Alcohol in skincare, make up and body care products are by many seen as a bad ingredient to have in the formulation. When I was working for a skincare company, I had to educate nearly all of my customers about alcohol in these products because of the negative association they had with it. Although, when asked, many had no idea what harm it actually did. Others, knew it was drying yet they couldn’t differentiate between the types of alcohol. While I won’t go into the great depths on this topic as it may bore you, I will give you a quick overview on the most common types of alcohol in your skincare products and why it is used. This, so that you are more aware on choosing your products next time.
In simple terms, you can categorise alcohols into the good vs the bad ones or long chain vs short chain (referring to their molecular structure). The “good ones/long chain” are fatty alcohols that come from oils and fat. The “bad ones/short chain” are simple alcohols derived from ethanol (the alcohol that we drink) that may come from starch or sugar or can also be man made from liquid petroleum.
Fatty alcohols are generally used to helps stabilise the other ingredients, moisturise and give your products a velvety texture. Some may consider it more of an emollient rather than an “alcohol”. Many of them are derived from coconut oil, so do be aware if you have any allergies. Also, it may cause some irritation to sensitive and acne prone skin, especially when they are a primary ingredient used. Here are the most common types of fatty alcohols in your skincare products.
A fatty alcohol derived from plants that have emulsifying properties and are used as thickening agents. This type of alcohol conditions the skin and prevents ingredients from separating.
A mixture of fatty alcohols, predominantly cetyl and stearyl alcohol, that help moisturize the skin and used as an emulsion stabilizer.
Arachidyl alcohol and Behenyl alcohol
Fatty alcohols with a waxy texture that is used as a thickening agent and emulsion stabiliser. These fatty alcohols keep emulsions (moisturizers) from separating into liquids.
Stearyl alcohol is a long chain of natural fatty alcohols and is used help create emulsions and prevent ingredients from separating. They allow the skin to feel smooth and give products a velvety feel. Stearyl alcohol is derived from stearic acid, coconut oil or vegetable fatty acid.
Simple alcohols are those that can cause irritation, dry out the skin and harm the natural protective barrier of the skin. These include denatured alcohol, isopropyl alcohol, methanol, ethyl alcohol and propanol amongst others.
Why is it in products?
These types of alcohols provide anti-bacterial properties to the formula, killing microbes, and dissolve surface oil. They can also allow other ingredients to penetrate the skin deeper and faster. While these alcohols should not be applied to the skin on its own and in high percentages, when combining this with other fatty ingredients it can be a useful alcohol to have.
While I do not mind having fatty alcohols in my skincare as it is a bit time consuming to find all of my skincare products without any type of alcohol, I am wary when there are simple alcohols in products especially when they are high on the ingredient list as I have dry skin. When you do end up wanting to buy a product that has a simple alcohol in it, check the other ingredients and see whether they complement each other or if it will actually bring out the worst in your skin. You can also avoid it all together and buy products that contain no alcohol at all!
P.S. Have a look at the below posts from professionals and bloggers in the skincare industry, if you want some further reading and come up with your own conclusions!