You may have heard, in your skincare journey, to avoid alcohol as a skincare ingredient. What if we told you that is not always the case? In the world of skincare, there are two main categories of alcohols: drying alcohols and hydrating (also known as fatty) alcohols. Drying alcohols, such as ethanol and isopropyl alcohol, have the potential to cause dryness and irritation, while fatty alcohols, like cetyl alcohol and stearyl alcohol, can help draw in and retain moisture. In this blog post, we cover the differences between drying alcohol as a skincare ingredient, and hydrating alcohols.
The Difference Between Drying and Hydrating Alcohol
Drying alcohols and fatty alcohols differ in their chemical makeup, which contributes to their contrasting effects on the skin.
Drying alcohols, such as ethanol and isopropyl alcohol, belong to the category of short-chain alcohols. They have a smaller molecular size and a higher volatility, which allows them to evaporate quickly from the skin’s surface, leading to a drying effect.
In contrast, fatty alcohols are long-chain alcohols derived from natural fats or oils. They have larger molecular structures and higher oil solubility, making them less likely to evaporate rapidly. This characteristic allows fatty alcohol in skincare to act as emollients, forming a protective barrier on the skin and helping to retain moisture. The chemical differences between drying and fatty alcohols play a significant role in determining their respective abilities to hydrate or dehydrate the skin.
Common Drying Alcohols in Skincare
Below is a list of commonly found drying alcohols in skincare.
While it’s not always necessary to avoid these ingredients altogether, it’s important to be aware of their presence in your skincare products. Keep in mind that the higher an ingredient is listed on the product label, the higher the concentration of that ingredient in the formulation.
Common drying alcohols in skincare include:
- Ethyl alcohol
- SD alcohol
- Isopropyl alcohol
- Denatured alcohol
Common Hydrating Alcohols in Skincare
Below is a list of the most common fatty alcohols used in skincare.
If you’re looking to avoid potential drying effects in your skincare products, these ingredients are generally well-tolerated and can contribute to the overall hydration and moisturization of the skin.
Common fatty alcohols in skincare include:
- Cetyl alcohol
- Stearyl alcohol
- Cetearyl alcohol
- Propylene glycol
- Isostearyl alcohol
- Behenyl alcohol
The Benefits of Hydrating Alcohol in Skincare
Hydrating alcohols, also known as fatty alcohols, have gained recognition in the skincare world for their moisturizing properties and beneficial effects on the skin. Here are some key benefits of incorporating hydrating alcohols into skincare formulations:
- Moisture Retention: Hydrating alcohols have the ability to draw in and hold moisture in the skin. They act as humectants, similar to glycerin and hyaluronic acid, attracting water molecules and preventing transepidermal water loss. This helps to maintain optimal hydration levels, keeping the skin plump, supple, and moisturized.
- Improved Skin Texture: Fatty alcohols have emollient properties. They help to soften the skin’s surface, smooth out rough patches, and create a velvety texture. Regular use of products containing hydrating alcohols can contribute to a smoother, more refined complexion.
- Enhanced Product Performance: Hydrating alcohols are often used as emulsifiers, thickeners, or stabilizers in skincare formulations. They help to create a desirable consistency, improve the spreadability of products, and enhance the overall performance of skincare formulations. This helps skincare products distribute evenly and effectively deliver their active ingredients.
- Suitable for Sensitive Skin: Hydrating alcohols can provide much-needed moisture without compromising the skin’s barrier function making them well-tolerated by various skin types, including sensitive skin. Unlike drying alcohols, they are less likely to cause irritation or trigger sensitivities.
- Compatibility with Other Ingredients: Fatty alcohols have a good compatibility profile with a wide range of skincare ingredients. They can be combined with other active compounds, antioxidants, or botanical extracts to address specific skincare concerns. This versatility allows skincare brands to develop products that cater to various skin types and address multiple concerns simultaneously.
Drying alcohols can have several negative effects on the skin, particularly if overused.
They have the potential to strip the skin of its natural oils, leading to dryness, tightness, and discomfort. This dryness can disrupt the skin’s moisture barrier, making it more susceptible to environmental aggressors and potential irritants. Over time, excessive use or high concentrations of drying alcohols can compromise the skin’s protective barrier, resulting in increased sensitivity, redness, inflammation, and acne.
Furthermore, drying alcohols can disrupt the balance of the skin’s microbiome. This could potentially exacerbate existing skin conditions or trigger new ones such as fungal acne (Malassezia folliculitis or Pityrosporum folliculitis), eczema, or psoriasis. Individuals with dry or sensitive skin are particularly vulnerable to these negative effects and should be cautious when using products containing drying alcohols.
Why Do Skincare Brands Use Drying Alcohol?
While it may seem counterintuitive, skincare brands do include drying alcohols in their formulations for specific reasons. Here are a few key reasons why skincare products may contain drying alcohols:
- Solubilizing Active Ingredients: Drying alcohols have excellent solubility properties. They can dissolve certain beneficial active ingredients such as retinol (Vitamin A) or salicylic acid. By incorporating drying alcohols, skincare brands can ensure the proper dispersion and effective delivery of these ingredients within their formulations.
- Preservative and Antimicrobial Properties: Drying alcohols naturally possess antimicrobial properties that can help extend the shelf life of skincare products. They can inhibit the growth of bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms. This can be particularly important in organic or natural skincare products where the use of synthetic preservatives is minimized.
- Enhanced Product Performance: Drying alcohols can contribute to the quick-drying nature of certain skincare products, such as toners, astringents, or acne spot treatments. Their rapid evaporation rate can create a refreshing and mattifying effect on the skin, making them suitable for individuals with oily or combination skin types.
- Sensorial Experience: Some individuals prefer the cooling and refreshing sensation that drying alcohols provide on the skin. Skincare brands may include them in certain products to offer a sensory experience and evoke a feeling of cleanliness or freshness.
While drying alcohols serve specific purposes, their potential to cause skin damage, irritation, and disrupt the skin barrier should not be overlooked. The negative effects can vary based on factors such as concentration, skin type, and formulation. To mitigate drawbacks, brands can use lower concentrations, combine with soothing ingredients, and ensure transparent labeling to empower consumers’ informed choices.
Alcohol-Free Alternatives in Skincare
If you’re someone who has oily or acne-prone skin, you might be able to better tolerate products with drying alcohols as an ingredient. However, as noted above, long-term use can damage the skin barrier and make you more susceptible to over dryness, increased oil production, and uncomfortable skin conditions.
There are some popular alternatives to drying alcohol in skincare, that offer similar astringent and antibacterial properties. While these ingredients can still cause irritation if used too frequently, they are more gentle than drying alcohol and can offer additional benefits.
Apple Cider Vinegar (ACV)
ACV, a type of vinegar made from fermented apple cider, is used in alcohol-free toners for its antibacterial properties and ability to balance the skin’s pH. It gently exfoliates, tightens pores, and reduces hyperpigmentation. However, caution is necessary as the acid in apple cider vinegar may irritate and dry and sensitive skin.
Rose water is known for its anti-inflammatory, astringent, and pH-balancing properties. It effectively calms the skin, reduces redness and puffiness, controls sebum production, and offers antioxidant effects. Rose water toners help maintain the skin’s moisture barrier, fade scars, and improve complexion.
Green tea is rich in antioxidants and vitamins. It is widely utilized in skincare for its cleansing, tightening, and brightening effects. Green tea effectively combats free radicals, reduces hyperpigmentation, calms inflammation, and helps maintain the skin’s optimal pH level.
Aloe vera gel is a soothing and hydrating ingredient, commonly used after sunburns. It effectively calms inflammation, regulates sebum production, and contains enzymes and antioxidants that promote skin repair and healing. While generally well-tolerated, some individuals may experience slight sensitivity or itching.
Derived from the shrub Hamamelis virginiana, witch hazel is a plant-based ingredient with mild astringent properties It helps reduce pore size and remove excess oils without drying the skin and possesses anti-inflammatory properties and antioxidants to protect against environmental damage. However, it’s important to be cautious as some witch hazel products may contain alcohol.
Essential oils offer several benefits, depending on the type. Remember to use essential oils in moderation as excessive use can lead to allergic reactions, skin irritation, or headaches. It’s also important to dilute pure essential oil before applying it to the skin.
Common essential oils in alcohol-free skincare, and the benefits, include:
- Geranium: Balances sebum production for oily skin
- Rosemary: Antioxidant properties for mature skin, and promotes circulation for hair growth
- Lavender: Calming and soothing on sensitive skin, and promotes relaxation
- Tea Tree: Antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties for acne-prone skin
Grapefruit Seed Extract
Grapefruit seed extract possesses antimicrobial and antibacterial properties. It effectively combats bacteria and microorganisms and is particularly beneficial for acne-prone or oily skin due to its ability to control acne-causing bacteria, tighten pores, and promote a smoother complexion.
Cucumber extract is well-known for its cooling and soothing properties. It is rich in water and essential nutrients, providing effective hydration for individuals with dry or dehydrated skin. Additionally, it has anti-inflammatory effects that help reduce redness and soothe puffiness, making it a great choice for those with sensitive or irritated skin. Cucumber extract also acts as a gentle astringent, tightening pores and regulating sebum production, which makes it beneficial for people with oily or combination skin types. Discover our DIY Yogurt and Cucumber Mask recipe!