Alcohol in skincare was to the 80’s what parabens are in the 2010’s: Controversial, used by cosmetic chemists and dermatologists, but avoided at all costs by much of the masses.
I’m here to say alcohols are back, baby! And I’m not alone in touting the resurgence of alcohol. According to 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.”
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. Here, I’ll talk about four major classes of alcohols, how each impacts your skincare, and ultimately, your skin.
SD Alcohol 40, Isopropyl Alcohol, and Ethanol are Excellent Solvents for Thick Moisturizing Ingredients
Thin alcohols like SD alcohol 40, isopropyl alcohol, and ethanol are the best solvents for dissolving a number of constituents that are poorly soluble in water. Thin alcohols are also great at making a solution more palatable. When moisturizers contain a slew of thick hydrators like hyaluronic acid, shea butter, lanolin, glycerin, urea, and coconut oil, it can be impossible to get these goopy ingredients into a consumer-friendly form. But adding the right amount of alcohol thins the solution, without typically making the moisturizer drying for the skin.
Despite cosmetic chemists’ understanding of SD alcohol 40 as an excellent solvent, skin care buyers are often frightened of alcohols. There is the knowledge that SD alcohol can be drying when used at 100% concentration, but SD alcohol 40-containing skin care products typically contain only enough alcohol to thin the solution, not to dry out your skin.
There is also the widespread rumor that thin alcohols cause the death of skin cells. This comes from a study in which skin cells are put into a petri dish filled with ethanol and the cells die, undergoing a process known as apoptosis. That sounds scary, I know. But if you put skin cells into a petri dish filled with water, they also die, undergoing apoptosis!
We all know that water is not toxic for the skin, so what is going on? What is happening is that skin cells need a certain mix of water, nutrients, and micronutrients at a designated pH range in order to survive; scientists call this the “cell culture media.” It does not mean that water alone or alcohol alone are toxic for the skin.
Organic Grape Alcohol Is Heart-Friendly When Consumed, But May Not Have Significant Effects for the Skin
First, let’s talk about what grape alcohol is. Organic grape alcohol is made from organically grown grapes. In order to be certified “organic,” all phases of the production process, including fermentation, distillation, packaging, and shipping are done under strict organic guidelines.
In addition to being organically certified, if your grape alcohol is marked as “sustainable,” this means it must be produced in accordance with the values of sustainable development. Some of the elements of sustainable development are: certified organic farming methods, small scale production facilities, decentralized or localized economics, closed-loop production facilities, use of alternative energy, etc. (OrganicAlcohol).
The buzz around organic grape alcohol comes from a slew of studies surrounding red wine consumption. According to one study, men drinking red wine and gin saw increasing levels of a chemical signal called interleukin-10, which turns down inflammation. It was suggested that alcohol alone was behind that benefit.
In addition, the study found that drinking red wine, both with and without alcohol, lowered levels of other chemicals that encourage the formation of plaques in artery walls, suggesting that the healthy antioxidants called polyphenols in red wine (and in grapes specifically) might be responsible.
But this does appear to translate to skin care. The chemical properties of certain alcohols that make them key solvents, slip agents, emollients, and hydrating agents are not impacted by the fact that alcohol is derived from grapes or not. The additional antioxidant benefits from the polyphenols are likely not experienced by applying grape alcohol to the skin, either, because the delicate polyphenols are likely damaged in the fermentation or distillation processes.
So I would not buy a skincare product exclusively because it contains “grape alcohol.” I would, however, buy a product that has alcohols plus additional grape seed extract or grape seed oil, because then you can be assured the added polyphenols are more likely to be intact.
Butylene and Propylene Glycol Increase the Absorption of Ingredients Into the Skin, and Improve the Feel of Products on the Skin
I really like glycols. In the same manner thin alcohols like SD alcohol 40 “thin out” a solution and make it more palatable for the skin, glycols “thin out” a solution, but also simultaneously have enough “bulk” to them to also make them more water-binding and hence more hydrating than the thinner alcohols.
The internet rumor around glycols started about a decade ago, when people realized the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) can cause liver and kidney damage and act as a skin irritant. Considering that over 4000 beauty products in the U.S. alone contain propylene glycol, this was a big deal, to say the least.
However, MSDS sheets refer to 100% concentrations of a substance. In the very small concentrations used in skin care cosmetics, it is not a concern. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, propylene glycol is classified as GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe), and proclaims, “Studies have not shown these chemicals [propylene or the other glycols as used in cosmetics] to be carcinogens”.
There is only one minor concern: Propylene or butylene glycol may make your skin more susceptible to irritation when used with irritating skin care ingredients. Glycols enhance the penetration of other ingredients into the skin as an absorption enhancer. If you know you have sensitivity to alpha hydroxy acids, for instance, you may not want to apply your alpha hydroxy acid serum the same night as you use a moisturizer containing glycols. On the other hand, I, for one, know and trust a lot of cosmetic chemists, so I am less concerned when a formulated, tested, and certified product contains a potentially-irritating ingredient and a glycol or two.
Cetyl Alcohol, Cetearyl Alcohol, Cetostearyl Alcohol, Cetyl Alcohol 40, C12-15 Alcohol, Stearyl Alcohol, and Lanolin Alcohol: All with Fatty Acids Derived from Coconut — ALL Hydrating!
There are seven dense alcohols — cetyl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol, cetostearyl alcohol, cetyl alcohol 40, C12-15 alcohols, stearyl alcohol and lanolin alcohol — that are not drying or irriating. Instead, these agents are used in products as emulsifiers, thickening agents and stabilizers, allowing skin care products to have silky-smooth formulations.
In addition, lanolin alcohol and stearyl alcohols also act as moisturizing factors, so not only are they not drying, they are moisturizing.
Believing alcohol in skincare is bad for you is so thirty years ago!
There are four major classes of alcohols, all with benefits for your skin:
- The low molecular weight alcohols most commonly found include ethanol, ethyl alcohol, denatured alcohol, methanol, benzyl alcohol, isopropyl alcohol, and SD alcohol. (Denatured or “SD” means that the alcohols are processed so that they cannot be ingested.) These alcohols are typically used to “thin” a solution of otherwise thick, goopy, hydrating ingredients.
- Grape and other organic alcohols function most similarly to low molecular weight alcohols. Based on the data, I do not believe they have benefits in skincare over low molecular weight alcohols.
- Glycols like butylene glycol and propylene glycol function as penetration enhancers and slip agents, improving the absorption and feel of skincare products.
- The hydrating alcohols are 5C’s + “Stear Left.” In other words, cetyl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol, cetostearyl alcohol, cetyl alcohol 40, C12-15 alcohols, “Stear”yl alcohol and “L”anolin alcohol. These alcohols are used as emulsifiers, thickening agents, and stabilizers, allowing skin care products to have silky-smooth formulations.
While most alcohols are not advised to be used in 100% concentration on the skin, most are beneficial at the concentrations they are typically used in skin care products (0.1%-10.0%). Alcohols at these concentrations have amazing functions as penetration enhancers, slip agents, emollients, and hydrators. Let’s forget the rumor alcohol in skincare is bad for your skin!