Something you need to know about alcohols in your skincare.

After the last year, we all couldn’t be more familiar with the negative side effects of alcohol. Dry, red, flaking or peeling hands, have become common, all thanks to hand sanitizer.

However, It may surprise you to hear that not all alcohols are bad. You may have been advised in the past to avoid alcohols in skin and haircare products. If you are in the habit of reading labels before you buy you will know how common they are, but how do you tell the “baddies” from the “goodies”.

Alcohols in your skincare: Good or Bad?

Two types of Alcohols

Certain alcohols like ethanol and isopropyl alcohol are very drying to the skin. They damage the skin barrier, but there is another group of alcohols knows as fatty alcohols, such as cetearyl alcohol, and these behave completely differently. But first what is your skin barrier?

What is your skin barrier and why is it so important?

The outer layer of your skin are known as your skin barrier. It defends your body against harmful environmental pollutants, allergens, harsh chemicals, sun exposure, bacteria, fungi and viruses. Your skin barrier also keeps water inside your body. Because your skin barrier is slightly acidic, it helps defend the body against bacteria, viruses and fungi that could otherwise attack the body. Lets look how the two different alcohol groups effect your skin barrier.

Fatty Alcohols

In fatty alcohols, the alcohol group (-OH) is attached to a very long chain of hydrocarbons (fats). These alcohols are regarded as emollients or humectants. Emollients (like stearyl alcohol) trap moisture, while humectants (like propylene glycol) attract water to the skin. So they function by trapping water in the skin where it is needed and allow damaged skin cells on the skin’s surface to repair themselves, thereby protecting that skin barrier! They can also act as emulsifiers or thickeners.

These Fatty alcohols also provide a soothing feel to the skin, and are great for

  • dry skin
  • itchy skin
  • Scaling or cracked skin

In fact in the United States, Cetearyl alcohol (one of the most common fatty alcohols) is allowed to be contained in products labelled as “alcohol free”. It is even licensed to be used as a food additive.

“Goodies” alcohols that are “Fatty” to look out for

  • cetyl alcohol
  • stearyl alcohol
  • cetearyl alcohol
  • propylene glycol

So bad alcohols are damaging your skin barrier.

Watch out for these “Baddies”

These ingredients can damage the skin barrier over time in used in excess.

  • SD alcohol
  • denatured alcohol “denat”
  • isopropyl alcohol.
  • Ethanol
  • methanol

These alcohols can be found in some anti-acne or spot treatments. They have a satisfying effect of removing the oil and grease but unfortunately at the same time they also stimulate more oil production, resulting in a chain reaction making your skin worse. Longterm use of these can enlarge pores, increase sebum production and result in even greasier skin, prone to more breakouts. These ingredients therefore are particularly bad for acne prone skin, not to mention those who suffer with rosacea who will find their skin getting redder and more sensitive.

Watch out for these ingredients especially in acne skincare. They are also found in toners and gel moisturisers, or even serums. They make thick moisturisers feel light by evaporating rapidly. They can leave you with a fresh feeling, but can also leave you feeling very dry at the same time. Remember the higher up the list an ingredient is, the higher percentage there is of it in the product.

A so called “necessary evil”

Hand sanitisers often contain ethanol or Isopropanol; a minimum of 60% Ethanol or 70% isopropanol to be effective. However for now we must accept this as necessary as hand washing can’t be performed as easily or conveniently.

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you have found it helpful, and that it will aid you to make better skincare choices. Sometimes when products don’t work for us the way we hoped, we get dismayed, but sometimes all you need is a little guidance in the right direction.

Dr Barry