Are alcohol-free beauty products better for your skin? Rose Inc. investigates.
In a wellness landscape that embraces dietary restrictions as not just a way of life, but subcultures of their own—from paleo to vegan—it’s no wonder many of us have put our skin on strict regimens, too. Sometimes they’re based on ethical considerations, like cruelty-free products, and other times, we eschew items based on health or environmental concerns (like with known endocrine system disruptors or reef-damaging oxybenzone in sunscreen). And occasionally, we avoid ingredients simply because they don’t seem particularly good for us—and that’s where alcohol in skin care and makeup comes in.
For those of us acutely aware of the way in which another round of margaritas can manifest as flushed and dry skin, it’s hard not to think that spotting alcohol on a beauty product’s ingredient list can prove problematic—even if we can’t pinpoint why, exactly. Indeed, public perception about alcohol’s drying effects in the U.S. are strong. Ni’Kita Wilson, a cosmetic chemist who formulates skin-care products for Fortune 500 brands and indie startups alike, says American brands have been moving away from the ingredient, “due to a fear of overdrying skin. However [some] brands continue to use alcohol to obtain refreshing, lightweight formulas with a nice afterfeel.”
In some regards, our instincts are spot on. “Alcohol is an irritant and dries the skin,” says Orit Markowitz, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and associate professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai in New York City. So why are alcohols so prevalent in personal care products? The drying aspect is just one part of the story. Ahead, Rose, Inc. investigates how alcohol impacts our skin’s health.
Why Is There Alcohol In Skin Care and Makeup?
What we commonly think of as “alcohol” in skin care and makeup is better known as ethyl alcohol (ethanol) and listed on labels as alcohol, isopropyl alcohol, alcohol denat/denatured alcohol and SD (specially denatured) alcohol. As Dr. Morkowitz notes, these ingredients can interfere with the skin’s own moisture-retaining humectants. So why include it? Wilson explains that, from a formulation perspective, there are a host of reasons.
For example, ethyl alcohols are primarily used to dissolve ingredients that otherwise don’t break down in water, like salicylic acid. They can also make a formula more elegant to use: “It’s great for reducing tack left on the skin after a product absorbs,” Wilson says. Ditto for reducing the time it takes to apply a product (helping makeup set faster, for example). Because alcohol kills bacteria, viruses, and germs, its inclusion in beauty products can also reduce the need for preservatives. Wilson says alcohol’s properties are so unique, there are no direct replacement ingredients to achieve these outcomes.
Some formulations have also relied on alcohol to give skin an instantaneously mattifying effect, something that has traditionally been marketed to those with oily skin, but a more modern school of thought recognizes long-term risks. “The skin will respond by getting oilier over time,” Dr. Markowitz says. “And not in a naturally-glowing and healthy way.”
But that’s not all: “Alcohol often leaves a ‘clean’ and ‘tight’ feeling on the skin because it strips the skin of water, which results in dead cell buildup,” says Renée Rouleau, esthetician and founder of Renée Rouleau Skin Care. “Trying to dry up oily skin can backfire, as stripped cell buildup traps oil and leads to breakouts. If you’re looking for optimal skin health, then dehydrating the skin’s surface with a solvent-drying alcohol is not ideal.”
Alcohols have many different uses and not all are drying.
Rouleau says that, for some, alcohol is an appropriate ingredient for spot treatments on occasion “since the goal is to dry up the infection,” but notes that long-term use of the ingredient on skin “can damage the skin’s protective barrier, which will increase skin sensitivity and irritation.”
To this end, Wilson says that many dynamically-formulated products balance any alcohol included with ingredients that add and help retain moisture. “In formulations balanced with emollients and humectants, the benefits of alcohol can outweigh the perceived concerns,” she says. However, for many, it may be easiest to avoid the ingredient completely. But here’s where the plot twist comes in: Not all alcohols are drying or damaging to skin. There are other classes of alcohols that nurture skin, smooth texture, and brighten tone.
The Catch: Know Your Alcohols
“Alcohols have many different uses and not all are drying. Alcohols can be humectants, solvents, emulsifiers, surfactants, and antioxidants,” explains Rouleau, pointing to hydrating tocopherol (vitamin E, a proven antioxidant) and retinol (vitamin A, known to speed cell turnover and boost collagen to even tone and texture) as two beneficial types of alcohol.
What’s more, another class of alcohols, called fatty alcohols (commonly found on ingredient lists as cetyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol, behenyl alcohol, arachidyl alcohol, and cetearyl alcohol) not only help thicken and stabilize creams and lotions, they’re known to be wholly beneficial for the skin, too. For example, stearyl alcohol (an emollient) and cetyl alcohol (often derived from coconut oil) are commonly-used to retain moisture. Meanwhile, research completed by Cosmetic Ingredient Review, which assesses the safety of ingredients in cosmetics and publishes the results in peer-reviewed journals, found many fatty alcohols to be safe as cosmetic ingredients. Fatty alcohols also yield low hazard scores from the Environmental Working Group. Though allergic reactions to these ingredients may happen in some, occurrence is low, which might help explain why the FDA allows formulations made with fatty alcohols and other non-ethyl alcohol ingredients to be labeled as “alcohol-free” even though the ingredients are technically classified as alcohols.
Bottom line: Our propensity to swear off alcohol in skin care and makeup isn’t unfounded, but don’t let the word “alcohol” alone scare you away from trying other products as fatty alcohols may be just the thing to keep skin plump and smooth.
Photos by Nikki Cruz.