Out of all the hundreds and thousands of ingredients used in skincare formulations, alcohol is arguably the most misunderstood one out there. You could even almost hear it screaming like a moody teenager, “You don’t get me!” And in a time when clean, organic and natural beauty are trendy buzzwords, it’s not difficult to see how it’s so much easier to label alcohol (and other chemicals) as the villain. But in reality, there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to alcohol. Founder of IDS Clinic Dr SK Tan gives us the 411.
Q: Tell us about the different types of alcohol used in topical skincare.
By definition, in organic chemistry, an alcohol is an organic compound with a hydroxyl (OH) functional group on an aliphatic (non-aromatic) carbon atom.
The “bad reputation” that alcohol has, when applied to cosmetics or topical skincare, refers to ‘denatured alcohol’ or ‘specially denatured’ (SD) alcohol – it has a drying effect on the skin which may be appreciated by those with oily skin. However, the effects are short-lived and there may be long-term negative consequences. When high concentrations of alcohol or SD alcohol are used in the formulation of skincare products, this ingredient can cause drying and irritation. It may also cause erosion of the skin’s surface layer, leading to a weakened skin barrier.
Other types of alcohol to know include Cetyl Alcohol, Searyl Alcohol and Cetearyl Alcohol. These are “good” ingredients, and in small amounts, are suitable for inclusion in skincare products as they enhance the texture and ‘feel’ of the product and help keep ingredients stable.
Propylene Glycol and Polypropylene Glycol fall into another category of alcohol. Both have the ability to attract water and function as a humectant, and are commonly found in moisturisers to enhance the appearance of skin by reducing flaking and restoring suppleness. Propylene Glycol is one of the most widely used ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products, where it is also used to lower the viscosity of products. It is used in many types of cosmetic formulations including facial cleansers, moisturisers, bath soaps, shampoos and conditioners, deodorants, shaving preparations, and fragrances, the list goes on. It is also used as an inactive ingredient in many oral and injectable drugs, and is safe enough that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has allowed its use at levels as high as 98 per cent in topical drugs and 92 per cent in oral solutions! Other ingredients in this group include Butylene Glycol and Pentylene Glycol which have hygroscopic features or, in other words, they absorb water, retain it and improve the skin moisture.
Mention should also be made of a commonly used ingredient, which is ‘alcohol-related’ – Polyethylene Glycols (PEGs). These are petroleum-based compounds that are widely used as thickeners, solvents, softeners, and moisture-carriers. PEGs are commonly used as cosmetic cream bases and have been deemed to be ‘GRAS’ (short for ‘Generally Regarded As Safe’) by the FDA.
Q: Is alcohol only harmful to dry and/or sensitive skin?
The answer is no. As mentioned above, when high concentrations of denatured alcohol or SD alcohol are used in the formulation of skincare products, it brings about drying and irritation, and may also cause erosion of the skin’s surface layer, causing weakened skin barrier. This applies to all skin types.
Q: Some claim that rubbing alcohol can help with acne. It is really effective in treating acne?
These individuals probably feel that the ‘degreasing’ effect of alcohol is helping acne. However, alcohol has NOT been shown to be effective in treating acne.
Q: Astringent is a common term in skincare but very few fully understand it. Can you explain it further?
Astringent is a general term for any ingredient or product which causes the skin or other tissues to ‘tighten’, alcohol being one of them. Alcohol used for this function is generally bad as the effect is temporary and may cause long-term damage to the skin.
Witch hazel is commonly used as an astringent – it gives a similar effect to alcohol but, when used in the appropriate concentration, will not cause the same side effects as alcohol.
Q: Is going completely alcohol-free really better for your skin?
As some alcohols are useful in formulations, it is probably not possible to have a completely alcohol-free product. Products that claim to be ‘alcohol-free’ usually just mean that the ‘harmful’ alcohols such as denatured alcohol and SD alcohol are not used.
Q: What is the biggest misconception about alcohol in skincare that you would like to disprove?
That alcohol is bad for the skin and not understanding that there are different types of alcohols, some of which are necessary for good skincare formulations and may even be beneficial for the skin.
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