Why is alcohol used in skincare?

#1: It is used toe mulsify skincare ingredients that are normally not dissolvable in water to give the skincare products an even consistency — so that the ingredients do separate on application.

#2: It also enhances the absorption of skincare, by improving the penetration of ingredients like retinoids.

#3: Skin-fatty alcohols act as an emollient to protect the skin from losing moisture

#4: It enhances product feel and scent. Besides being used as a fixative in skincare, alcohols evaporate easily and can give a refreshing, quick-drying feel. Some alcohols have scents to enhance the final product finish.

#5: It acts as a preservative.

Why can alcohol in skincare be detrimental to the skin?

Alcohols are a diverse group of chemicals and it is important to distinguish between the two main types of alcohols used in skincare. Namely, the ‘simple alcohols’ and ‘fatty alcohols’, that have very different properties.

The type of alcohol that gets a lot of flack for its astringent effect is the simple alcohols. Examples of simple alcohols that you can find in skincare are: alcohol, ethanol, alcohol denat, denatured alcohol, SD alcohol and isopropyl alcohol.

Simple alcohols enhance the penetration of skincare ingredients by disrupting the outer layer of fats (lipids) in our skin. The outer layer of lipids in our skin is part of our skin’s natural protective skin barrier. The skin barrier helps to reduce transepidermal water loss to prevent skin from getting dehydrated and keeps our skin protected from micro bacteria and environmental pollutants. When this skin barrier is breached, our skin is susceptible to irritation, infection and dryness. Alcohols can also cause skin irritation and with repeated usage, dermatitis and damaged skin barrier function.

Simple alcohols are also a feature in acne skincare because of their astringent effects (by dissolving oils in the skin) and bacteria killing properties. However, this is a short term solution to acne. Alcohols are not able to distinguish between the harmful and protective oils and lipids in our skin and so, disrupt the skin barrier function. What also happens in the long run with the astringent effects of alcohol is that the drying effect and irritation leads to a compensatory response by the skin to product more oils, and this can worsen acne.

Are there types of alcohols in skincare that is actually beneficial to the skin?

Fatty alcohols can be thought of as the good guys in skincare. Fatty alcohols are derived from oils and fats and are more moisturising than drying. Examples of fatty alcohols are cetyl alcohol, lauryl alcohol and isostearyl alcohol.

Fatty alcohols have thick, wax like consistency and this allows fatty alcohols to act as emollients that soften the skin and give the skin a smooth texture. Fatty alcohols also help the skin to retain moisturiser and make good moisturisers.