Topical alcohols have been a popular topical issue in the beauty world and causes the utmost confusion. It is found in almost everything you find in Boots, from astringents, moisturisers to face masks. Yet, if you asked a beauty enthusiast, the general advice is to plain right avoid like the plague. But I disagree though. The topical use of alcohol is much deeper than that.
Uses of alcohol in skincare.
Alcohol has been used in skincare products for decades. I still remember the thick Olay cream makeup remover I slapped on and massaged my face with after my ballet recitals, and the alcohol-laden agent swiped after. You see, this second agent was used to de-grease my greased-up face. Other uses of alcohol in skincare listed below:
1. Emulsifier – to blend substances together
2. Antiseptic – to kill bacteria, especially used in hand sanitisers
3. Stabiliser – to prevent separation of products
4. Preservative – to defer decay and minimizes bacterial growth
But do all alcohols do these wondrous things? No.
To keep things simple, there are “good” and “bad” alcohols.
“Bad Alcohols” are notorious for causing a riot in the beauty world and drying havoc on your skin. If you look at the ingredients list on your bottle, these are often “alcohol”, “ethanol”, “isopropyl…”, and “denatured alcohol” / “alcohol denat”. While great for their antiseptic properties and dissolving surface oil, they dry out skin and weaken the protective barrier making skin prone to irritation. They are often found in blue-tinged, drugstore toners and astringents targeted towards greasy-skinned teenagers. As alcohol irritates skin, more sebum is produced thus rolls on the hamster wheel.
“Good Alcohols” are underrated and cause a beauty shopper to freak out at the sight of “…alcohol” in the ingredients list. I wish they would be renamed to make it easier for consumers to tell the difference. If the word “alcohol” is preceded by another word, these are often the fatty alcohols which have emollient, thickening, skin-penetrating and/or moisturising properties. They provide a smooth velvety feel to the skin. Common examples include cetyl alcohol, myristyl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol.
Another thing to keep in mind is the “concentration” of alcohol in a product.
The ingredients list is not a random list of products, rather it is often in the order of concentration from highest to lowest. If you find it within the first 5 ingredients, I would probably stay away, especially if you have dry sensitive skin. If it rolls lower down the list, it is likely used in a lower concentration perhaps for beneficial uses listed above.
The General Advice
1. Check the ingredients list before you buy. If you find “alcohol”, “ethanol”, “isopropyl…”, and “alcohol denat” in the first 5 ingredients, stay away. And oh another thing, especially if you have dry skin, avoid that beautiful vibrant blue hue in skincare solutions as if it were a blue poison dart frog.
2. While “bad alcohols” do dry out the skin, applying them on the surface is not "toxic". You will not die (unless you drink them of course).
3. If you are really hell-bent on using those alcohol laden astringents, I would suggest reducing the frequency of use. Limit application up to 2-3 times a week.
And just to add, here’s a list of "bad alcohol"-containing products (top 5 in ingredients list) I found in my cupboard:
Activbod Cooling Finish Lotion
Avène Cleanance Toner
Bobbi Brown Soothing Cleansing Oil
Cetaphil DermaControl Oil Control Moisturizer with SPF 30
Clarins Extra-Firming Body Cream
Clarins Sun Care by Clarins Spray Gentle Milk-Lotion Progressive Tanning SPF20
Eucerin Even Brighter Spot Corrector
Eucerin Sun Protection Sun Spray Transparent 50 High
Garnier Body Ultimate Beauty Oil
Garnier Peel-Off Mask with Vitamins A+C
Garnier Skin Naturals 2-in-1 Eye Make-Up Remover
Gillette Fusion ProSeries Intense Cooling Aftershave Lotion
La Roche Posay Anthelios XL Spf50+ Invisible Nutritive Oil
La Roche-Posay Anthelios XL SPF 50+ Protective Oil
La Roche-Posay Effaclar Astringent Micro-Exfoliant Lotion
La Roche-Posay Pigmentclar Serum
Palmers Cocoa Butter Formula Natural Bronze Gradual Tanning Moisturiser
Rimmel Sunshimmer Instant Tan BB Perfector Medium Matte
Sanctuary Illuminating Moisture Lotion SPF15
The Body Shop Camomile Waterproof Eye & Lip Make Up Remover
Vichy Normaderm Hydrating Care
Vichy Purete Thermale 3-in-1 One Step Cleanser
You can tell these are mostly oils, makeup removers and toners. Alcohols in oils and heavy duty makeup removers sort of make sense as emulsifiers. But in toners and moisturisers? No no.
Livia | The Skin and Beauty Blog