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Why Alcohol in Skin Care is Safe, Despite What Paula Begoun Says

Many beauty products contain alcohols - including Paula's Choice.
I'll admit it:  I'm not good at conflict.  My boyfriend can tell you this - I get emotional, I get flustered, sometimes I even cry.  So you can imagine I was not sure what to say when yesterday, we got quite a startle from Paula Begoun.  The consumer advocate, most known for her best-selling Don't Go to the Cosmetics Counter Without Me series, countered that we are wrong about alcohols, and her writing shows alcohol "isn’t beneficial in the least, not now or ever."  [Read more:  Paula's scathing post about us] Yet I'm not alone in believing that alcohol in skin care products can be beneficial.  According to well-renowned DERMADoctor dermatologist Dr. Audrey Kunin, M.D.:  "If I had to pick a single ingredient as the most misunderstood, it would be alcohol.  I can't tell you how many times I've heard 'I can't use that product, it contains alcohol and will dry, irritate my skin.'  Is this true?  Probably not."  (source)  Alcohol can be drying - yes, this is true.  But in a properly-formulated skin care product, it can help increase penetration of key ingredients.  Some alcohols also act as slip agents, emollients, and/or hydrators. Once I managed to get myself together - Paula has been a role model of mine since I got my first copy of Don't Go to the Cosmetics Counter Without Me in middle school - I decided to take a closer look at her counterargument.  And here is what my team and I found:

1.)  Topically-Applied Alcohol Does NOT Cause the Release of Free Radicals.

Topical application and oral consumption are not the same. But for the sake of argument, let's assume they are: Moderate alcohol consumption has been shown to be beneficial.
The "Wu" review does not say topically-applied alcohol causes release of free radicals.  This review came to the conclusion that "ROS and other reactive molecules are indeed formed in human alcoholics."  It also concluded that many of the negative effects from consuming alcohol could be "prevent[ed] or ameliorat[ed] by antioxidants, agents that reduce the levels of free iron, or agents that replenish glutathione levels." What does this have to do with skin care?!  Ingesting alcohol and topically applying alcohol to the skin are two completely different things.  If you don't believe me, think about the different effects drinking water and bathing in it has on your body!  (One makes you pee, the other makes your skin all crinkly!)  :-)  But, for the sake of argument, let's pretend that they are the same thing.  Moderate alcohol consumption has been shown to have cardioprotective effects through mild vasodilation (relaxation) of blood vessels, increased levels of good HDL cholesterol, decreased levels of LDL cholesterol, prevention of clot formation, reduction in platelet aggregation, and lowering of plasma apolipoprotein(a) concentration (Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Research, 2009; Alcohol and Alcoholism, 2002).  Moderate alcohol consumption has also been associated with lower risk of osteoporosis, as published in BMJ and mentioned on ABC News earlier this year. So, let's suppose Paula has concluded that ingesting and topically applying alcohol are the same thing.  I don't understand why she doesn't present both sides of the argument.   After all, if any alcohol from skin care products is absorbed into the body, it would certainly be more "moderate" dose than "alcoholic" consumption, wouldn't it?

2.)  Cell culture is not equal to topical application to a living, breathing organism.

If what Paula said in her post about us was true, rubbing alcohol would "destroy" beneficial aspects of the skin.

The Neuman study initially triggers a "What?!" reaction:  It is titled, "Ethanol signals for apoptosis in cultured skin cells."  Given that apoptosis is programmable cell death, this sounds like ethanol is like putting the Grim Reaper in a Bottle on your face.  Terrible! But further analysis reveals this is not the case at all.  First of all, "Ethanol signals for apoptosis in cultured skin cells."  I worked in biomedical laboratories for seven years, and I am proud to say that I did cell culture for a number of those years.  A cell culture (in vitro) is drastically different from a systemic application or test (in vivo). Small amounts of alcohol on these skin cells in a petri dish was found to decrease their antioxidant capacity - but antioxidants in small amounts of alcohol applied to a living person's skin allows for these beneficial ingredients to penetrate the skin better (Skin Pharmacology and Applied Skin Physiology, 2003; Cosmetics and Toiletries, 2005).  And penetration is not by, as Paula says, "destroying important protective aspects of skin" - rather, it is by creating temporary microscopic openings in the lipid bilayer that later close (Cosmetics and Toiletries, 2005), leaving skin intact and healthy. Think about this logically:  If alcohol really went on a blazing path of destruction and "destroyed important protective aspects of skin," why on earth do medical professionals use rubbing alcohol to clean a wound?  If Paula was right, all of your "antioxidants, good emollients, and barrier repair ingredients" would be destroyed and every pediatrician in America would have a malpractice suit.

3.)  The Warner Study:  This is About Sulfates, Not Alcohol

We never dispute the fact that alcohol can be drying.  We don't like hand sanitizers or any other products with the vast majority of alcohol either.  But when it is a part of a well-formulated skin care product, it can be a benefit, thinning out the solution, increasing its penetration into the skin, and ultimately, its efficacy. Paula uses the Warner study to conclude that alcohols are drying.  But the Warner study says, "The kinetics of damage and its repair, and epidemiological evidence suggest that modern synthetic detergents as used in foaming liquid cleansers are the major offender."  It concludes that agents like sulfates are damaging to the skin.  But modern synthetic detergents are soap molecules, with a hydrophillic head and a hydrophobic tail, attached to a sulfate.  And we completely agree that sulfates are harsh to the skin. Maybe Paula and I should do a joint post on that (I do mean that earnestly, not sarcastically).

4.)  Why Do Paula's Products Contain Alcohols?

Though she tears me up for saying that "fatty alcohols" are hydrating (and they are), her products are loaded with alcohols of all kinds.  She also uses a fatty alcohol (cetearyl alcohol) in her Paula's Choice Skin Balancing Oil-Reducing Cleanser.  Quick lesson: In chemistry, the suffix "-ol" is an indication a substance is an alcohol.  There are a few exceptions, like panthenol, but "-ol" on the end is the general rule from IUPAC.   Curiously enough, Paula puts a big smiley faces on her site next to "butylene glycol" and "phenoxyethanol" and the other alcohols in her products. Check out all the alcohols in her Paula's Skin Balancing Pore Toner:
Water, Glycerin (skin-repairing ingredient), Butylene Glycol (slip agent), Niacinamide (vitamin B3/cell-communicating ingredient), Adenosine Triphosphate (cell-communicating ingredient/skin conditioning agent), Anthemis Nobilis (Chamomile) Flower Extract (anti-irritant), Arctium Lappa (Burdock) Root Extract (antioxidant), Hydrolyzed Jojoba Esters, Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein (skin conditioning agents), Sodium PCA, Panthenol, Sodium Hyaluronate (skin-repairing ingredients), Sodium Chondroitin Sulfate (skin conditioning agent), Ceramide 3, Ceramide 6 II, Ceramide 1, Phytosphingosine, Cholesterol (lipid-based skin-repairing ingredients), Tetrahexyldecyl Ascorbate (vitamin C/antioxidant), Oleth-10, DEA-Oleth-10 Phosphate, Sodium Lauroyl Lactylate (emulsifiers), Polysorbate-20 (skin conditioning agent), Caprylyl Glycol, Hexylene Glycol (preservatives), Sodium Citrate (pH adjuster), Xanthan Gum (thickener), Trisodium EDTA (chelating agent), Phenoxyethanol (preservative).
Butylene glycol is a well-known penetration enhancer (International Journal of Pharmaceutics, 1999), particularly in such high concentration as in this product.  However, it is listed in her dictionary and ingredients list as merely a "slip agent."  The penetration it induces is safe and I approve of it - but I'm surprised she omits this part of its definition altogether.  Based upon her thinking, I guess stating the alcohol butylene glycol helps ingredients penetrate faster into skin would negate her claim that alcohols increase penetration by "destroy[ing] important protective aspects of skin (think fighting dryness and free radical damage)" (source).

Bottom Line

I strongly dislike arguing and even debating - I'm a pretty emotional person.  I'm actually exhausted from writing this post.  I'm hoping after this, Paula Begoun and I will be able to peacefully exist within the same space - kind-of like how Fox News and CNN cover the same events, but from different angles.  It might actually be a huge benefit to our readers to hear two different interpretations of scientific literature!  Nonetheless, no matter what this well-meaning, well-written consumer advocate says in return, I'm not going to mention her directly or indirectly again, and I hope that she does me the same courtesy. However, what we say on the FutureDerm blog about alcohols, we stand behind firmly.  Alcohol in skin care products is safe.  It can be somewhat drying for those with dry skin, but alcohol-containing skin care products do not cause the death of skin cells, the destruction of important aspects of skin, or the widespread systemic induction of free radicals (unless you eat them).  I hope I have convincingly convinced you of so.  To discuss further, please note we will not tolerate negative comments posted from either side; we want to keep the Comments of our website clean, and I hope that you understand and respect that.  If you would like to discuss with me further, please use the Contact page, and I or a member of our team would be more than happy to discuss.  Thank you!
Date: September 6 2012 at 12:49 PM
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Comments (40)

  1. Vicki
    September 6 2012 at 4:07 PM

    Thank you for your post. Such great information! You explained your case very respectfully

  2. Jill
    September 6 2012 at 4:32 PM

    Seriously? You won't let people comment here to disagree with you?

  3. Nicki Zevola
    September 6 2012 at 4:37 PM

    @Jill - Yes! Definitely! But we just ask that discussions are kept respectful. Yesterday we received some surprisingly harsh comments - some of which had nothing to do with the argument itself. By "ad hominem," we mean attacks on anyone's background, character, credentials, etc. We want to keep our discussions kind and clean. But disagreements are fine, we just ask that you please keep them respectful of all parties involved, that's all.

  4. Christina
    September 6 2012 at 5:07 PM

    I think this was an excellent and clearly reasoned way to respond to Paula's arguments and I trust that she will see the same. Obviously she does have products and so do you, but it does not have to devolve into a name-calling contest and I appreciate the length to which you have gone to logically prove your point (note, not only disproving hers but focusing on supporting your argument). I understand that this is exhausting for you, but perhaps this is simply a part of being a blogger in a publicly read website. It is out in the public and you have put yourself in the public. It's time to stick to these reasoned arguments, they are reliable, and stand by them. Don't state that you won't address Paula again - simply argue your points well and the problem will resolve itself one way or another.

  5. Moxie
    September 6 2012 at 5:08 PM

    I also love Paula's books. I believe that this was a great post, and very respectful of Paula.

  6. Lien
    September 6 2012 at 6:53 PM

    Thank you so much for this post. I have been buying products that contain alcohol even though I've read on Paula's site that they are bad. The thing is, I find these products work so well for my skin because they're formulated so well for my combination skin. I find so many products that Paula's site say work well, don't work for my skin. It's so confusing. I'm so glad I came across your guy's site. It's been very informative for me in my quest for the perfect skin care.

  7. Nicki Zevola
    September 6 2012 at 7:18 PM

    @Christina - Thank you for your kind words and opinion! I guess I said the part about ending this now because it makes me uncomfortable, in many ways, as a person occupying a company similar to Paula's. I also feel bad because a reader mentioned her name in a question about alcohol and we technically mentioned her first - I think we should be very careful not to do that in the future. At the time, I didn't think twice about it!

  8. Nicki Zevola
    September 6 2012 at 7:20 PM

    @Moxie - thank you!

  9. Nicki Zevola
    September 6 2012 at 7:25 PM

    @Lien - well, I'm glad you found us too! We do our best to do the research and I'm sure Paula's team would say the same about themselves. I think it's funny how we can read the same studies and come to different conclusions - but then again, I worked in laboratories for a number of years and I realize even scientists working on experiments side-by-side come to different interpretations to explain results. So it's no wonder we come to different results interpreting studies that have already been done. I just hope we can continue to occupy a similar space with little or no conflict, despite difference of opinion sometimes.

  10. Ozana
    September 6 2012 at 7:56 PM

    HI Nicky, sorry to add since you seem quite upset by Paula's article. I already wrote to you about alcohol when you posted first the list of ingredients and it is true that my comment was largely based on the information read on her site. But I do not think she is the only one considering alcohol as not being good and, for the sake of argument, saying that it is not bad does not mean that it is good either. Also saying that it increases penetration doesn't make it good either. Nowadays people want only good and safe and beneficial ingredients in their skincare. Just have a look at all the debate about parabens as preservatives. Several studies have shown them not to be as bad as we first thought and yet even more companies do not use them anymore. Personally, I would not have an issue with a little bit of alcohol in a product, however if I remember correctly yours has alcohol in the 3rd or 4th position which I would say makes it a lot. Take care.

  11. Dolly
    September 7 2012 at 1:31 AM

    Of course alcohols affect the outer most layer of skin, so does a good old fashioned face washing. So does <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9407174" rel="nofollow">normal tap water</a>. People have cited healthcare workers skin problems due to repeated topical alcohol use, but the same happens even if practitioners only user good old fashioned soap and water. Why? Because soap is a DETERGENT, and like all other detergents, its acts as both a hydrophilic (can bind to water) and lipophilic (can bind to fats/oils) substance. Perhaps more disturbing is the fact that water will kill cultured skin cells via lysis, and soap will do the same via cell membrane destruction. So, if it's well known that <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15691260" rel="nofollow">plain soap and water impairs stratum corneum hydration, pH, barrier function, lipid content, integrity and cohesion</a> should we as a society stop using SOAP?! I just used the exact same methods to procure a similar stance of vilifying soap as was used to vilify all alcohols. Does anyone actually buy that kind of gross overarching generalization? There's a well-known answer here that one side of this debate seems to be missing, whilst providing inappopriate applications of publications: everything in moderation. With that in mind, it would seem the best solution for the worried mind would be to have a product that can be quickly followed by a moisturizer to close up any disruption. However, that would mean the first product would need to be absorbed really fast, which is something that just doesn't happen with retinol or many other agents available today. So Nicki, how fast does your product absorb? For people who are still concerned about using your product fewer times per day than they wash their face with soap, how quickly can one apply a moisturizer or other protection?

  12. Lucas
    September 7 2012 at 5:51 AM

    Hey, How is it that alcohol can be drying to dry skin-types? I always thought it was because it did destroy "protective aspects of skin", like good emollients and barrier repair ingredients. I think it's important to know both arguments and different interpretations of scientific literature. However for now, my personal experience has shown me that topical application of alcohol causes more harm than good (and I don't have dry skin!), and I'm aware that it's anecdotal, but for that reason, Paula's interpretation seems more reasonable to me. So I avoid SD alcohol/ethanol. Having no chemistry background, I don't understand how butylene glycol differs from ethanol, but from what I understood, Paula's Choice team has a problem with ethanol and not other alcohols. Isn't the way other penetration enhancers (like butylene glycol) and alcohol work on skin different? Also, I couldn't open one of your sources (Cosmetics and Toiletries, 2005). Is it just me? Thanks!

  13. Joe
    September 7 2012 at 9:39 AM

    Thanks for the update, Nicky. This is a good reminder that we should be open to hearing other people's positions - and review their evaluation methods - in the effort to be truly informed about what we put on our skin (or anything else for that matter). I appreciate and value the contributions and research you so generously share us.

  14. Eileen
    September 7 2012 at 1:32 PM

    Paula has performed a great service in that she has made consumers aware of what they are slathering on their faces. That being said, she doesn't have the background or credentials to make many of the pronouncements that she does. Her condemnation of alcohols but her inclusion of them in her products is an excellent example of muddled thinking. The chemists who formulate her products obviously know that not all alcohols are the same and that they do not all they serve the same purpose in skin care formulations so why doesn't Paula? It is simply illogical. As for the harsh attack she posted, it was unprofessional, inaccurate, and disrespectful. Hi Jill, Of course people can disagree. I don't think there was anything in Nicky's post to suggest otherwise. I think she was just reacting to a post that was needlessly rude and not particularly well reasoned. As I said, Paula has performed a great service, but she is not always correct. Just because Nicky felt compelled to justify her position in the face of criticism does not mean that she doesn't respect Paula.

  15. Nicki Zevola
    September 7 2012 at 1:44 PM

    @Ozana - Thank you for your comment. My point in this article was to address alcohol does NOT cause the death of skin cells, the destruction of important aspects of skin, or the widespread systemic induction of free radicals when used in skin care products. Please keep in mind, as @Dolly pointed out, that cells embedded in pure water will also undergo cell death after a couple of days. And we all know pure water does wonderful things for the skin! As for your point about ingredients, alcohol/ethanol runs a spectrum in skin care products. There are a couple of factors to consider; the type of alcohol and the concentration are two big points. In general, as far as type goes, there are "short chain" alcohols and "long chain" alcohols. The "short chain" alcohols, like ethanol and alcohol SD 40, tend to dry out a solution, compact its layers, and increase absorption into the skin. The "long chain" alcohols, such as stearyl alcohol or lanolin alcohol, tend to be hydrating. This does not mean that one type are irritating and the other are not - lanolin alcohol is commonly irritating, for instance. But short and long chain alcohols serve different purposes. Whether or not "short chain" alcohols are irritating or drying in a formulation depends on the formulation. Pure alcohol (ethanol/alcohol SD 40) alone is drying. But in conjunction with other skin care ingredients, alcohol may or may not be drying to the skin. It depends on the formulation. For instance, our product does not make your skin dry, because there are a number of emulsifiers and hydrators that balance out the alcohol. Instead, we include alcohol to increase the speed and depth of absorption, and overall efficacy. If you don't believe us, try it - we offer a money-back guarantee. :-) I apologize if it sounds like a sales pitch- I just know our product is not drying!

  16. Nicki Zevola
    September 7 2012 at 1:45 PM

    @Dolly - I agree 100%! You must have solid science training.

  17. Nicki Zevola
    September 7 2012 at 1:55 PM

    @Lucas - A couple of things - great questions! When 100% ethanol is applied to the skin, it isn't good at all. It increases transepidermal water loss, and temporarily reduces lipid (fat) and protein content. When ethanol is placed into a skin care formulation with emulsifiers and hydrators, it can do one of two things. If the formulation is expertly made, it will increase the absorption and penetration of the product. It's a great thing. But if the formulation is not well-balanced, there will be a drying effect. Our product is well-made and it is not drying! With that said, we NEVER said 100% ethanol was "good" for the skin. We did say ethanol in a well-balanced skin care product is good. We also did say 100% ethanol does not cause the death of skin cells, the destruction of important aspects of skin, or the widespread systemic induction of free radicals when used in skin care products. Butylene glycol and other alcohols do increase penetration into the skin differently as well. I should do another post on this! But, for now, please just know the way is safe in each case. I'll be in touch when the post goes up :-)

  18. Nicki Zevola
    September 7 2012 at 1:56 PM

    @Joe, @Eileen - Thanks!

  19. Lucas
    September 7 2012 at 4:19 PM

    Hey, Thanks you! :D Yes, I understand the difference between 100% ethanol and a given concentration in a skin care formulation and I was just sharing my personal experience (with skin care products with alcohol, not pure alcohol), and usually I just feel a burning sensation and, after awhile, dryness. So, if a formula is well-balance it will only increase absorption and penetration without disrupting the protective barrier or causing dryness but if it is not there will be some sort of damage/a drying effect? Also, how can one identify an expertly made formulation? Will the ingredients be enough or is there some other variable that needs to be accounted for? Can you give me any advice on that? I've been following futurederm.com for a while and I'm sure you wouldn't release anything other than a great product! My concern is with other formulations, and being able to know which ones are good. I'll be looking forward to that post! Lucas. P.S.: sorry but I still don't seem to be able to open one of your sources (Cosmetics and Toiletries, 2005). When I click on it, it doesn't take me anywhere. This is the source you make reference to when elucidating the way alcohol increases penetration without "destroying important protective aspects of skin", so I really wanted to read that. Thanks again.

  20. david lindsay
    September 8 2012 at 3:36 PM

    a basic mistake seems to have been made - i.e there are different types of alcohols, just as there are different types of many other substances - e.g..lipids/fats. i take it no-one would say the beneficial lipids in fish, vegetables, nut oils are the same as animal fats, e.g.. in suet. similarly 'fatty alcohols' are mot very similar in effect to ethanol (including sd alcohol), methanol etc. while i agree that paula begun makes mistakes, i have always assumed that her condemnation of 'alcohols' on the skin refers to the irritant, drying 'ethanol-type' of alcohol &amp; not to the emollient etc. lipid alcohols. i agree that the occasional use of dilute ethanol-type alcohols on the skin may be beneficial- as in disinfection before invasive procedures- but i strongly feel that frequent use, especially of 'higher concentrations' of those types of alcohols can only be harmful to the skin. so please let us sort sweet oranges from limes - both citrus fruit.

  21. david lindsay
    September 8 2012 at 3:38 PM

    a basic mistake seems to have been made - i.e there are different types of alcohols, just as there are different types of many other substances - e.g..lipids/fats. i take it no-one would say the beneficial lipids in fish, vegetables, nut oils are the same as animal fats, e.g.. in suet. similarly 'fatty alcohols' are mot very similar in effect to ethanol (including sd alcohol), methanol etc. while i agree that paula begun makes mistakes, i have always assumed that her condemnation of 'alcohols' on the skin refers to the irritant, drying 'ethanol-type' of alcohol &amp; not to the emollient etc. lipid alcohols. i agree that the occasional use of dilute ethanol-type alcohols on the skin may be beneficial- as in disinfection before invasive procedures- but i strongly feel that frequent use, especially of 'higher concentrations' of those types of alcohols can only be harmful to the skin. so please let us sort sweet oranges from limes - both citrus fruit. I HAVE NEVER EMAILED THIS SITE OR ON THIS TOPIC BEFORE &amp; JUST READ THE ARTICLE FOR THE FIRST TIME !

  22. Audrey C.
    September 10 2012 at 8:42 PM

    I'm very glad to read this article -- truth be told, I disagree with a lot of Paula's ingredient condemnations, but of course, she has become something of an industry standard (i.e., any time a beauty blogger dispels a myth, they almost invariably cite PB as a source). Like you, I appreciate greatly her work for cosmetics, but I feel sometimes her well-meaning reviews turn almost into fearmongering.

  23. Danielle
    September 10 2012 at 9:03 PM

    I don't think Paula's post was "scathing" in the least---I think that's a bit dramatic. But I understand you want to draw attention to your blog so maybe you want to play it up. I think if you go out and tell your (future) patients that putting alcohol on their faces is safe, when there are studies suggesting it could be harmful to your skin (OR body, for that matter---if something is killing cells inside your body I am sure it probably is not a good idea to slather it all over your face) then you are not too concerned about their health or well-being. Additionally---your point about bathing in a tub of water versus drinking it is ridiculous. Drinking water does not just make you pee, it is also good for your skin. You can't act as if your digestive tract and skin are unconnected and that it's completely crazy to suggest that they have an affect on each other or react similarly to the same substances. I am sure you have read about studies show that eating dairy can have an affect on acne by causing infllammation, for example. It isn't as if your skin and your digestive tract are unconnected or that it is far-fetched to assume that something that kills cells inside of you can't kill cells on the outside of you. Why do rosacea patients and their doctors hate alcohol in skin products if it is so safe? Why did my face sting, burn, turn red, and erupt in broken capillaries after using a sunscreen with alcohol? I think you should stick to "better safe than sorry" when it comes to people's health and I don't know that I trust the veracity of your posts so much anymore after seeing this debate play out. Just admit when you are wrong--it will at least gain you some more trust and respect.

  24. Nicki Zevola
    September 11 2012 at 11:26 AM

    @David - Ah, perhaps I was not clear when I was writing. Thank you for drawing this to my attention. In Paula's first article about us, she has a headline, "What the heck is a fatty alcohol?" We wrote the above in response to that portion of her post in specific. There are indeed a number of fatty alcohols, including stearyl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol, cetyl alcohol, C12-15 alcohol, cetostearyl alcohol, cetyl alcohol 40, and lanolin alcohol. These alcohols are derived from vegetable sources and are emulsifiers, thickening agents, moisturizers, and stabilizers. There are also glycols, including propylene glycol and butylene glycol. These alcohols are used to increase the penetration of skin care ingredients into the skin. Lastly, there are short-chain alcohols, like ethyl alcohol (ethanol) and SD alcohol 40. These alcohols often get a bad rap in skin care products, because if you apply straight ethanol to your skin, guess what - you get dry skin. (Hence the unpopular nature of hand sanitizers). But when in conjunction with the right amount of emulsifiers, thickening agents, moisturizing ingredients, and stabilizers, even short-chain alcohols can be beneficial, as they act as an effective solvent, degreaser, and stabilizer. They also enhance the penetration of ingredients into the skin in a manner similar to the glycols. I hope this helps. Please let me know if you have more questions.

  25. Nicki Zevola
    September 11 2012 at 11:27 AM

    @Audrey C. - Thanks for your support! I am trying to look on the bright side: Two voices analyzing the scientific research behind beauty products can only be a great thing for the consumer, right? :-)

  26. Nicki Zevola
    September 11 2012 at 11:42 AM

    @Danielle - Thank you for your balanced, well-thought response. A few points: 1.) Perhaps Paula's posts were not "scathing." I apologize for seeming overly dramatic with that description. However, her comments were at times rude and sarcastic. The implication that "This blogger is wrong, but we understand - skin care is complicated" was a slap in the face to our scientific and medical backgrounds. (For the record, we have three physicians on our team - two writers and a "behind-the-scenes" internal medicine physician.) Scathing, perhaps not, and I do apologize. But rude and condescending? A bit, yes. 2.) Please note - I am concerned about people's well-being and health. Please look at it this way: Let's say one-third of alcohol you apply to your skin is absorbed into the bloodstream. This is a moderate dose, somewhere around tenths to hundredths of ounces. Moderate alcohol consumption has been shown to only have benefits - remember the reports that a glass of wine a day helps to stave off weight gain or cancer? The studies Paula and her team keep citing are that of alcoholism. And we agree - large amounts of alcohol exposure (three glasses of 8 oz. or more) is a terrible thing, for your health as well as your skin. But small amounts of alcohol - on your skin, in your body - are fine and actually can be beneficial. For the skin, it depends on the concentration of alcohol and what else is in the products. 3.) Cells in water die within seconds. Ask any biologist. Putting cells in ethanol therefore does not conclude that ethanol is bad for cells. I did cell culture for a number of years. In vitro cell cultures will die without a specific combination of well-balanced nutrients in saline solution. The fact that there is a published study that shows anything but well-balanced nutrients in saline solution kills cells is quite surprising to me. At any rate, please - ask a cell biologist what happens when you put skin cells in water in a petri dish. If s/he doesn't answer cell death/apoptosis...well, let's put it this way, s/he will. :-) 4.) It is true that some rosacea patients do not tolerate high concentrations of alcohol in skin care products. But they also do not tolerate retinoids, alpha hydroxy acids, nicotinic acid, and a slew of other ingredients that are also beneficial for the skin. Alcohol can be drying. In a poorly formulated skin care product, it can be very drying. But when balanced with the right amount of emulsifiers, thickening agents, moisturizing ingredients, and stabilizers, alcohol is an effective solvent, degreaser, and stabilizer. It varies from formulation to formulation, product to product. 5.) It saddens me that you are questioning validity due to this debate. But let me please ask you two questions: One, does Paula Begoun or does Paula Begoun not sell only alcohol-free products? With a low-cost, low-budget line, she has few differentiating factors or technologies in her products. Alcohol-free is one of her major points. Why does it lower our validity to say alcohol in certain products is fine, and not hers to say alcohol is never fine? We are at least saying that *some* products with alcohol are good and *some* products with alcohol are bad. She is not so balanced. Two, why would we release a product if we did not believe in it? We were writing long before we released a product. We did not first release a product and then start writing about how retinol was great for your skin and all of these sales pitches. I will admit we have a lot of advertising on our site right now (we're taking care of that). But I promise you, we're not writing here to sell product. We still want to provide the highest-quality, most well-researched, comprehensive scientific reviews of beauty products on the internet today. And if we were wrong, we'd be the first to admit it. But we're not.

  27. Nicki Zevola
    September 11 2012 at 11:54 AM

    @Lucas - If a formula contains alcohol and is well-balanced, this means the alcohol will act as an effective solvent, degreaser, and stabilizer. Straight 100% alcohol applied to the skin is drying. That is true. We never negated that fact. But alcohol in the context of other ingredients like emulsifiers, thickening agents, moisturizing ingredients, and stabilizers can be fine. It can effectively dry out the solution, not your skin. Not always - it depends on the formulation - but it works. We tested ours before we released it on the market. We would never have released it if the alcohol did anything but thin out the solution (as a solvent), make it less greasy (as a degreaser) or stabilize the formulation. With ours, there is no long-term damage to the skin. Alcohol and glycols (another type of alcohol) increase penetration of key ingredients in skin care products in similar ways, and all are very quickly reversed. If it makes you feel any better, Paula has a number of glycols (alcohols) in her products. That is really a great question - how to tell which products with alcohol are OK and which are not. Sometimes in cosmetic chemistry the ingredients label doesn't tell all. Take eyeliners, for instance. Eyeliners usually contain colored polymer, neutralizing agents (like triethanolamine) and solvents (like glycols). By raising the concentration of polymer and lowering the concentration of solvent a tad, there is a long-lasting effect. But all of the ingredients will still show up in the same order on the label. In general, I would ask an expert about whether or not a product is good for your skin. You can always ask our team, a dermatologist, or a cosmetic chemist. :-)

  28. Denise
    September 12 2012 at 4:24 AM

    @ Dolly, funny you mention soap. I've always had a HUGE problem with Paula and her official stance and tbh her understanding of soap. She writes against the use of ANY and ALL bar soaps because " the ingredients used to keep soap solid are not the best for skin" What ingredients the fat or the lye( which if properly formulated is neutral anyway? Then she says her main problem is they are drying. Detergent based cleansers can be drying too!Good quality cold process without the gylcerine removed is not drying at all. Commercially prepared soap with heavy fragrance and removed glycerine is how soap got its bad name, I believe. If she prefers liquid detergent cleansers fine, but she really needs to better her understanding of saponification. She calls describes lye among other things as a "cleanser" in some products. I've written her about this but heard nothing. I like the idea of her site but I just wish it was more accurate.

  29. Enkida
    September 15 2012 at 1:04 PM

    Thanks for the interesting article. I haven't read the original one which started it, though I do think the mentioning of PB by name was a bit excessive. That doesn't take away from the informative and useful information concerning alcohol which I found here. For the record, I use neither Paula's Choice nor Futurederm products of any sort. What I do use is Beautypedia, Makeupalley reviews and my own personal experience / knowledge / research to cross check most cosmetic and skincare products before I purchase them. The argument over alcohol reminds me a bit of the arguments about parabens in cosmetics, or the arguments for mineral / natural skincare and makeup over synthetic / chemical skincare and makeup products. A lot of the negative publicity often sounds like knee-jerk reactions to scary sounding accusations that aren't really based in well established scientific facts or testing, which irritates me. Especially the cosmetics industry seems to love to pick up these "rumour trends" and run with them as if they were life and death situations for the rest of us. I know from unfortunate personal experience that all-natural products can cause extreme, allergic or irritating reactions in skin just as readily as synthetic or chemical products; that I would rather have parabens preserving my delicate cream products rather than the unpleasant surprise of applying a spoiled "preservative free" product on my skin; that the toner I used that helped heal my abnormally dry skin (induced by pregnancy) contained alcohol, despite being marketed for dry skin. Scientific progress is not a bad or scary thing, and I welcome the inclusion of it in my skincare and cosmetics. It's refreshing to find a website that doesn't shy away from this nerdy, fact-finding aspect of the beauty industry rather than running along with the latest trends, and more refreshing to find that no, I am not crazy or abnormal for not fearing the dreaded alcohol inclusion in my skincare products despite my dry skin. Thank you!

  30. Sandra
    March 4 2013 at 4:17 PM

    Ooooh, thank you so much for this post. That woman, Paula B., is starting to irritate me. From now on I am completely ignoring her!

  31. one thing i found
    May 27 2013 at 4:05 AM

    seems that glycols are called penetration enhancers, but it's inconsistent. the page for http://www.paulaschoice.com/shop/on-sale/_/RESIST-Daily-Smoothing-Treatment-with-Five-Percent-AHA/ says "Butylene Glycol (slip agent and penetration enhancer)" also the RESIST Weekly Resurfacing Treatment calls it that as well. Must be inconsistent on the website.

  32. Jasmine
    June 18 2013 at 6:47 AM

    Thank you so much for this article. I have my own skin care brand and my acne range is formulated by my dermatologist that cured my acne. Because one of his acne products has alcohol in it, I was concerned. Before we launched his products, I told him that I read in the internet that alcohol is really bad for the skin. My dermatologist told me that he has been using that formula for more than 30 years and it works very well. I can attest to that as mine and a few other friends' acne cleared after using his products. He says alcohol would be bad for normal skin but if we are talking about acne and oily and problematic skin, it's a different story. I believed him until I read Paula's article and I was horrified to see how bad alcohol is. I respect Paula a lot. However, when I clicked on those scientific references she made, I thought that those articles don't really have a direct link to alcohol being horrible as you have clearly pointed out. Your article made it really clear! My confidence on my products with alcohol is regained.

  33. Ben
    June 26 2013 at 6:16 PM

    Paula always provides great evidence and good scientific studies which are relevant. Alcohol is harsh in its small molecule state and causes free radical damage, drying effects and ageing, why even risk using it, even if the results were from vitro? There is no point using it in high amounts because your not sure if it will cause damage or not.. Just avoid it. I completely agree will paula begoun and respect the evidence she provides, and will continue to avoid the bad alcohols

  34. Jasmine
    June 27 2013 at 1:31 AM

    Hey Nicki, Since my last comment, I have done a lot of reading and research. I did a summary of yours and paula's exchanges citing the references and added in my 2 cents worth on my blog. http://skinlycious.wordpress.com/2013/06/27/is-applying-skin-care-products-with-alcohol-bad-for-skin/ Check it out. If you would like to reblog it, please go ahead.

  35. CONRAD ZIMMERMAN
    June 30 2013 at 5:44 AM

    In my experience ethanol, alcohol denat, sd alcohol-40 whatever way it is written almost always breaks me out. I have been using Paula's Choice for over a year now and have not had break out. This is not an exaggeration. I am biased to no one. I have a deep and sincere respect for meticulous, stringent scientific research. What I can't understand is and I'm taking from Paula here, is alcohol really necessary? Yes it might increase penetration, thin out a formulation and disinfect but are there any other ingredients that perform those exact functions without disturbing skin like mine that is too sensitive to use it? Not even sensitive, my skin is quite resistant according to Leslie Bauman but with alcohol it's a no no for me. Why hasn't any one here addressed alcohol and its' possibility for irritation in general? Everything in moderation I understand that but do we still really need? In regards to soap, I have read that it too disrupts the acid mantle and increases PH. The reason why SYNDET BARS were created in the first place (DOVE), is because they contain sodium cocoyl isethionate which derived from coconut cleanses without scum. Everyone knows soap leaves scum, it's reaction with hard water creates that. That I believe is what is sitting on skin damaging it after repeated use, having written this I know many who still use soap and have not one flaw...reason why? I don't know. They either must have extremely good genes (I personally believe genes are half the battle where skin is concerned) or they mositurise quickly after negating it's effect. Anyhow we know now, that liquid cleansers containing sulfates even they bubble and foam and supposedly dry out skin (I use Olay foaming face wash sensitive, does not dry my skin...) do in the immediate process 'feel' like they have rinsed much more thoroughly without any residue. With detergents or surfactants or anything more potent than sodium laureth sulfate (think lauryl sulfate) absolutely do believe irritate skin. Skin care formulation is so confusing and requires so much muster and energy and research it is so tiring. My passion for skin care will drive forward and hopefully you the author of this blog as well. Something's got to give. I believe she has indeed become a controversial in the beauty business yet her exhaustive outlook on the whole cosmetics industry I and many others could not be more thankful for. Put it this way she has inspired people from all sides, against and for. She is at best a potent force whose only legacy is to finally reach a stage where skin care is a sensible, comprehensible, well-researched, rostered, realistic practice that guarantees results. At the end of the day all you want is the active ingredients. Does the skin itself still need more researching? If so they why don't we all identify what skin needs to perform it's best and then wholeheartedly supply them!? What is so hard about that? And most importantly protect from the sun. With all the money going around I really don't see how skin care particularly in it's luxury sector can get any more insane and over on itself. It isn't a reality. Skin care should be no more glamorous than brushing teeth or washing hair yet it remains the most complicated and construed. SIGH................

  36. Nicki Zevola
    June 30 2013 at 10:01 AM

    @David Lindsay - No mistake has been made! We fully acknowledge that different types of alcohols have varied effects on the skin. For instance, all of the "C" titled alcohols - cetearyl, cetyl, C15- tend to be hydrating for the skin, as does stearyl alcohol. Ethanol is a different story. If you apply pure ethanol to your skin, sure, it can be irritating and produce redness and swelling. But, if you put ethanol into a skin care formulation, ethanol thins out the solution first. It acts as a penetration enhancer, allowing for key ingredients to penetrate more deeply into the skin. When Paula Begoun started in the 1970's, there weren't nearly as many highly-educated beauty product consumers. As a result, Paula and her team were able to write articles and cite studies without a ton of scientific scrutiny and rebuttal from the public. People just accepted her information and, more specifically, her references as accurate. And she's great with presenting articles with an authoritative tone. However, close inspection of the studies Paula mentions in her rebuttal shows that the majority of them do not apply to topically-applied ethanol: *The Neuman study is on cultured skin cells. Results from a cultured skin cell are NOT equivalent to results from alcohol applied to in vivo (alive, still attached, etc.) skin cells. For instance, if you culture skin cells in water, guess what? They die! This doesn't suggest that water is cytotoxic to in vivo skin cells (we all know water is not!), but cultured skin cells. *The Ceiley study is not about alcohol applied to the skin, but two different anti-acne agents. Irritation is induced by using retinoids and benzoyl peroxide together in an alcohol base, not the alcohol base alone. If the study used only alcohol solution in one of the trials, it would be more definitive.

  37. Hmmmm
    July 2 2013 at 7:33 AM

    You are taking liberties here. Paula is talking specifically about "alcohol", isopropyl alcohol, SD alcohol, ethanol, etc., not all chemicals that are alcohols. She never said that every kind of alcohol has the same effect on the skin, and she has pointed out the difference between isopropyl alcohol and emollient alcohols like cetearyl alcohol. Saying "doctors use it, so it must be fine" is a ludicrous argument. Most dermatologists (and pretty much all non-derm MD's) know very little about skin care. They learn skin diseases and pharmaceuticals, not day-to-day care of skin and in-depth ingredient knowledge/cosmetic chemistry. Also arguing that Paula implies that a single application of rubbing alcohol will cause catastrophic results immediately visible on the surface of the skin (which you said would result in lawsuits against pediatricians?) is immature. She never states anything of the kind. There is no benefit to including "alcohol"--not all chemicals in the alcohol family--in skin care that isn't overshadowed by its negative consequences. I don't agree with Paula on every point that she makes in all of her writings, but I disagree with every point you've made here.

  38. Nicki Zevola
    July 2 2013 at 1:49 PM

    @Hmmmmm- I'll break down your response into sections, to address each portion fully and respectfully. You make some good points, but I think we are more on the same page than perhaps I was able to properly articulate above. 1.) I am aware Paula is talking about "alcohol," not fatty alcohols such as cetearyl or stearyl alcohols, nor is she speaking about glycols. However, in the past, she has loosely used the term "alcohol," which can be confusing. It needs to be clearly stated if you are speaking about fatty alcohols, glycols, or ethanol. The public is a lot more informed and educated as a whole than when the first "Don't Go to the Cosmetics Counter" book came out in the late 1970's. It is important to differentiate exactly what you mean when you speak about an ingredient, a consideration that both she as well as myself and my team need to heed more caution on. 2.) I have never directly implied that dermatologists and physicians are the go-to-sources for skin care. You are correct - dermatologists generally deal with skin in a diseased state, whereas aestheticians specialize in healthy skin. However, cosmetic dermatologists deal with healthy skin and the refinement thereof to make it look and feel better. "Doctors use it, so it must be fine" - you're right, that is a weak argument. However, here I am implying that it is a widespread practice in medicine to treat wounds with ethanol. If it was truly killing skin cells, damaging tissues, and causing irritants to build up in the skin for decades, patients would have terrible outcomes. Wounds would never heal. Physicians and nurses would be sued for using isopropyl alcohol on wounds. So that is my point. I apologize if it was not clear before. 3.) Paula does say that application of rubbing alcohol will cause catastrophic results after rubbing it on the skin. She directly cites a study that puts skin cells in ethanol culture, and uses that to 'prove' that ethanol kills cellular DNA. But it doesn't - skin cells in water culture will die as well. I worked as a cell culture specialist in laboratories previously, and I can tell you honestly, cells need a specific mix of nutrients in order to survive. 4.) There is definitely a benefit to adding alcohol to skin care formulations. Not all of them, but some of them, absolutely. Just as you said a single dose of rubbing alcohol will not cause irreparable harm to your skin in an earlier statement, nor will using a trace amount of alcohol on the skin as a part of a skin care product. I have the utmost respect for Paula and how she pioneered this field - my career wouldn't be possible without her trailblazing it. I should not have titled this article with such a sensationalist title. That was wrong. That said, my only critique is that the public is becoming more educated and informed. Some of the conclusions she draws are incorrect from a scientific and/or clinical perspective, and some of the studies she cites are not relevant to the topic at hand. If we are all going to coexist (FutureDerm, Paula Begoun, our friends at the Beauty Brains and Truth in Aging) - we need to do checks and balances on each other. Not only is this going to create friendly competition, but it's going to lead to better information for interested parties.

  39. Jennifer
    August 29 2013 at 12:49 PM

    Thank you so much for an informative article that breaks down and explains the research behind this topic. Like many people today, I am concerned about my skincare products' ingredients and heavily research them (through the Truth in Aging site, SkinDeep database, FutureDerm, and others). I recently started using a natural skincare line that has given me great results (Arcona) and was researching the Alcohol Denat. in the ingredients, one of the only questionable ingredients I found. That led me to the Paula's Choice website and the alcohol entry in the ingredients dictionary list. The entry was so alarmist--that "There is actually a significant amount of research showing alcohol causes free-radical damage in skin even at low levels"--that I considered discontinuing using Arcona. I love all the other Arcona ingredients and the results I feel have been truly transformative. I never accept a single site's take on something, though, so I spent a week researching this topic. First I looked at the cited sources in the alcohol entry in PC's ingredient list. The first three I researched were not available online. The fourth one I found seemed to be only about alcohol consumption, not alcohol topically applied. That seemed to align with the Alcohol Denatured entry in the EWG's Skin Deep cosmetic database: "Potential risks from ethanol in personal care products are significantly smaller than the health risks posed by the consumption of alcohol." I kept researching and could not find a single other online document proving alcohol causes free-radical damage except for the PC website and others citing her website. That's when I found this post. Thank goodness! I was happy to see that my very unprofessional research as a consumer and non-expert aligned with what you found (in #1). And I was glad you were able to find the additional sources and explain what the studies really mean.

    It took me nearly a full week to find the answers I was looking for, and I'm grateful to you for providing them. This experience makes me wonder how many people follow advice without researching it themselves. I know that I will always check multiple sources when I want answers.

  40. Chris
    October 2 2013 at 4:42 PM

    Don't know if anyone has already mentioned this, but Paula's own Recovery Super Antioxidant Concentrate Serum with Retinol contains SD-Alcohol 40. Even though it's the last ingredient, it's still in there.

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