Alcohol in Skincare: The Facts
With how much misleading information there is online in regards to alcohol in skincare, it’s easy to see why some people believe it really isn’t all that bad for skin. However, the research (and we mean a lot of research) makes it perfectly clear: alcohol as a main ingredient in any skincare product is a problem.
We know we can’t convince everyone but we hope the latest research, and, if you’ll pardon the pun, sobering facts about alcohol-based products, will help you put down the bottle if alcohol is lurking at the top of the ingredient list (we know, another pun, but we couldn’t help ourselves).
But first we need to clarify what kind of alcohol we want you to avoid.
Bad vs. Good Alcohol in Cosmetic Formulas
When we express concern about the presence of alcohol in skincare or makeup products, we’re referring to a drying type of alcohol that you’ll most often see listed on an ingredient label as SD alcohol, denatured alcohol, or, less often, isopropyl alcohol. These types of volatile alcohols give products a quick-drying finish, immediately degrease skin, and feel weightless on skin, so it’s easy to see their appeal, especially for those with oily skin.
But those short term benefits end up with negative long term consequences.
When you see these names of alcohol listed among the first six ingredients on an ingredient label, without question they will aggravate and be cruel to skin. No way around that, it’s simply bad for all skin types. Consequences include dryness, erosion of the surface of skin (that’s really bad for skin), and a strain on how skin replenishes, renews, and rejuvenates itself. Alcohol just weakens everything about skin.
Just to be 100% clear, there are other types of alcohols, known as fatty alcohols, which are absolutely non-irritating and can be exceptionally beneficial for skin. Examples you’ll see on ingredient labels include cetyl, stearyl, and cetearyl alcohol. All of these are good ingredients for dry skin, and in small amounts fine for any skin type as they give a pleasing texture and help keep ingredients stable in products. It’s important to discern these skin-friendly forms of alcohol from the problematic types of alcohol.
Likewise, you may have heard that alcohol is a good ingredient because it helps other ingredients like retinol and vitamin C absorb into skin more effectively. Although it’s true that it does enhance absorption of ingredients, the alcohol also destroys skin’s surface and the very substances that keep your skin healthy over the long term. There are certainly other, gentler ways to get good ingredients into skin, without damaging its outer layer, an issue that causes more problems than benefits.
How Alcohol Damages Skin and Makes Breakouts Worse
If your skin is oily, it can be tempting to use alcohol-based products because they provide an immediate matte finish, essentially de-greasing the "oil slick." The irony of using alcohol-based products to control oily skin is that the damage from alcohol can lead to an increase in bumps and enlarged pores.
And get this: Alcohol can actually increase oiliness, so the immediate de-greasing effect is eventually counteracted, prompting your oily skin to look even more shiny. Talk about spinning your wheels!
The research is clear: Alcohol harms your skin’s protective surface, depletes vital substances needed for healthy skin, and makes oily skin worse. To put it simply, it’s pro-aging. Given the hundreds of skin-friendly alternatives that are available, it’s a no-brainer to abstain from products front-loaded with the skin damaging forms of alcohol.
References for this information:
Biochimica et Biophysica Acta, May 2012, pages 1,410-1,419
Experimental Dermatology, October 2009, pages 821-832
International Journal of Toxicology, Volume 27, 2008, Supplement pages 1-43
About the Experts
Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books about skincare and makeup. She is known worldwide as The Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula’s Choice Skincare. Paula’s expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international radio, print, and television including:
The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to busting beauty myths and providing expert advice that solves your skincare frustrations so you can have the best skin of your life!