Alcohol in skincare – it’s not where you’d expect to find it ‘eh. Usually it’s down the club with 50 cent, in your posh cocktail, the one that took 5 minutes longer to make than it’s going to take you to drink. It’s in your drinks, your food… and who’d have thought, 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 going to leave you with the same ghostly white look from day-after-5 too many Cosmopolitans? Will it leave your skin dry, dehydrated and as vulnerable as you feel when trying your darn hardest to become a Saturday and Sunday couch potato?
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. Today you’re going to find out exactly how to tell the difference. Let’s do this…
The 2 Kinds of Alcohol In Skincare
There are lots and lots of reasons ingredients go into your skincare bottles. Just like a chef uses ingredients you’d never eat alone, xanthum gum anyone (?) a formulator also uses skincare ingredients you’d never design a range around. 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 a formulator of skincare will go through.
They’ll choose great ingredients you’d know to look for, things like shea butter, vitamin E and aloe vera. They then choose a selection of helpers. Ingredients that make water and oil mix together, ingredients that make creams slippier and easier to apply, ingredients that make moisturisers more quickly absorbing. All of these ingredients are the toe-to-tail, dressed in black, back-stage helpers.
The 2 kinds of alcohol you’ll find in your skincare are both back-stage helpers.
There’s, type 1, the kind that makes a moisturiser or toner quickly absorbing, that might leave your skin feeling ‘tightened’, and…
There’s, type 2, the kind that helps marry water and oil together to make moisturiser. Hint – this one’s the great kind and I’ll be name dropping a few types very soon.
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 your kitchen degreasers 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 does through butter. They’re used in your skincare to;
- Make your moisturiser absorb more quickly (because the alcohol evaporates away and because the alcohol helps cut through your skins top-oily layers)
- Give the feeling of tightened pores (because alcohol eats your skins top oily layers, leading to dehydration and 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 in the here and now. Can you imagine the heart break they cause in the long run?
Alcohol is very good at cutting through oily stuff… and here’s something you might not already know. Your skins very top layers are pretty much exclusively made from oil. That’s skin ingredients like ceramides, cholesterol and fatty acids. These ingredients are like skin cement. They glue everything together, they moisturise, they make your skin feel comfortable and they lock hydration in. When they’re defeated, you end up with the polar opposite. Skin that’s dry, flaky, itchy, uncomfortable, dehydrated and vulnerable.
Type 1 alcohols can do this. That’s alcohols with names like;
- Isopropyl alcohol
- SD alcohol 40
- Denatured Alcohol
- Sometimes you’ll even just find it plainly called alcohol
(anything that ends with -ol on a skincare ingredients list is an alcohol)
When these ingredients are high up on the ingredients list of your skincare – they’re bad news. My advice – dive and duck like an Olympian.
— Cheryl Woodman (@HonestyForSkin) 3 April 2017
But not all alcohols are bad boys of the skincare world, some are indeed the committed kind…
Alcohol in Skincare: Type 2 – The Fatty Kind
Just like a baby human being can be 1.5 foot tall and a full grown adult can be 5 foot, 6 inches and a half, there’s also many different heights of alcohol. There’s type 1, the quick to leave kind and type 2, the fatty kind. Type 1, if you were to see a drawing of, would be tiny and baby like. Type 2, the fatty kind, if you were to see a drawing of, would be huge and adult like.
The bigger the alcohol, the better for your skin. See, short and small alcohols are like kitchen degreasing solvents. Tall, fatty and long alcohols are like moisturisers.
Aha! These are the good kind. Alcohols that actually moisturise. That sounds more like skincare ‘eh.
The fatty kind of alcohols 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 lotions to creams and moisturisers to body butters (e.g. they make creams richly 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, that means these 2 get on better than best friends, they have a bond more like twins!)
You’ll find fatty alcohols named on a skincare ingredients list as;
- Cetearyl alcohol
- Stearyl alcohol
- Cetyl alcohol
- Myristyl alcohol
- [Not fatty but bonusly also good for skin – Tocohpherol – aka – vitamin E]
- [Not fatty but acts like a water magnet to your skin – butylene glycol, propanediol]
Wherever these names are placed on your skincare ingredients list, be safe in the knowledge that they’re not the drying kind, they’re the moisturising kind.
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, pin it, Facebook it or good ol’ Google favorite it so you can refer back to the name drops of each camp. So you can remember whether SD alcohol 40 was the quick to leave kind or the fatty kind. So you can run towards moisturising cetearyl alcohol and walk away from ethanol.
Ready to get your ingredient list scanning on? Tell me what you find dear friend, have you noticed any alcohol in your skincare? Which kind was it? Have you ever had that tight and tingly skin feeling? Did you find alcohol way-up top on that ingredients list? Let’s chat in the comment below…
Cheryl Woodman is a scientist & award winning skincare formulator who is 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 is 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. Learn more here at www.HonestyForYourSkin.co.uk/Skin-Coach