s worse is that this type of alcohol only works in high concentrations (20%+). If all that’s not bad enough, it has also been found to trigger free radical damage!
See the following quote from www.paulaschoice.com
“Small amounts of alcohol applied to skin cells in lab settings (about 3% alcohol, but keep in mind skin-care products contain amounts ranging from 5% to 60% or more) over the course of two days increased cell death by 26%. It also destroyed the substances in cells that reduce inflammation and defend against free radicals; so, not only does alcohol crash your healthy-complexion party—it trashes the furniture, too! Worst skin-care guest ever. The damage to cells continues, and it’s not pretty: Exposure to alcohol causes skin cells to literally self-destruct. Seriously—they just give up and go boom, and the longer the exposure to alcohol continues, the worse it gets for your skin cells.”
So what about Benzyl Alcohol. Benzyl Alcohol is a naturally occurring component of Essential Oils, such as Rose, Rose Geranium and Ylang-Ylang. However there is also a synthetic variety made in the laboratory by mixing benzyl chloride with sodium hydroxide. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) classifies the ingredient as a “6,” or “moderate hazard,” so those with sensitive skin should avoid. If an otherwise totally natural product lists this ingredient as an essential component of natural oils then it is likely to be in such small quantities as to be harmless.
Now for the confusing part. Some very reputable natural skincare brands claim that the natural organic drinkable (not denatured) grain alcohol used in their formulas is non-drying and drives nutrients deep into the skin. They claim that “alcohol is not drying to the skin when part of a carefully formulated composition” or “judiciously used levels and in the right formulation, it acts as a facilitator for the therapeutic properties”. I therefore tend to take a view and will use products containing natural organic alcohol if it is low down on the ingredients list of a ‘good’ natural skincare brand.