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Uncovered: How Alcohol In Beauty Products Impacts Your Skin

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.


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. 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.

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