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A Complete Guide to Alcohol-Free Skincare: What It Means, What to Look for, and More

Cetyl. Stearyl. Cetearyl. These are just a few of the common alcohols you may come across when scanning the label of a skincare product. But what about alcohols such as ethanol and methanol? Are they harmful to skin? Should alcohols in skincare be avoided all together? Today, we’re not only tackling these age-old beauty questions but also touching on alcohol-free skincare and why making the switch to these types of products might just be exactly what your skin needs. So, grab your pens and pads of paper, pals! It’s time to learn more.

Are Alcohols Safe in Skincare?

Alright, you walk into a drugstore, pick up a skincare product, start to scan the label, and come across the name of an alcohol you aren’t familiar with. The first thing that might cross your mind is…

We’re here to tell you that both good and bad alcohols exist. But do keep in mind that they’re classified as either good or bad (for the most part) pending what your skin type is. But what about safety? Alcohols in skincare have always been a controversial subject as there are alcohols you should undoubtedly avoid. There are, however, alcohols that can do a whole lot of good for your skin and are safe to use.

Good (Fatty) VS. Bad (Simple) Alcohols

Before we discuss good and bad alcohols, do keep in mind that the location of that alcohol on a product serves as an indication of just how much of that alcohol is included. Whether it’s a fatty or simple alcohol, if it’s closer to the beginning of the ingredient list, there’s a chance there’s quite a bit of that alcohol in that product. However, if the alcohol can be spotted near the end of a product’s list, then there isn’t much of that alcohol in a product.

Fatty Alcohols

Cetearyl. Iostearyl. Cetyl. You might be thinking… Are these alcohols…

Yes. Yes, they are. Below are a few reasons why fatty alcohols are the bomb dot com.

  1. Fatty alcohols rarely cause irritation to skin.
  2. Fatty alcohols are often used as emollients and thickeners in skincare products, making these products feel thick and luxurious on skin.
  3. Fatty alcohols provide a protective barrier to skin, making it difficult for water to penetrate (which is beneficial to those with dry skin in particular).

Simple Alcohols 

Alcohol Denat. SD Alcohol. Methyl Alcohol. If you come across any of these simple alcohols, know that they are…

Below are a few reasons why simple alcohols can cause harm to skin.

  1. Simple alcohols can strip your skin of its natural oils and draw out your skin’s natural moisture.
  2. In high concentrations and/or frequent use, simple alcohols can create adverse reactions such as irritation and inflammation.
  3. Simple alcohols break down the lipids in the outermost barrier of the skin (stratum corneum) which can cause skin to become more sensitive and susceptible to developing irritation.

Alcohols and Skin Types

While six skin types exist, those with dry, oily, and sensitive skin need to pay more careful attention to the ingredient labels of skincare products that contain alcohols.

Dry Skin

Fatty alcohols such as stearyl and cetyl are great for those with dry skin. When incorporated into skincare products, these alcohols add a little extra dash of emollience, making skin feel soft and smooth. This is also due to the thick and waxy texture of these alcohols. However, do keep in mind that too much of a product can create a whole lot of bad for your skin. Because they’re extremely moisturizing, fatty alcohols have the potential to clog pores, which can lead to blackheads and unkind breakouts. But if you don’t drown your skin in these alcohols, your dry skin should do just fine!

Oily Skin

So, if fatty alcohols provide moisture, should those with oily skin opt. for simple alcohols to help strip away oil? While the answer is yes, it’s important to keep in mind that simple alcohols such as ethyl alcohol can be overly drying if used too often. These alcohols might be great when it comes to breaking down grease and grime, but in high concentrations, they can leave your skin feeling tight, dry, and irritated. And although these alcohols are known to evaporate and penetrate the skin a lot more quickly, they can draw out a lot of natural water in skin, too.  

Sensitive Skin

Ah, this is the skin type that should avoid alcohols in any skincare product in any form. And this doesn’t apply to only stripping simple alcohols. Moisturizing fatty alcohols can also cause adverse reactions on the skin of someone who’s hypersensitive to a lot of ingredients, especially ones their skin isn’t familiar with. If you’re prone to developing redness or burning, it’s best to skip out on alcohols all together. Better to be safe than sorry!

Simply put, if you have any of a combination of these skin types, it’s important to keep in mind what the concentration of a certain alcohol is in a product, what other ingredients are listed in that product, and how often you plan on incorporating this product into your routine.

The Bottom Line

Alcohols, at the right (and safe) concentration, can be beneficial to you skin pending what your skin type is. However, if you have hypersensitive skin, opting for alcohol-free skincare is your best skin bet. But do keep in mind that alcohols are not always ingredients to completely avoid in skincare. Most of the time, it’s the way in which the product has been formulated and what other ingredients are included in it such as potentially aggravating fragrances. It’s all about trial and error and determining what’s best for your skin’s needs. With that said, we hope you found this quick guide to alcohols in skincare helpful and will keep it in mind the next time you’re deciding whether to skip out on purchasing a specific product or choosing to incorporate it into your routine. Bye for now!