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Is SD Alcohol Harmful for the Skin?

When ingested or applied alone to the skin, alcohol can dry out the skin. But when applied with other skin care ingredients, alcohol compresses the volume of the solution, making it easier for key ingredients to reach your skin.
Submitted via private message on the FutureDerm.com Facebook page:
Hello, could you please give some information how denatured alcohol can be harmful for skin?  From the beautypedia site, I gathered alcohol does more harm to skin than good. -B.S.
Dear B.S., I have a lot of respect for Paula Begoun.  Her consumer advocacy has opened doors for a lot of us bloggers - I know I personally would have had more reservations being frank and honest with my opinions on products had she not opened the door first.
Paula begoun 2007 I admire Paula Begoun's bravery as a consumer advocate as well as her career. However, I do not share her opinions about alcohol in skin care products.
With that said, one area I do disagree with Paula on is SD alcohol 40.  On Paula Begoun’s website, The Cosmetics Cop, which states that ethanol and drying alcohols generate free radicals, or ROS (reactive oxidative species) and cause irritation of the skin.  It also states that alcohol inhibits collagen production.  However, the studies she cites refer to cases where alcohol is consumed, not where it is topically applied to the skin.  We here at FutureDerm believe alcohol can be wonderful when used in conjunction with other skin care ingredients, but it is harmful to the skin when applied alone or when consumed.  Here's our full analysis:

Too Much Alcohol is a Nightmare for Skin When Consumed

I am all jacked up Drinking alcohol dilates blood vessels, which can exacerbate symptoms of rosacea. This has not been shown to be the case when topically applying products that contain alcohol, particularly when they contain a number of hydrators as well. (Photo credit: kristiewells)
As we said before, the studies that Paula mentions refer to damage done when alcohol is ingested, not when it is topically applied to the skin.  When it is ingested, alcohol will dilate the blood vessels, potentially aggravating rosacea.  Under increased pressure, the stretched vessels may break, appearing as broken capillaries on the face. When ingested, alcohol interferes with the body’s processing of vitamin A (including retinoids).  Alcohol reduces the absorption of vitamin A from the diet (American Journal of Epidemiology, 1986). Because vitamin A is a known antioxidant with anti-aging properties, decreasing its absorption may lead to advanced aging. In addition, retinoids may not be as effective following excessive alcohol consumption, as Leo and Lieber note there is competition between ethanol and retinoic acid precursors, leading to accelerated breakdown of retinol through the induction of degradative enzymes.

When Applied Topically, Ethanol Helps Skin Care Products (Really!)

Erlenmeyer Flasks 1 Ethanol alone = binds to water and lipids in skin, drying it out. Ethanol with other skin care ingredients = binds to water and lipids in the ingredients, thinning them out (and making your skin care products absorb into the skin better)! (Photo credit: biologycorner)
When applied topically, there is no evidence we can find that states ethanol generates ROS species. When used in conjunction with other skin care ingredients, alcohol compacts or shrinks the volume of the solution.  So if you're choosing between a serum with vitamin C and glycerin and one with vitamin C, glycerin, and alcohol, I'd choose the latter, because the solution is thinner, and there is less volume the vitamin C has to traverse to get to your skin. Other ingredients that function similarly, such as limonene and ethoxydiglycol. Of course, if you are talking about using just SD alcohol 40 on your skin alone, that's not a good idea, either.  SD alcohol applied alone to skin will bind to water and the long hydrocarbon chains present in all lipids.  It will fly away with the water and essentially dehydrate your skin - but that's when it is used alone.

Bottom Line

Contrary to popular belief, SD alcohol can be a benefit in skin care products.  While drinking alcohol and topically applying it alone can be harmful, using alcohol in conjunction with other skin care ingredients compacts the volume of the solution, making it easier for key ingredients to interact with the skin. Hope this helps! -Nicki  
Date: August 7 2012 at 11:35 AM
Q&A, Skin Care, alcohol and skin care, SD alcohol, SD alcohol and skin care products, skin

Comments (11)

  1. Jessica
    August 7 2012 at 12:14 PM

    I recently switched to Clinique's 3-step system and was matched to system 3. I use the mild cleanser, Clarifying lotion 3, and dramatically different gel. I was wary to try to clarifying lotion because denatured alcohol is the second ingredient on the list. It doesn't really sting of dry out my skin and I've noticed my skin as become much smoother as a result. Are the clarifying lotions in the 3-step system ok as far as alcohol content goes and should I continue to use it, if it's working for my skin?

  2. Nicki
    August 7 2012 at 1:38 PM

    @Jessica - The Clarifying Lotions in the Clinique 3-Step System are a perfect example of where alcohol is OK to use in skin care. Here, the alcohol helps to thin the solution, so the delivery of salicyclic acid and other ingredients is improved. My bigger concern is menthol, which can be irritating to some people. As long as you're OK with it, however, keep using it. I used the Clinique 3-Step (type II, thankyouverymuch) from age 13 to 19, and I loved it back then!

  3. jeff
    August 7 2012 at 6:20 PM

    I am using the clinique toners and i see a good difference in my skin.

  4. Nicki
    August 12 2012 at 9:16 PM

    Hi @Jack - Don't worry, we do not accept advertisers whose products we do not believe in. In fact, I have turned down lucrative offers from advertisers in the past (including an infomercial) because I did not believe in their products. I also did not design FutureDerm Time-Release Retinol 0.5 with alcohol as a primary ingredient. The other ingredients are used at low levels so alcohol still appears high on the list, but the formula is largely water-soluble, so not much alcohol is necessary to stabilize and thin the solution. I feel bad that one post without sources would lead you to believe that positive reviews on FutureDerm can somehow be "bought," which is not the case. Truth be told, it is well-known in cosmetic science that alcohol thins or stabilizes a water-soluble solution, and if you would like a source: "Alcohol improves the solubilization of oils in the aqueous phase" (Journal of Food Chemistry, 2001); http://ukpmc.ac.uk/abstract/MED/11368635; " Hope this helps.

  5. Mavi
    September 5 2012 at 2:30 PM

    You must be that Mona Dahl on QVC's community forum.

  6. Nina
    September 5 2012 at 3:24 PM

    Have you read Paula's reply? Sorry, she has actual research to back her up. Your justifications sound made up. And don't make any logical sense

  7. Nicki Zevola
    September 5 2012 at 4:09 PM

    @Mavi @Nina - I am sorry that you feel this way. Truth be told, if you go back to the journal articles that Paula has referenced, they refer to when alcohol is ingested, not when it is topically applied to the skin. There is a difference.

  8. John Su
    September 5 2012 at 4:22 PM

    @Nina While it would have been better to link the article that I wrote about ethanol, which contains way more "research" than what Paula uses, her justifications aren't made up. You should read the other article, before you decide to comment again: http://www.futurederm.com/2012/04/19/is-ethanol-in-skin-care-products-safe/ Make sure to read the comments and replies made on that post as well. :) But I'll quickly address the fallacies of Paula's post. The "Wu" study cited talks about does not even refer to alcohol applied to the skin. It only refers to oral alcohol intake, which I don't deny does generate reactive oxygen species. So I have no idea why Paula would use this study to justify that alcohol creates ROS on the skin. I discuss this in the linked article. The "Cameron and Neuman" study cited refers to in vitro studies of ethanol on the skin cells. Ethanol was applied directly to viable or living skin cells in a culture. This cannot be extrapolated to alcohol applied to the skin in in vivo or real life situations. In real life scenarios, your best friend is the stratum cornuem, which prevents significant penetration from ethanol. I mean, both titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, as you'll see in the series on sunscreens that I'm writing now (http://www.futurederm.com/2012/09/03/are-inorganic-sunscreens-better-than-organic-ones-part-iii-toxicity/), have significant negative effects on cells in vitro, but in vivo they are fine because they don't significantly penetrate the stratum corneum. But you don't see Paula saying that inorganic sunscreens are bad for you. The "Brief" study cited only refers to the various lipid bilayers components of the stratum corneum, not antioxidants. And yes, we do know that (and I acknowledge in the linked post) that ethanol does dry the skin out. So by drying out the layers of the SC, it'll allow for other ingredients to penetrate more deeply. The "Kownatzki" study is talking about high levels of alcohol used in hand washes, and it still only talks about drying out the SC bilayer, which does allow for other ingredients (both good and bad) to penetrate more deeply. But the ethanol itself does not generate significant amounts of free radicals nor inflammation. As I noted in the study, ethanol (by drying out the skin) makes the skin more PRONE to inflammation; the low amounts encountered in skin don't directly cause inflammation. The "Warner" study has nothing to do with ethanol; it's about how excess water can disrupt the SC. So overall, her justifications are far reaching and hardly applicable. Still, I acknowledge that ethanol should not be applied directly to the skin; it should be used to thin out formulation of a product and the products that are applied below ethanol-containing ones. I don't encourage ethanol-containing products to be applied directly to the skin. But still, that doesn't make Paula any less wrong.

  9. Nicki Zevola
    September 6 2012 at 4:31 AM

    I completely support John's comment above. Ad hominem attacks will be immediately removed from Comments. We want for FutureDerm to be a supportive environment where even disagreements are handled with respect and courtesy. Thank you for understanding.

  10. Alejandra
    September 6 2012 at 11:49 AM

    John, have you thought about sharing the information in your comment with with Paula's team? I find this debate soo interesting, Ill read those articles as soon as I have time. I used to avoid products with alcohol mostly cause they irritate my skin (highly alcohol containing products like Clean and Clear toners), but cause of Paula's information also avoided low- alcohol containing products but Im re considering this, we will see... Im also a fan of Paulas work, Ive learned a lot but no one is the ultimate expert so I appreciate that theres a debate based on serious information.

  11. John Su
    September 6 2012 at 6:08 PM

    @Alejandra I have directly responded to Paula multiple times (though not on her Facebook page specifically) just not to instigate these rude comments and back and forth arguments. However, Paula always refuses to acknowledge my posts. I mean, in this particular situation, why wouldn't Paula address the article that I did about ethanol, which contains 20+ citations; instead she addressed Nicki's which unfortunately didn't have any, just because it was basically an interpretation and summary of mine? I linked the post when responding to Nina above, and it addresses virtually every issue that Paula brings up. *Sigh* Oh well. But I'd suggest reading it so you can get a better picture of the situation!

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