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? The culprit may be alcohol, but not just any alcohol—volatile alcohols that actually damage the skin's barrier.
As it turns out, not all alcohols are created equal when it comes to skincare. While simple alcohols are generally best avoided, some alcohols (particularly fatty alcohols) are actually beneficial for the skin.
Meet the Expert
- Maryam Zamani is a London-based oculoplastic surgeon and leading facial aesthetics doctor, as well as the founder of MZ Skin.
- Renée Rouleau is a celebrity esthetician based between Austin, Texas and Los Angeles, California.
- Goesel Anson, MD, FACS, is a Las Vegas-based plastic surgeon and co-creator of FixMD.
To learn more about alcohol in skincare, we chatted with a few dermatologists to sort it all out. Keep reading to find out what they had to say.
What Are Good Alcohols?
Before we out the bad alcohols, let's understand how to differentiate the bad from the good. "Fatty alcohol, which is derived from coconut or palm oil, is sometimes used to thicken a formulation and can be nourishing for the skin," says Maryam Zamani, MD. "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.
Benefits of Alcohol for Skin
Some alcohols are safe, but many aren't. 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 may be 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."
Additionally, the National Rosacea Society points out that these astringent alcohols, along with methanol and benzyl alcohol, can lead to increased dryness and irritation in people with already-inflamed skin.
Should You Avoid Alcohol in Skincare at All Costs?
Sometimes bad alcohols aren't so terrible. "They are acceptable when used in spot treatments since the goal is to dry up the infection, and alcohol can do that," says Rouleau. "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 Final 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. That said, if you want to avoid adverse reactions, be sure to double-check the ingredients label before adding a new product to your skincare routine. And, if you're unsure about an ingredient on the list, click over to the Environmental Working Group's website to quickly uncover whether or not it's safe for your skin type.
Cartner T, Brand N, Tian K, et al. Effect of different alcohols on stratum corneum kallikrein 5 and phospholipase A2 together with epidermal keratinocytes and skin irritation. Int J Cosmet Sci. 2017;39(2):188-196. doi:10.1111/ics.12364
Levin J, Miller R. A guide to the ingredients and potential benefits of over-the-counter cleansers and moisturizers for rosacea patients. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2011;4(8):31-49.
National Rosacea Society. Separating good and bad alcohol in skincare products. Updated March 5, 2019.