Skin that feels dry and depleted after toner, moisturizer, or a face wash is confusing—like you've just fallen for false advertising. The goal with skincare is never to feel worse over time, so what gives? Chances are the culprit is alcohol, but not just any alcohol—volatile alcohols that actually damage the skin's barrier, which is all too common in popular products.
But before we out the bad alcohols, let's understand how to differentiate the bad from the good. Says Maryam Zamani, MD, "Fatty alcohol, which is derived from coconut or palm oil, is sometimes used to thicken a formulation and can be nourishing for the skin. Ethanol is a well-known topical penetration enhancer, which means it can be used to increase the transdermal delivery of certain ingredients into the skin." These come by way of names like cetyl (product thickener), stearyl (an emollient to trap moisture in skin), Cetearyl alcohol (an emulsifier), and propylene glycol (a humectant to attract water into the skin). Celebrity esthetician Renée Rouleau adds that vitamins A1 (retinol) and E are actually alcohols too and are beneficial to the skin's overall surface.
Now for the bad: Rouleau says that evaporative solvent alcohols like SD alcohol 40, denatured alcohol, ethanol, and isopropyl alcohol (also known as simple alcohols) all have a dehydrating effect to the skin and are often used in toners and gel moisturizers.
So why do brands use simple alcohol in their skincare products? Rouleau says they give a tight, cooling, and "refreshing sensation" that oily skinned gals might find reassuring, despite the fact that they're stripping away the skin's natural oils and damaging the skin barrier. Zamani adds that they also act as a vehicle to help dissolve ingredients that aren't water soluble, as well as drive ingredients deeper into the skin. The large-scale impact largely outweighs any short-term benefit (or perceived benefit), though. "In the long run, they can enlarge pores and increase greasiness, so avoid products containing any type of alcohol if you have an oily skin type or acne-prone skin," she explains. "Ethanol in toners can also be quite drying for sensitive skin types, so watch out for that, too. The higher the alcohol is on the ingredients list, the higher the concentration and the stronger it will be on the skin."
But sometimes the bad variation isn't so terrible. Says Rouleau, "They are acceptable when used in spot treatments since the goal is to dry up the infection, and alcohol can do that. Sometimes they will also be used to decrease any surface oil before an esthetician applies a professional chemical peel to ensure the peel gets into the skin the deepest."
What if you just want to avoid the word "alcohol" in your skincare altogether? Goesel Anson, MD, FACS, co-creator of FixMD, says this would be doing yourself a disservice: "If you excluded every ingredient that ends in OH [the chemical abbreviation for alcohol], you would be missing out on those that have more beneficial properties," like fatty alcohols.
The takeaway: Fatty alcohols aren't scary and are actually beneficial in skincare to help draw in and hold moisture, but simple alcohols are drying and damaging for most skin types, especially those with dry, sensitive skin, or rosacea.