Unlike the retinoids or alpha-hydroxy acids of the world, alcohol is never positioned as a hero skincare ingredient. It's somewhat ironic, given alcohol's prevalence in the cosmetic product world. (If we were the betting type, we'd put good money on the fact that there's some alcohol in more than one product you're currently using.) As is the case with those aforementioned retinoids and AHAs, many different kinds of alcohols are used in topical product formulations. Admittedly, certain ones can be very drying and stripping and should, in fact, be avoided as much as possible. It's these alcohols that give the ingredient its bad rap in skincare, but they're not the only ones out there.
Here, a board-certified dermatologist and chief medical officer of Sanova Dermatology Ted Lain, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of 5th Avenue Aesthetics Marie Hayag, and cosmetic chemist and founder of BeautyStat Cosmetics Ron Robinson explain exactly why you don't need to worry about the stearyl alcohol in your skincare.
Meet the Expert
Some alcohols—stearyl alcohol included—not only play an important role in product formulation but can also actually do some good things for your skin.
Type of ingredient: Alcohol
Main benefits: Acts as an emollient to soften the skin, while also working as an emulsifier to help oil and water combine and give products a smooth consistency, says Hayag.
Who should use it: Stearyl alcohol has a long history of use, as well as numerous research studies proving its safety; all skin types can use it, says Lain.
How often can you use it: Daily
Works well with: It's most often found in products requiring the combination of oils and waters, such as lotions and creams.
Don't use with: There are no known ingredients that will interact poorly with stearyl alcohol.
What Is Stearyl Alcohol?
Stearyl alcohol is a vegetable-derived ingredient that's naturally found in plants, insects, and even humans, says Lain. Per our point about not all alcohols being the same, those used in skincare typically fall into one of two categories. Stearyl alcohol is a long-chained fatty alcohol, which differs from volatile alcohols, such as denatured alcohol (also known as alcohol denat), isopropyl alcohol, and SD alcohol, explains Robinson. The latter are fast-drying and cooling and evaporate as soon as they're applied onto the skin, he says; Hayag adds that they're often used as astringents, preservatives, or solvents.
That's all fine and dandy, but the volatile alcohols are also the ones that can be too drying and irritating for many. (It's worth noting that there are also aromatic alcohols, used to, you guessed it, add fragrance to products, and these also have a tendency of being drying.)
Benefits of Stearyl Alcohol for Skin
On the flip side, because stearyl alcohol is a fatty alcohol, "it's not drying, non-irritating, and usually beneficial when used consistently," says Lain. "It acts as an emollient, leaving the skin feeling smooth and soft by forming a protective layer on the surface and helping to prevent moisture loss." It's often combined with cetyl alcohol (another fatty alcohol) to create cetearyl alcohol, which also has emollient properties, says Hayag.
The primary reason it shows up in skincare products has more to do with formulation reasons and its ability to act as an emulsifier, ensuring that oil and water can be blended so that products ultimately feel thicker and more cosmetically pleasing, says Robinson. (The reason why if you check the ingredient panel on a cream or lotion, you're very likely to see it listed.)
Side Effects of Stearyl Alcohol
In short, there really aren't any. The experts we spoke with all agree that this is one ingredient that's super well-tolerated and very unlikely to cause any issue. "Practically anyone can use products with stearyl alcohol," says Hayag. "It's regarded as safe to use and doesn't pose a substantial risk of skin irritation or side effects." It's also been a cosmetic staple for a long-time, and as such, is well-studied and boasts a proven track record of safety and efficacy.
How to Use It
Stearyl alcohol isn't necessarily so beneficial that it's an ingredient you need to go out and look for. (And again, it's likely already in a lot of the products you're using, whether you know it or not.) Robinson calls it "a neutral to beneficial" ingredient—it does have those emollient benefits, but plenty of other ingredients can do the same thing and much more. (Oils and squalane are common emollients.) Essentially, you don't need to go out of your way to find stearyl alcohol in your products, but you most don't need to avoid it as you would other alcohols. As far as usage goes, your best bet is to follow the ingredients of the particular product it's in, usually once or twice daily, given that it's most often found in moisturizers.
The bottom line: It's not accurate to make a blanket statement and say that any alcohol in skincare should be avoided. Nor is it accurate to say that any alcohol in skincare is great for you. You have to consider the particular type of alcohol being used and its function. In the case of stearyl alcohol, it's not one to avoid.