Friday, February 6, 2015

Alcohol in Products: The good and the bad

Ethanol is not a “good” alcohol
Why is alcohol [in products] bad for my skin?

Alcohol, the bad kind, basically dries everything on the surface of your skin. In theory, this may sound appropriate, especially if you have an oilier skin type. But in practice, stripping away all the oil from your skin can cause your oil glands to produce more oil to compensate for the loss. Add to that the moisture (water) evaporation alcohol causes, and you could be causing the very things you are trying to avoid. Namely, oily skin that feels dry and looks flaky, which is actually dehydration.

Some of my skin care products contain alcohol, mostly cetyl and cetearyl alcohol. Does this mean I can’t use them?

I hear from people who are worried that alcohol is an ingredient in a product they are using. There are many alcohols that are OK as ingredients, as well as many that are not good. I had a woman call me who had read my book and was worried because she saw that Cetaphil® cleanser contained alcohol. This particular product has cetyl alcohol (an emulsifier) and stearyl alcohol (a waxy filler); these are both acceptable kinds of alcohol.

This is important: Not all alcohol is bad. To clarify the difference, here is a list of many of the alcohols, good and bad, that are used in skin care products. Some of them are seldom used, but many are very common. Bad alcohols are marked with a “B” before their names; if they are good or acceptable types of alcohol, they are marked with a  “G.” This list was compiled from Ruth Winter’s A Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients, What’s in Your Cosmetics? by Aubrey Hampton, and Milady’s Skin Care and Cosmetic Ingredients Dictionary by Natalia Michalun. Used with permission.
  • G/B—abietyl alcohol; abietic acid; sylvic acid. A texturizer for soaps derived from pine rosin. May cause allergic reactions.
  • G—acetylated lanolin alcohol. An emulsifier, emollient, and skin softening agent.
  • B—alcohol; ethyl alcohol; ethanol. Although this alcohol has antiseptic and degreasing abilities, don’t use it! It is drying, absorbing the water on the surface of your skin.
  • G—batyl alcohol. A stabilizer that is derived from glycerin.
  • G—behenyl alcohol. A thickener, emulsifier, and stabilizer; increases viscosity.
  • B—benzyl alcohol. Derived from pure alcohol.
  • B—butyl alcohol. Sometimes listed as n-butyl alcohol. This is in the same league as other bad alcohols like ethyl and isopropyl.
  • G—caprylic alcohol. Occurs naturally in many essential oils (lavender, lemon, lime). A surfactant, or wetting agent.
  • G—cetearyl alcohol. A mixture of cetyl and stearyl alcohols, it is an emollient, thickener, and emulsifying wax.
  • G—cetyl alcohol. An emollient, emulsifier, and thickener. This is in a lot of skin care products.
  • B—cinnamic alcohol. A common allergen used as a fragrance ingredient.
  • G—coconut alcohol. Sometimes called coconut fatty alcohol; an emollient and lathering agent.
  • G—decyl alcohol. Derived from coconut oil or synthetically; it is an emollient, emulsifier, and antifoam agent.
  • B—denatured alcohol. See methanol.
  • B—ethanol or ethyl alcohol. Known as rubbing alcohol, it is a topical antiseptic, astringent, anti-bacterial. Avoid this alcohol!
  • B—isopropyl alcohol. Another rubbing alcohol. Made from propylene, which is a petroleum derivative. It is antibacterial, but is the bad kind of alcohol.
  • G—lanolin alcohol. An emulsifier and emollient.
  • G—lauryl alcohol. Used primarily in perfumes, this coconut oil derivative is used as a stabilizer, a skin conditioner, and for its sudsing abilities. May contribute to clogging the pores (comedogenic).
  • B—methanol; methyl alcohol; wood alcohol. This is basically denatured alcohol—the bad kind. It is flammable and toxic.
  • G—myristyl alcohol; myristyl betaine; myristyloctadecanol. An emollient, emulsifier, and foaming agent.
  • G/B—oleyl alcohol. An emollient and antifoam agent; it may be irritating to the skin.
  • B—propyl alcohol. Comes from crude oil; has a drying effect on skin.
  • B—rubbing alcohol. This is just another name for isopropyl alcohol and ethanol, which are the bad kinds of alcohol. Irritating and poisonous if ingested.
  • G—stearyl alcohol. Derived from sperm whale oil or synthetically produced from stearic acid; a lubricant.
  • B—wood alcohol (see methanol).
Know your product alcohols
To reiterate, the most commonly used “bad” alcohols are ethyl, isopropyl, and SD alcohol. These are used quite frequently in products for problem or oily skin. No matter where they are used, you want to a void these three plus any of the other alcohols listed above as “bad.” It’s important to know the good and the bad concerning alcohol(s) in your skin care products.

For more information on products and ingredients, see: