Alcohol in skincare – not where you’d expect to find it ‘eh. Usually it’s in da club with 50 cent, in a looking-too-beaut-to-drink posh cocktail. The one that’s taking 5 minutes longer to make than it’s gonna be taking you to drink 😉 It’s in your drinks, your food… and who’d have thought it, even in your skincare.
Hmmm… alcohol in your skincare. Should it be there? Is it a filler? How does alcohol affect your skin? Is it leaving your skin hungover and calling in for a sick day? Will it leave your skin dry, dehydrated and as vulnerable as you feel the morning after the night before?
Very great questions my friend. The real-deal is this, there are 2 kinds of alcohol in skincare. The great kind and the dive and duck kind. In 5 minutes time you’re going to find out exactly how to tell the difference. Let’s do this…
The GOOD & BAD Kind of Alcohol In Skincare
There are oodles of reasons why ingredients go into skincare bottles. Just like a chef uses ingredients you’d never eat alone, xanthan gum anyone (?) a formulator also uses skincare actives you’d never put on your skin neat… or every really talk about – EVER.
Cetearyl alcohol city-block moisturiser – there’s a reason you’ve never heard of it!
When cooking up a storm, you use yummy foods, helpful oils, sensational seasoning, thickening corn flour, rising yeasts… there’s a treasure trove of choices to pick from. Alone they are nothing. Together they are heaven on earth.
This is the exact same process us skincare formulators go through.
We’ll choose great ingredients you’d know to look for – actives like shea butter, vitamin E, aloe vera.
Next we’ll be choosing a selection of helpers. A fan club to support the heroes on main stage. For example, ingredients that make water and oil mix together, ingredients that make creams slippier and easier to apply, ingredients that make moisturisers absorb in super quick.
The 2 kinds of alcohol you’ll find in skincare are both supportive fans/worker bees. They make your headliners work.
There’s, type 1, the kind that makes a moisturiser or toner super quick to absorb. But psst – that means they might also be leaving your skin feeling crazy ‘tight and taught’. P.s. that’s not your pores shrinking – more about this soon, and…
There’s, type 2, the kind that helps marry water and oil together to make moisturiser. Ta-Da! Hint – this one’s the great kind and I’ll be name dropping a few types super soon. This is how you’re going to be able to love the good kind of alcohol in skincare and dive the bad kind of alcohol in skincare – lists below (!)
Alcohol In Skincare: Type 1 – The Quick to Leave Kind
We start our journey down alcohol-in-skincare drive, with the dive and duck, type 1 alcohol. Type 1 alcohol is the kind your skin loves to hate. Type 1 alcohol has more in common with a kitchen de-greaser than your carefully curated bathroom vanity.
I’ve nicknamed type 1 alcohol in skincare, the quick to leave kind. It’s more 1-night wonder than committed relationship.
Type 1 alcohols are like solvents. They evaporate quickly at room temperature and they cut through oily stuff like a warm knife through butter.
Quick to leave alcohols are used in your skincare to;
- Make your moisturiser absorb quick (…because alcohol evaporates away and because alcohol helps cut through your skins top-oily layers – another word for this is penetration enhancer – permission to giggle granted ;))
- Give the feeling of tightening pores (…but spoiler alert, it’s not really – this feeling is happening to you because alcohol eats oil and the layers that are on-top of your skin are oily (!) when they’re gone you’re going to be experiencing dehydration plus tight feeling skin)
- Make your moisturiser, thinner (…because alcohol is a lot, lot less thick than shea butter)
Type 1 alcohols are all about the experience you’re having right now. Right as you put a cream/toner/moisturiser onto your skin. It’s a bit like drinking Red Bull – massive boost then huge energy dive.
Fact; Alcohol is very good at cutting through oily stuff…
And did you know – your skins top layers are pretty much exclusively made from oil.
I bet you caught that bit already eh – go you my friend. You are the brains.
There are 3 ingredients/oils/fats which are the major components of your skin’s top layers;
- Fatty acids (like linoleic acid or oleic acid – don’t worry if you’ve never head of either – that’s A-OK, you don’t really need to know their names, all you do need to know is they’re fats/oils and your skin needs them)
All 3 of these oily ingredients are like skin cement.
They glue skin cells together.
They make your skin feel comfortable
They lock in hydration.
They keep your skin super healthy, youthful and resisting of acne/infections/sensitivity/ageing.
…and when they’re defeated, you my friend are going to be ending up with skin that’s the absolute and complete opposite. Skin that’s dry, flaking, itchy, uncomfortable, dehydrated, super sensitive, reddening and vulnerable.
Type 1 alcohols can make all of these changes happen to your skin.
Now it’s list time.
You’ll find dehydrating and skin damaging alcohols on the ingredients list of your skincare with names like;
- Isopropyl alcohol
- SD alcohol 40
- Denatured Alcohol
- Sometimes you’ll even just find it plainly called alcohol
(super tip – anything that ends with -ol on a skincare ingredients list is an alcohol)
When type 1 alcohols are high up on the ingredients list of your skincare – they’re bad news my friend. My advice – duck and dive like an Olympian.
— Cheryl Woodman (@HonestyForSkin) 3 April 2017
But wait – we’re not done yet. Now’s time for the good news. The feedback sandwich. Not all alcohols are bad boys, some can be committed and loving…
Alcohol in Skincare: Type 2 – The Fatty Kind
Just like absinth is super different to a Bacardi Breezer – do you remember them? Wowzer – what a flash back! There’s also many different flavours and concentrations of alcohol in skincare. There’s type 1, the quick to leave kind and type 2, the fatty kind. Type 1, is like absinth. Type 2, the fatty kind, it’s different, it’s a good un’.
And basically this is for a super simple reason;
Bigger (aka ‘fattier’) alcohols are infinitely better for your skin. Short and small alcohols – they’re like kitchen de-greasing solvents.
Tall and long aka ‘fatty’ alcohols – these guys are like moisturisers.
Nerdy science fact; Shea butter contains lots of fatty alcohols – one of them goes by the name Cetyl alcohol. You can even buy Cetyl alcohol as a separate ingredient. It’s actually super common to use in skincare – it’s used to make creams and moisturisers thicker and yummier for your skin aka super conditioning. If you’ve ever used a body butter – you’ve almost definitely used a moisturiser with Cetyl alcohol.
Welcome to the good kind of alcohol in skincare. Alcohols that actually moisturise.
These fatty kinds of alcohol are used in your skincare for a handful of reasons;
- They help marry up oil and water (e.g. they make cream!)
- Fatty alcohols thicken your skincare (e.g. make it extra rich and nourishing)
- Fatty alcohols help to recondition your skin (they’re fatty which means they’re oil like and your skins top layers are all oil based)
You’ll find fatty alcohols on your skincare ingredients list as;
- Cetearyl alcohol
- Stearyl alcohol
- Cetyl alcohol
- Myristyl alcohol
- [Bonus; Not fatty but also good for your skin – Tocohpherol – aka – vitamin E]
- [Extra bonus; Not fatty but acts like a water magnet to your skin – butylene glycol, propanediol]
Find these names on your skincare ingredients list and you my friend can breath easy. These are not going to be drying out your skin. Oh no sirree, these are moisturising, conditioning, loving.
Should You Avoid Alcohol In Skincare?
What do you think beautiful lady? You’ve got this!
Alcohol In Skincare: The Bottom Line
Alcohol in skincare can be healthy, or – it can work against your skins natural biology. Be sure to save this list so you’re never in doubt, Pin it, Facebook it or good ol’ Google favourite it. You’ve got this my friend, you are sorted.
Tell me – do you worry about alcohol in your skincare? Have you ever had that tight and tingly feeling in your skin? Come chat in the comment below…
Cheryl Woodman is a scientist & award winning skincare formulator who’s more friend next door than bow tie wearing professor. As creator of Honesty For Your Skin her aim is to help you care for your skin in the best ways possible. She’s founder of the natural & fragrance free skincare brand Honesty while also hosting 1 to 1 skincare coaching to help you get your best skin yet. Find out more here.