Is Ethanol in Skin Care Products Safe?

Ethanol

U.S.P. grade ethanol is designed for laboratory use.

About the author:  FutureDerm.com is proud to introduce John Su on our staff as a Contributing Writer.  John is an established skin care expert and aspiring dermatologist.   He also runs a blog, The Triple Helix Liaison, dedicated to providing unbiased, meaningful, and insightful information about skin care. For his full bio, please visit our About page.

As I explained last week in The 5 Most Common Mistakes Even Skin Experts Make, it is well-established that ethanol can reduce water content via a form of water loss known as transepidermal water loss (TEWL) (1), lipid content via extraction and dissolution (2), and protein content via denaturation (3). These properties allow for ethanol to be an effective (and drying) penetration enhancer. But what does that mean in the context of skin care?

Ethanol IS Drying

In terms of its DRYING ability, ethanol can be a positive or negative attribute of any given product, depending on its function. If used to “compress” layers of product by encouraging the evaporation of various filler ingredients like cyclic silicones, it’s a positive ingredient. If used to chronically remove sebum from oily skin types, it’s a negative ingredient, drying out the skin.

But make no mistake here. Ethanol in itself isn’t harmful. It’s the drying effect that can lead to other problems. Dry skin is inherently more susceptible to issues such as a weakened epidermal barrier, which leads to less protection, which can lead to inflammation, which can quicken the aging process (4).

Ethanol Does NOT Cause Oxidation Within the Skin

Oxidation of iron

Oxidation is not just for humans: Oxidation in iron, shown above, results in rust.

Contrary to popular belief, unlike ingredients such as benzoyl peroxide, ethanol doesn’t generate oxidation within the skin (or reactive oxidative species, AKA ROS). It just makes skin drier, which consequently, ages faster than oily skin types.

But before you jump to conclusions, note that dry skin types only innately or inherently age faster than oily skin types. This concept only remains valid if both skin types never
apply moisturizer or use adequate antioxidant and sun protection. With proper moisturization and protection, someone with dry skin can age just as gracefully as one with oily skin. Not to mention that the former skin type doesn’t have to worry about acne.

Topically-Applied Ethanol Does NOT Cause Cancer

We all know that excessive oral consumption of ethanol in alcoholic beverages leads to increased risks of various types of malignant diseases such as oral, hepatic, and breast cancer. But can skin cancer be casually related to topical ethanol application? Fortunately, no studies have ever shown a link between topical ethanol application and skin cancer! However, a few studies have shown in animal models, that ethanol in conjunction with Aloe emodin (a component of Aloe Vera) and UV light can increase the risk of cancer by alteration of the p53 gene (7). However, if adequate amounts of UVA and UVB sun protection are used, this shouldn’t be an issue.

Therefore, the only other source of concern is the amount, if any, of topically-applied ethanol that is able to penetrate through intact skin and enter the blood stream, where it will have the same effects in the body as those known from oral consumption. Fortunately, all studies indicate that no measurable elevations in blood alcohol levels were detected (8). Only one study indicated a higher-than-normal blood alcohol level, and the study used an alcohol-based spray, so the elevated blood alcohol level could have been the result of inhalation rather than dermal absorption (9).

Keep ethanol-based products away from children!

Children

To be on the safe side, keep ethanol-containing products away from children. Don’t apply it to their skin, either!

Keep in mind that this only applies for intact ADULT skin. Damaged or infantile skin isn’t nearly as protective as healthy mature skin. Topical application on newborns can lead to ethanol poisoning and even death (10).

Now, the concentrations of ethanol (70%-99.9%) and the lengths of exposure (1-9 hours) used were significantly higher and longer than what we’d encounter in cosmetic products. So really, there’s no need for adult consumers to worry about systemic absorption of topically-applied ethanol, and the risk for children is low, but should still be avoided.

Ethanol is NOT a Cure-All for Oily or Acne-Prone Skin!

I would also not recommend those of you with oily skin types to use ethanol chronically in an attempt to dry out your skin. This is because your skin will respond in a homeostatic way, by attempting to repair the damaged epidermal barrier every time it’s dried out by the ethanol.

The skin will be in a vicious cycle; a constant flux between oily and dry, which can lead to very frustrating combination skin that’s flaky and dry on the surface, but oily underneath. The skin uses transepidermal water loss (TEWL), amongst other things, as a marker to gauge lipid synthesis (epidermal homeostasis) (5).

The Real Danger:  What You Use Ethanol With!

Ethanol thought bubble

Ethanol, unfortunately, does not play well with others.

Ethanol increases the penetration ability of other skin care ingredients.  This can once again be a positive or negative attribute.  For example, it can be positive in the sense that it enhances the penetration of L-ascorbic acid or vitamin C, which can translate to more collagen production. However, it can be negative in the sense that it enhances the penetration of more dangerous chemicals that everyday consumers are unaware.

For example, in my routine review for Emma, I warned her about using products that contained the preservative Bronopol, which has been shown to form nitrosamines. For any science buffs interested, Bronopol decomposes in water and forms bromoethanol, which will react with any secondary amides and amines, such as those present in the commonly-used chelator Disodium EDTA, to form nitrosamines (6). Nitrosamine is carcinogenic and should therefore, be avoided. I’m not trying to scare anyone, unlike those who are more alarmist against parabens, because unlike those claims, the amounts that can form in skin care products are up to tens of parts per billion, which are significant enough to be considered toxic by various regulating agencies. That’s why this ingredient is rarely used in cosmetic products anymore, at least in the United States. Now, throw ethanol into the mix, and you’re looking at even higher amounts of systemic absorption.

Why I Disagree with Paula Begoun

Recently, on my Twitter and Facebook, I’ve been raving about the new Lancôme Teint Idole 24H foundation. Because I’m such a fan of Paula Begoun, one of my readers asked me why I was recommending this product when Paula herself gave it a bad review. She gave a bad review because of the high amounts of ethanol present and the fact that it doesn’t contain any UVA protection.

Well, as all of you should know by now, the ethanol present in the foundation will help the vehicular base of your sunscreen and anything else evaporate more easily, which will translate to better coverage and a longer wear-time!

Why would need a sunscreen when this already provides SPF? Paula is right that the foundation doesn’t contain UVA protection. However, EVEN IF IT DID it still wouldn’t provide adequate protection. That’s because the amount you’d have to apply to achieve the labeled SPF rating is much larger than the typical 1-2 pumps used.

So unless you want someone to stick a candle into your (birthday) cake face, you need a separate SPF product anyways! So for those of you with oily skin, which is the skin type that this foundation is targeted towards, the alcohol will “compress” the layers of product into something more long-lasting.

Possible Alternatives to Ethanol

Skinceuticals CE Ferulic

Skinceuticals CE Ferulic contains ethoxydiglycol instead of ethanol – an excellent choice.

Overall, while ethanol is an adept penetration enhancer, there are other ingredients that function similarly, without the potential drawbacks. For example, most of you know that Nicki has a perennial love affair with the Skinceuticals C E Ferulic Serum ($123.97, Amazon.com)! Instead of ethanol, it uses ethoxydiglycol as the main solvent and penetration enhancer. Ethoxydiglycol is similar to ethanol except that it has a longer carbon chain, which allows it to retain some of the chemical properties of ethanol, without being as potent.  (For science buffs:  ethoxydiglycol retains the hygroscopy and volatility of ethanol).

Bottom Line

The main point to take away is that, though ethanol dries the skin out, it doesn’t directly cause anything like oxidation or the inhibition of collagen production. Ethanol should be used to dry out layers of product, rather than dry out layers of the skin.  Even those with very oily skin types should avoid direct application of ethanol to the skin. There are other ingredients that can be used to keep oily skin at bay, such as salicyclic acid and prescription-strength retinoic acid.

My final recommendation when it comes to ethanol in skin care products is to use it in its most harmless way: to help those with oilier skin types achieve longer lasting makeup. I wouldn’t recommend using ethanol-containing skin care that comes in direct contact with the skin. Just because ethanol is safe, doesn’t mean it should be desired. I reiterate, there are similarly-functioning ingredients that aren’t as drying. As always, weigh the pros against the cons!

I’d love to hear what you guys think about using ethanol in your skin care/makeup routines either down below or on my blog! Oh, and don’t forget to enter my massive brush giveaway!

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by Nicki Zevola

48 thoughts on “Is Ethanol in Skin Care Products Safe?

  1. Ria says:

    Nice post! It answers some questions that I had when I read your first post. My only other question (for now, haha) is that won’t alcohol evaporate other beneficial ingredients as well?

  2. Pingback: Is Ethanol in Skin Care Products Safe?-FutureDerm Post! v 0.02 « TheTripleHelixLiaison

  3. John says:

    @Ria

    Thanks! I hope I answered some questions haha! If I didn’t, well I wouldn’t be doing my job right. Well unfortunately I don’t have a simple answer for yor other question. There are so many beneficial ingredients that can or can’t be affected by ethanol’s mechanism. I kept mentioning things like cyclic silicones because I know for a fact that several cyclic silicones (particularly the ones with lower group counts) are quite volatile themselves. And ethanol’s small size and hydroxyl group will allow it to interact with volatile silicones very easily. But since it does extracts lipids, I’d assume that it would do that for beneficial oils like olive, jojoba, and evening primose oil.

    However, because my article recommends to use ethanol to help foundation and sunscreen last longer for those with oily skin types, those people wouldn’t want additional oils on their faces anyways. Those with dry skin should avoid foundations with ethanol anyways.

    But to the best of my knowlege, ethanol won’t evaporate things like antioxidants because most aren’t volatile in nature. While they’re prone to oxidation, ethanol doesn’t generate ROS, so that shouldn’t matter.

  4. John says:

    @Faye

    Denatured alcohol is just ethanol that’s been mixed with a small amount of some kind of denaturuant to discourage oral consumption. The denaturants vary from product to product and they include things like Quassin, methanol, salicylic acid and its salts, etc… But the primary ingredient of denatured alcohol is still ethanol.

  5. John says:

    @Jamie

    Well the article you stated can’t really be extrapolated and applied to cosmetic products.

    One, because this was an in vitro study, meaning that alcohol wasn’t applied to intact adult human skin. Rather, these studies were done in a lab on skin cells under a microscope.

    Two, in this study, ethanol was applied to skin cells for 24-48 hours. In cosmetic products, ethanol or denatured alcohol will evaporate within minutes. The kind of acute disruption that can arise from 24-48 hours of ethanol “soaking” will naturally trigger skin cells to create pro-inflammatory cytokines like the ones mentioned in the study you cited, like interleukin IL-1(Alpha) in an attempt to restore the epidermal barrier. However, again this isn’t applicable since the ethanol will evaporate very quickly. I mean even soaking the skin in water for 48 hours can lead to damage. But does that make water harmful?

    As for the quote you mentioned, Paula Begoun also cites that study. It’s from this: http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh27-4/277-284.htm. However, I already addressed this issue in my first FutureDerm post. The conclusions from this study only apply to the oral consumption of alcohol. And clearly in this post, I don’t deny the negative repercussions that can arise from such behavior. But again, not once in that article is anything about the effects of topically-applied ethanol mentioned.

    I hope that clarified some doubts you have. And thank you for taking the time to ask. I’m constantly surprised by how persistent and meticulous the readers are! Good job! Never stop asking the tough questions in order to elucidate seemingly contradictory issues. :)

  6. John says:

    @Yannis

    Yes thank you, I obviously know that Paula cites a lot of articles to prove her claims, since I referred to several of them in my first two FutureDerm posts.

    And you’re wrong that just because there are no direct internet links, that people can’t find them. In fact they can. Most articles from scientific journals are available online in the archives section for each respective journal.

    For example, the “Archives of Dermatologic Research, July 2008, pages 311–316″ citation is here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18427822

    The “Dermatology, January 2003, pages 17–23″ is here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12566801

    And the “Contact Dermatitis, January 1996, pages 12–16″ is here:
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8789218

    The fact that Paula doesn’t directly link these is a display of laziness or that she’s hiding something. Maybe I’m being too paranoid, but the fact that she used the ROS article (that only applied to the oral congestion of ethanol) to establish that topically-applied ethanol also generates ROS, suggests a serious lack in judgdment. Don’t get me wrong, just because I applaud Paula and love her products (clearly from my routine that’s linked), doesn’t make her right.

    I’ve quite methodically gone through the various ways ethanol could ‘harm” the skin with numerous citations from credible sources. And my conclusion was that alcohol is in fact drying like Paula claims, but isn’t as dangerous as Paula makes it sound. She uses what I’d like to call “sensationalist” adverbs like “extremely” in ” can be extremely drying and irritating to the skin…” Well yeah, if you dump ethanol on to your skin, that will be “extremely irritating.” But is that relevant? No, because like I already explained, ethanol in skin care evaporates in minutes. And I don’t deny that enthaol is drying.

    Paula is also very liberal with using the word “cause” like in “causing inflammation that encourages excess…” Ethanol doesn’t cause inflammation, it just makes the skin more prone to inflammation because it disrupts the epidermal barrier by drying it out. And generally, dry skin is more prone to inflammation and irritation than oily skin. Again, I’ve clearly stated this.

    So yeah it seems like, despite being presented with this evidence, you ignore them until Paula herself declares ethanol to be safe or something. It doesn’t matter WHO claims something, it’s the evidence that is used to validate the claims.

    Hmm maybe I should do one more follow-up article next week that debunks and explain why each of the citations Paula uses deoesn’t apply to topically-applied ethanol. Anyone want to see that?

  7. John says:

    @Jamie

    Cytochrome P450 generates ROS because it oxidizes ethanol via the body’s natural metabolic pathway for that compound. Basically, this only occurs when ethanol converts into acetylaldehyde, which is carcinogenic. However, that occurs primarily after the ethanol hits the blood stream. And as I demonstrated, hardly any penetrates that deeply. And those studies had the skin soaked in ethanol for 24-48 hours. Ethanol in cosmetic applications, like I’ve said a few times already, will evaporate very quickly…

    Also, I believe one out of the 10 studies I cited actually had an experiment where they did a split-face test with acetylaldehye and ethanol, and only the acetylaldehye caused erythema, or irritation.

    So yeah, stop worring about it. Even if ethanol does indeed activate cytochrome P450, which studies indicate it does not, the amount of ROS that’s generated will most likely not be anymore that those that regularly occur through autoxidation reactions.

    Let me know if you have any further questions.

  8. Ria says:

    A little rant – I think Paula Begoun really needs to fix her citation methods. Bloody hell. I had this problem with her before. Don’t get me wrong – I think she has some great knowledge and products. In fact, I do love her for what she’s done for me, and generally has great, insightful knowledge. But, the way she references her knowledge bank is really poor. She doesn’t even freaking cite the author and title (which is basic, if you ask me), and a DOI would be nice too. I wish she’d pick a referencing style and use it, rather than doing whatever she’s currently doing. Sometimes, she uses the most odd and/or unrelated studies to back up her statements (a lot of the time, I’d go and find it, and see that it’s on a topic completely unrelated, then have to read through the whole thing and only then would I find a sentence or two that might have some relevance, but then, it’s really removed and stretching the limit to what’s acceptable with referencing – haha, but maybe that’s why she doesn’t cite properly?). Gaah. I love you Paula, but I really think you need to get your act together when it comes to transparency, since that’s your whole shtick.

  9. John says:

    @Ria

    I completely agree!! It’s really frustrating when I have to bend backwards to find those citations. Granted, I’m not really one to talk since I don’t use citations on my blog. Sidenote: But I will! When I start compiling my IPs (Ingredient Profiles), there will be citations to validate my claims for each ingredient. I just figured that it’d be easier if I just centralized all the information into that “Page,” rather than repeat it in every post that mentions, say vitamin A. It just seem a bit distracting.

    Anyways, like I said on my blog, Paula’s product are almost all excellent across the board. It’s her information that isn’t always as consistent. But hey, nobody’s perfect. :)

    Thanks for your continued support and contributions, Ria!

  10. Jamie says:

    Thanks John. But if ethanol has no real benefits besides evaporating quickly and “compressing” products, then it should still be avoided when it’s not used for that right?

  11. John says:

    @Jamie

    Well, I think that ability is quite an impressive one! But ethanol doessn’t “just” do that. It has other benefits like enhancing penetration… disinfecting and eliminating most types of bacteria. But yes, there are other ingredients that are “better” one way or another.

    While I realize that the end result is the same as if ethanol were to be dangerous: I’d like people to avoid ethanol except in the cases described, I’d still like people to know the truth about ethanol! But yes, because ethanol is quite drying, it shouldn’t be chronically used in leave-on skin care products.

  12. jeff says:

    but so many high end brands use alcohol in thier serums and creams for dry skin……so how can it be bad for the skin? even Lancome uses alcohol in one of thier creams intended for dry mature skin, so how can it be bad?>

  13. John says:

    @jeff

    Let me start by saying that I never said ethanol was “bad.” Just that there are better alternatives when it comes to its presence and function in skin care, not makeup. With that being said though, there is irrevocable and undeniable proof that ethanol is in fact drying. So people with dry skin types, shouldn’t use products with ethanol.

    Now, if a high-end brand, or any brand, uses ethanol in skin care marketed towards dry skin types, you have to consider the ethanol in context with the rest of the ingredients. For example, there could be some heavy-duty emollient and occlusive agents included, to combat that dryness. Or maybe they’re using the ethanol to like I said, enhance penetration.

    However, I’d like to note that just because high-end brands like Lancome use ethanol in their skin care product, doesn’t mean that the ethanol is good. Honestly, I think an important lesson to be learned is that high-end brands can use any damn ingredient they want; its inclusion has no bearing whatsoever on how positive or negative that ingredient is. You need to learn that you can’t believe everything that’s claimed or marketed; you have to do your own research.

    I mean, Lancome and many other high-end brands have lots of SPF products that they claim provide broad-spectrum UV protection, when in fact they don’t. If you only listened to their claims, you’d be missing out on essential UVA protection, which will lead to premature aging, and possibly even skin cancer.

    Finally, I’d like to note that this concept also applies to drugstore products. Many drugstore and high-end brands are in fact, owned by the same overarching corporation, like L’Oreal Corp.

  14. Jessica Allison says:

    John, I love your articles and I also love the fact that you’re so open and responsive to your comments!

    I’ve always recommend to clients that they stay away from ethanol, though in the past couple years I’ve learned to look at products as whole a bit more. Still, my prejudice against alcohol remains- especially personally. I have very dry skin and certainly don’t need to exacerbate the situation!

    Recently I’ve been sent two different products- in different forms and from different brands- that include alcohol quite high in their formulations (both suggested for dry skin).

    I was once told by a brand representative that if alcohol was used in concentrations under 10%, it’s drying properties are negligible. I’ve been unable to substantiate this, but remain curious. I’d love to hear your views on the topic- have you ever seen any scientific literature that would be pertinent to this claim?

  15. Nicki says:

    @Jessica – I’ve never read scientific articles pertinent to this claim, but this is something most cosmetic chemists would know offhand. I’ll see if I can get Perry from the Beauty Brains to comment on this…

  16. John says:

    @Jessica Allison

    I’m glad that you like my responses! I love hearing back and interacting with you guys. :)

    Now, I too am also a little prejudiced against ethanol in skin care. As you can see from the article, I don’t recommend skin care products that contain high-medium amounts of them. However, it really isn’t SO awful. Yes it is drying, but that’s about it. It doesn’t cause free radical damage, etc… But if you have dry skin, of course it wouldn’t make sense to use any additional drying ingredients.

    As for your question about the 10% ethanol, here’s what I think: No that’s definitely not true. Why? Because “drying” is such a personal thing. If you have oily skin, maybe you won’t feel it. But I’m sure if you applied something with ethanol, you’d feel some drying action. And like you said, you have to look at the product as a whole. For example, a 5% (ethanol) product that’s water-based will feel more drying than a 10% product that’s cream-based; meaning that the presence of various humectants, emollients, and/or exclusives, will affect whether or not a product feels “drying.” So I guess to fully answer your question, no I have not seen any scientific literature to fully substantiate this because, it’d be difficult to create an unbiased and objective test for: whether or not 10% ethanol is considered “drying.” I know, I know, it’s so much easier to just oversimplify and generalize about various topics in skin care, but that’s unfortunately just does not work! :(

    Let me know if you have any other questions!

  17. THANKS! says:

    Thank you for making this post and discussion! I too have been wondering about alcohol denat, now that I see it appearing more frequently in Loreal products, as well as heat protection sprays. I knew that it functioned as a penetration enhancer, preservative, and anti bacterial, but I never knew that it’s evaporation compresses products together for a lighter layer on the skin. Like others, I was just going by what Paula said since there are not that many in depth posts about this ingredient. Most sites just say it’s drying and therefore bad (black and white) or reference Paula.

    I have dry skin so it’s probably not good for me to use it, but I like knowing it’s function now. Even though I have dry skin, I find a lot of products leave me shiny or feel heavy. The denat could offset some of that. Was worried about trying the Sublime Sun face SPF since it has so much denat (maybe it has too much anyways, considering it’s loreal and they are throwing this ingredient into everything they make, even serums), but at least now I know it’s not as bad as I’ve heard.

  18. Nicki says:

    @Thanks – You’re very welcome. Maybe @John Su wants to chime in here too as well.

    It’s always interesting, because skin certainly can be simultaneously dry and shiny! The Sublime Sun Face SPF certainly is not as bad as you heard.

    One secret for oil control you may like: Hourglass Veil Primer. John turned me on to this, and it’s an amazing secret all of my friends with oily skin have picked up. It’s great at controlling oil production alone (even for men) and under makeup (for women). The secret here is a lot of oil-controlling alumina and hydrating silicones.

    Hope this helps,
    Nicki

  19. John says:

    @Thanks

    Sure, you’re welcome! And thank you @Nicki for inviting me to FutureDerm. :) I believe this was one of my first posts!

    Now, dry skin is caused by a lack of water, while oily skin is an abundance of oil. If you have a true dry skin type, you shouldn’t be oily. However, if you have dry skin on your face, but oily skin in other areas, you probably have combination skin, or even just oily skin that’s been too dehydrated (which ethanol can certainly do).

    Depending on what skin type you are, that would give us a better idea on how to help out. But yeah, ethanol can be good or bad. But it isn’t SO bad as some people claim it to be. With the L’Oreal Sublime SPF 50, you’ll just want to be careful and apply something like an antioxidant serum like a vitamin CE Ferulic one (I believe FutureDerm is coming out with one in a few months!), or something more emollient if necessary. The vehicle in whatever you apply before the sunscreen, will act as a “buffer” to offset the drying capacity of the ethanol, and combined with the silica (in the sunscreen), should give you a nice matte finish. You can always powder on top for increased longevity.

    I personally prefer inorganic mineral-based sunscreens, but that’s up to you.

  20. THANKS! says:

    What I meant was my skin doesn’t get naturally oily on it’s own. The only time it does that is when it’s really humid/hot, so I think that is just sweating. However, when I put on moisturizer or sunscreen, a lot of times they feel heavy or not as absorbed as they could be. If I were to not moisturize though (like some oily skinned people do and use a serum or something instead), my skin would be really dry. It doesn’t really matter though. For the most part, I am just used to it or use powder like you said.

  21. John says:

    @Thanks!

    Oh I see. Well if you ever have any questions, suggestions, or need help with something, please don’t hesitate to ask!

  22. lindsay says:

    Hey john, thanks for writing this piece. I actually came across this after doing some reading on ethanol in skin care and looking at Paula’s dictionary for some advice – some of which was a little alarmist i thought (nice to know i’m not the only one!). My question is regarding Isotrex gel. I had a bad breakout in early summer and something had cleared it (even though Paula’s BHA does wonders for the rest of my skin, not here) so a few weeks ago my doctor gave me the gel. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with it, but it contains the active ingredient isotretinoin (0.05) and is a retinoids. The only problem is that the gel contains ethanol – i don’t know the exact % but i’m assuming quite high. Are you familiar with this gel? I have no idea as to whether the presence of the ethanol is positive or negative, in the sense of what you have written about above. So i feel in a bit of dilemma! I know retinoids are seen as being very effective (Paula being one big supporter) but the presence of ethanol in the prescription i was given makes me a little nervous. I should say that you only need about half a pea sized amount of the gel each evening – i’ve been using it for over a week now and have not experienced irritation that you would maybe associate with applying ethanol (but maybe that doesn’t matter?). Thank you in advance for any information!

  23. John Su says:

    @lindsay

    You’re very welcome!

    The presence of alcohol just helps solubilize the ingredients and keep them from clumping together or forming crystals. The cellulose ingredient, which is very safe since it’s used as a corneal lubricant by opthalmologists, has a tendency to crystallize; so that’s the ethanol’s function.

    And like I said in the post, ethanol just dries your skin out and makes it more prone to inflammation, irritation, and dryness: all of which, you can tell with the naked eye. So if you’re not experiencing any redness, dryness, itchiness, or sensitivity, then the product is perfectly fine for you. Don’t believe in that whole alcohol causes (significant) free radical generation and collagen damage… They just don’t apply when ethanol is used in real-life in-vivo scenarios.

    Does that make sense? And of course, the best thing you can do is to discuss this topic with your prescribing doctor. I’m sure he/she will alleviate your worries much better than I can!

    Good luck with everything!

  24. Brian says:

    What is your opinion on Clinique’s toners that have alcohol at the top of the ingredient deck? I’m guessing the alcohol helps the SA penetrate skin? I like the product but have stopped using it since reading Paula’s rants against alcohol.

  25. John Su says:

    @Brian

    While I don’t think that alcohol is anywhere near as bad as Paula claims, I still don’t like it in skin care products. So it really depends on your individual experience. Alcohol does make your skin more prone to inflammation, irritation, and the like. So if you’re experiencing any redness, irritation, and/or dryness from this product, you should discontinue use. If you’re not, well then you can choose to keep using it. But really, if you’re using it for it’s salicylic acid content, there are better ones out there.

  26. Joshua says:

    Interesting, thank you. I have to disagree with one point though, that dry skin types don’t have to worry about acne. Sorry, but many of us with dry skin (actually diagnosed by 2 difference dermatologists in my case) can indeed suffer from acne.

  27. John Su says:

    @Joshua

    You’re welcome.

    As for the dry skin issue, what I meant in that original statement that you quoted, is that if you have a truly dry skin type, you don’t have to worry about acne. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t have “dry, flaky skin” with acne. Many times, that dry, flaky skin can be a manifestation of another condition like seborrheic dermatitis, a lack of proper exfoliation, and/or excessively potent cleansing. Furthermore, you can have a combination skin type where certain areas are dry, and others are oily. But if you also have acne with a combination skin type, the breakouts will only be on the oily parts.

    Does that make sense? Because acne CANNOT exist in the absence of sebum. If so, then those “breakouts” are most likely the symptoms of another underlying condition that is often misdiagnosed and confused with acne. There may be a few rare exceptions, but what I stated in the article is generally true.

    Thanks for commenting!

  28. nelson says:

    have you tried makeup setting sprays then? the alcohol laden ones that is (urban decay etc). and since ethanol thins the layers of sunscreen and foundation, would using a alcohol-laden toner (like the clinique ones mentioned earlier) after applying sunscreen and foundation work the same way? (well i understand that the cosmetic finish will vary and is subjected to trial and error but is the mechanism the same?) what about spraying alcohol-laden toners over moisturizers? would they thin them down too? i know that currently using the ethanolum-laden retin-a gel thins down my neostrata 15% PHA bionic lotion and dhc 2% bha salicylic milk very nicely every night =D

    this makes me wanna try those liquid-y japanese sunscreens again because of their texture and formulation. recently ive been layering olay’s regenerating serum underneath my neutrogena ultra sheer dry touch and to my surprise, it didn’t ball up! i thought it would because of the amount of silicones and i wasn’t too sure if the silicones (when combined) would layer well. and the best thing about these alcohol-laden japanese sunscreens is that they are so easily available! look for any drugstore line owned by shiseido, kose, and/or kanebo and you’d be able to get that of a similar texture and formula from their parent company! albeit a lack of AOX and other bells and whistles, and also the presence of fragrant oils, their finish is really amazing (think texture of chanel’s vitalumiere aqua)!

  29. John Su says:

    @nelson

    No, I have no actually tried any.

    But using an alcohol-laden toner will not work quite the same way as using a makeup setting spray (or a foundation/sunscreen mixture with alcohol already in it), because you’ll be spraying it after the foundation/sunscreen has already set. So there won’t be a thorough mixing of the two products, though some will occur. Furthermore, makeup setting sprays have many film-forming agents–kind of like hairspray, that toners don’t have (or at least not as many).

    But you can certainly experiment and play around with them. :)

  30. Lillian Pham says:

    Hi John,

    I discovered your post today by googling “denatured alcohol skin” because I just bought a foundation and discovered that the third ingredient in it is denatured alcohol. I really like this foundation and it has taken me many years to find something that works for me. I am 21 now and I started wearing makeup at 17 so I have been waiting a long time to find something I like and that makes me look like I am not wearing that much makeup but still gives me the coverage I want. The foundation is the Giorgio Armani Lasting Silk UV Foundation SPF 20. I went on Paula’s Choice and she also gave this a poor rating due to the denatured alcohol and inadequate sun protection (but I wear a zinc oxide/titanium dioxide sunscreen underneath so the inadequate sun protection of the foundation doesn’t matter to me). I read your whole post and I know it seems that I can answer my own question just by reading it, but I just wanted to clarify. So is that bad if I were to wear this foundation everyday just because it contains denatured alcohol? I used to have really bad acne and I had deep red scars all over my face to the point where I had to get Fraxel (I hope you know what I am talking about) three times to remove it. My scars have definitely improved but it is still a bit there. Paula said something about alcohol inhibiting the ability of your skin to heal so I hope this is not true. I trust her, but at the same time I feel like sometimes her statements are so black and white if you know what I mean. I like how you provide some gray areas by saying how it really all depends and everything like that.

    Also, I used the Amore Pacific skin care line for a year. I had dull looking skin although I was eating healthy and drinking ten glasses of water a day for the last two years before I was using Amore Pacific. Also, I had a few lines under my eyes and two “worry lines” on my forehead so I was looking for something to make my complexion smooth, bright, and keep it from aging. I was using their Rejuvenating Serum and Rejuvenating Creme. After a week, it made my skin look better than I had seen it in years! It was amazing and my skin looked healthy, bright, and just better than I was hoping for. I thought to myself that I had finally found my PERFECT skincare routine, which I thought would never happen. So I recently discovered Paula’s website and she also gave these items poor ratings due to the high amount of alcohol. I was devastated because these products brought results and I didn’t want to stop using it. Also, I couldn’t understand why it was bad. How could something that made me skin look soooo good be so bad?? I understand that sometimes products can make your skin look good but that it is actually doing inner damage. Anyway, my question is… do you think I should stop using these products due to the high amount of alcohol?

    Okay one last question, I promise! In my skincare routine, I was also using the Skinceuticals LHA Solution Toner. Again, Paula gave it a poor rating due to the alcohol and I am having the same dilemma because I really liked this product also.

    I hope you can answer my questions and thank you for reading this whole thing! I really appreciate it and I am so glad to have discovered you :)

  31. John Su says:

    @Lilliam Pham

    Like with what I said in my response to your comment on the sunscreen article, in case you read that response first, no one is right about everything (including myself). In fact my contributory post on here pointed out the top 5 mistakes I’ve made the in the past when it comes to skin care.

    But anyways, to answer your Q: Paula is definitely an extremist when it comes to certain things such as alcohol, essential oils, and a variety of other ingredients, beliefs, etc… And other times, she’s rather lax… like with low amounts of UVA protection… But I’M RAMBLING.

    For your situation, as stated in the article (which I stand by pretty much everything I said, though I would add a few more details and clarifications–something I will do on my own blog), as long as you’re not applying a high alcohol-content directly do your skin on a regular basis, I can accept that.

    In terms of the Armani Lasting Silk (I’m more of a fan of their Maestro foundation) I’m very thrilled that you’ve found a foundation that you absolutely love! Because,we all know how difficult it is to find that one where you’re just like, “YES!” Now, I’m assuming that you apply the product after a primer/moisturizer/serum/sunscreen, right? Because if that’s the case, I’m perfectly okay with the use of this product.

    In terms of the AmorePacific products however, because you’re applying them to bare skin, it’s more difficult for me to recommend the use of these products. If you take the alcohol out of the equation, the Serum and Creme are actually quite (and surprisingly) impressive in terms of the non-vehicular beneficial ingredients included–the Serum more so than the Creme. But with the inclusion of alcohol, while it will enhance penetration of these ingredients, it can dry your skin out. THIS is the source of how alcohol can hurt your skin: by drying it out. Ethanol works by solubilizing, or basically dissolving your skin’s natural lipids that envelop the dead skin cells of the stratum corneum. Generally, the higher concentration of alcohol, the deeper the alcohol will penetrate into the SC, since it takes longer to evaporate. Therefore, by dissolving these lipids, it allows the skin to be more prone to irritation and external irritatants; slows down epidermal repair of these lipids, etc. However, please keep in mind that ethanol is not going to affect the repair of things like collagen, free radical damage, hyperpigmentation, and the like. Ethanol simply does not penetrate that deeply unless used in massive quantities and occluded so that it cannot evaporate, and even then, it’s not like your face is going to melt off. Haha! Note that this is the same mechanism by which ethanol acts as a penetration enhancer of “beneficial” ingredients like antioxidants.

    All in all, it really is up to you whether or not to continue using the AmorePacific products. It’s likely the beneficial ingredients in the Serum (like the niacinamide content–something that increases epidermal repair and likely counteracts some of the negative effects of the ethanol) and the Creme (like the heavier emollients in this product) are keeping the ethanol in check, while optimizing efficacy. However, that’s not to say that you can’t get better results from a similarly effective product that doesn’t contain alcohol. It’s really up to you. But know that you won’t be risking anything crazy like collagen breakdown, meaningful generation of free radical damage, etc.. that Paula claims. It’s just a complete exaggeration. But you WILL be making your skin more dry and prone to inflammation (which then can cause more free radical damage). So you need to take extra (albeit unnecessary) steps to protect and boost moisturization.

    If you continue to use the AmorePacific products, I’d recommend you stop using the Creme, since the jar packaging will render any non-vehicular beneficial ingredients inactive in a short amount of time. Stick with the Serum, because it is the better overall product.

    Finally, as for the LHA Solution, well… it may just be that you’ve never used a good exfoliant before? Because while that product contains some good exfoliants,there are better ones out there. I still don’t recommend using alcohol on a regular basis on bare skin, but hey, if it doesn’t affect your skin in a negative way (like it does with me), go for it.

    I hope I answered all your questions, and I’m SO glad to have you join me here and on my blog!

  32. Lillian Pham says:

    @ John Su

    Wow, first of all, thank you for taking the time to reply to my post! You provided an excellent explanation for everything. I am beyond impressed with not just your reply, but your articles in general! I will definitely check out all that you have wrote and your future posts on your own site.

    I am glad to hear that the Armani Lasting Silk is okay for my skin and yes I am applying moisturizer and primer underneath it.

    Thank you for looking up the Amore Pacific product ingredients for each individual item that I mentioned. I am very appreciative of that. I have decided upon reading your post that I will just not use the Amore Pacific products. I think I can find something better that doesn’t contain alcohol in it and plus I have felt bad for a long time about the price anyway. I am not sad about leaving it behind since I know there will be products out there (I just have to find it first!) that will do the same without the alcohol consequence (making it more prone to dryness and inflammation). Although you clarified that alcohol won’t do all the crazy things Paula mentioned, I don’t want to risk dryness and inflammation.

    Lastly, I also have decided to not use the LHA Solution toner as well. I am now in the process to replace all my skin care products! Hopefully I can find the right products that will truly be beneficial without a cost. I don’t want to make any more mistakes since I like to take good care of my skin.

    You are awesome. THANKS again!

  33. John Su says:

    @Lilliam Pham

    You’re welcome! I’m glad to see that you’re getting a handle on the information.

    But do feel slightly guilty for making you stop using those products because they are quite expensive. And they’re not awful! Hm, can you exchange them for something else? If not, consider buying from Sephora or Nordstrom next which. They both have amazing customer service and returns/exchange policies.

    And you can always use them up on your body. That’s where most of my unwanted samples and products go, if I can’t give them away but aren’t SO bad that I’d rather toss them. :)

  34. charu alwani says:

    Hey John! Another great post!:-)
    I really like the lancome teint miracle foundation, and as I gather from this post is that the alcohol in it will not be drying out my skin if i wear it with my sunscreen +serum. But say i want to wear this for a night out, then will a simple primer or moisturizer be enough for the ethanol to not interfere with my skin and dry it out?

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