Alcohol in Skin Care: When Should You Avoid It, and When Is It Beneficial?

Photographer: Maria del RioProduct Credit: American Apparel BodysuitRestrictions: Editorial and internal use only. No advertising, no print.
POPSUGAR Photography | Maria del Rio
POPSUGAR Photography | Maria del Rio

If you've ever read the back of any beauty product, you've probably noticed a laundry list of words you can't pronounce, with one exception: alcohol. It comes in many forms in beauty products, but are some more harmful than others. However, not all alcohol in skin care is bad. We spoke to dermatologist Sharon Crichlow to find out once and for all which alcohols you should stay away from and which are perfectly fine to see on the labels of your favorite moisturizer.

When is alcohol bad in skin care?

Dr. Crichlow says that alcohol being harmful in skin care all depends on the type of alcohol used and its purpose. "In general, simple alcohols and aromatic alcohols act as solvents and dissolve the protective lipids, reinforcing the outer layer of the skin," she said. "This dehydrates and damages the skin, inducing an irritant dermatitis. This damage to the protective barrier of the skin also allows easier penetration of other harmful ingredients from cosmetic products into the skin, which can worsen the dermatitis." These types of alcohol can appeal to those with oily skin, as they provide an instant nongreasy and mattifying finish. However, beware that they can worsen the problem long term, as this drying can cause the skin's oil production to increase. Not ideal.

Which ingredients listed with alcohol will not harm the skin?

Unlike simple alcohols, Dr. Crichlow says that fatty alcohols and esters of alcohol can help the skin. These are used to thicken creams and ointments and act as emollients, helping the skin to retain moisture. When used in the appropriate formulations at the right concentrations, these products will not harm the skin in the vast majority of people. They can, however, still clog pores to produce acne, and they are still capable of causing allergic contact dermatitis in a small proportion of more susceptible individuals.

So what do we look out for on labels?

Ones to avoid or use with care:

  • Ethanol
  • Propanol
  • Denatured alcohol
  • Ethyl alcohol
  • Methanol
  • Isopropyl alcohol
  • SD alcohol
  • Benzyl alcohol

Ones that can be beneficial to the skin:

  • Cetyl alcohol
  • Stearyl or isostearyl alcohol
  • Cetearyl alcohol
  • Lauryl alcohol
  • Isopropyl myristate
  • Isopropyl palmitate
  • Glyceryl stearate