The sneaky ingredient you all need to know about!
My friend asked me to review her skincare regimen. She said her skin was dry, and sensitive to the extent that she would break out if she washed her face with anything other than water. It was clear that she had a compromised skin barrier, and soon we zeroed in on the product that had sensitized her skin. It had alcohol denat. and witch hazel in high concentration.
Alcohol denat. is notorious for stripping the skin of natural oils making the skin very dry, irritated, red, and prone to breakouts. Witch hazel itself is not an alcohol, but it’s distilled with an alcohol — meaning the final product has a high concentration (~15%) of ethanol (which pulls moisture from the skin making it dry and inflamed).
So, should you throw away all skincare products with alcohol? The answer is NO because not all alcohols in skincare are bad. So, let’s understand which ones to avoid.
How many types of alcohol are there and how do they work?
Alcohol can show up as different types and with varying names making it difficult to gauge whether the product has alcohol. This is why I like to call it the ‘sneaky ingredient’.
There are three types of alcohol that you’ll see on the ingredients label of various topical products. These are:
- Simple alcohols — These alcohols are used for two reasons — a. its antibacterial properties (i.e., they reduce sebum production and minimize appearance of pores), b. they act as solvents for other ingredients in the product.
By nature, these are volatile alcohols meaning they immediately evaporate taking with them all the moisture from our skin. In the short term you’ll feel a matte and weightless finish on the skin (especially people with oily skin), but long-term consequences are far worse — skin becomes very dry, irritated, inflamed, and you end up with a compromised skin barrier.
One study found that products with just 3% of ethanol (skincare products can contain anywhere between 5–60% of alcohol) increased cell death by a whopping 26%. Further, it also destroyed the ability of cells to fight inflammation and free radicals that create oxidative damage on the skin.
Examples — alcohol, ethanol, denatured alcohol, propanol, alcohol denat., methanol, ethyl alcohol, isopropyl alcohol, SD alcohol.
2. Fatty alcohols — These alcohols have emollient and occlusive properties, meaning they keep the skin moisturized, and also help improve skin texture and complexion. They are safe to use on the face and are non-irritating for all skin types.
Examples — cetearyl alcohol, cetyl alcohol, stearyl or isostearyl alcohol, lauryl alcohol, C12–16, isopropyl palmitate, isopropyl myristate, glycol, glyceryl stearate, myristyl alcohol.
Another one is butylene glycol — it’s not a fatty alcohol but it does act as a humectant, meaning it draws moisture to the skin making it look hydrated.
3. Aromatic alcohols — These alcohols are added to products to ensure that the smell is long lasting and potent. These ingredients sensitize your skin over time and will damage the skin barrier.
Examples — benzyl alcohol and phenethyl alcohol.
How to scan a product ingredient list?
- Fatty alcohols are ‘good alcohols’ so don’t worry if you see them in a product. They are there for the right reason — skin hydration.
- DO NOT USE products with aromatic alcohols, or fragrance in general.
- Simple alcohols are not always bad. Remember they are also used as a solvent, in which case you’ll find them in small percentages (less than 1%), so it should be fine to use the product. But you’ll rarely see the percentage of alcohol on a product ingredient label, so how do you find out? Here’s how -
Ingredients on product labels are listed in the order of highest to lowest concentration. Generally, the first 5 ingredients make up most (around 80%) of the product so they are the ones you should pay close attention to. My advice is to skip the product if it has a ‘bad alcohol’ listed even in the top 10 ingredients.
Not all alcohols in skincare are bad. Next time you buy a product make sure to scan the ingredients list to understand the type of alcohol and its percentage.