Alcohol, you are our biggest love/hate relationship. We really hate you for so, so many reasons (sore head, nausea, feeling of impending doom etc.), but for some unexplainable reason, despite all of your wrongdoings, our love for you never falters. And, unfortunately, the tumultuous relationship goes well beyond a wild night out
Because actually, our relationship with alcohol in our skincare is just as complex. We’re profusely warned off potentially drying alcohols by experts, but finding a product without a single drop isn’t easy. So what’s the deal? If it’s really that bad for our skin, why does it keep popping up on ingredient lists?
The answer, as you’ve probably already guessed, isn’t that straight forward. First up, it’s important to understand that when we’re referring to ‘alcohol’ we’re actually talking about a whole bunch of different ingredients. If you cast your mind back to GCSE science lessons, you might remember briefly learning all about alcohols as organic compounds. If you’re struggling to recall, don’t worry too much. The key takeaway is that although all alcohols have a chemical common denominator (or are a ‘homologous series’ if you’re feeling science-y), they can have vastly different properties – and the alcohols in your skincare are no different.
While some have the power to plump, hydrate and put your skin in a general state of happiness, others risk seriously damaging your skin barrier, leaving your face red, dry and irritated. To save your skin the drama and help you decipher exactly which alcohols are worth your time and which ones aren’t, we’ve compiled a handy guide to alcohols in skincare. Your complexion can thank us later…
What is the purpose of alcohol as an ingredient?
Generally speaking, a huge amount of skincare products are formulated with alcohols for preservation and ‘carrying’ purposes. Simply put, they’re included to either delay the amount of time it takes for a product to ‘go off’ or to ‘carry’ other ingredients.
Both of these things are very important in ensuring our skincare products work to their highest potential. Without alcohols to act as preservatives, your products risk having super short shelf-lives and going off before you have the chance to finish them – something you really want to avoid for both financial and environmental reasons. Having ingredients that act as ‘carriers’ in products is also of utmost importance. On their own, many important and beneficial ingredients can’t easily penetrate the skin and require a‘carrier’, or in this case an alcohol, to do so.
On top of that, they’re also commonly used to counteract oil production. Co-founder of Harley Street Skin, Lesley Reynolds explains: “Often, alcohols are included in skincare as a way to degrease oily skin. Alcohols have a drying effect, so people with oilier skin types tend to like this.”
What are the side effects?
While the reasons for including alcohols are no doubt valid and important, there are many issues to do with how the skin reacts to them. “Alcohols can damage the skin’s natural protective layer and seriously reduce the presence of the natural oils your skin needs to stay healthy. They are very drying and harsh on the skin, causing irritation and detracting from the skin’s natural regeneration,” says Lesley.
Lesley warns to look out for Isopropyl, Denatured and SD alcohols on ingredients lists if you want to steer clear of potential irritation.
Are all alcohols considered ‘bad’?
As explained previously, not all alcohols do the same thing. And while if any of the above alcohols are listed as a main ingredient you risk irritation, that’s not to say all alcohols are damaging. Lesley advises: “Fatty alcohols are considered good for the skin. They are non-drying, non-irritating and can be beneficial for dry skin. They leave a smooth texture and work to stabilise other ingredients in products.”
So how do you know which products include what alcohols? We wish it was as easy as spotting the word ‘alcohol’ on the back of a bottle and knowing to put it down. Unfortunately, even fatty alcohols are listed as alcohols. As a rule, Cetyl, Stearyl and Cetearyl Alcohol are good the kind.
What skin types should steer clear of ‘bad’ alcohols?
If you want to keep your skin in check, it’s best to keep away from any products that list a ‘bad’ alcohol high on its ingredients list. However, Lesley advises that those with certain skin types should stay away if they want their skin to thank them. “In particular, those with dry and/or sensitive skin should stay away from alcohols at all costs. Also, people with oily skin types that like the ‘drying effect’ should reconsider. Alcohols can actually lead to open pores and more spots as the skin becomes compromised. If skin is very dry, the body gets a message to produce more oil to combat the dryness and for oily skin types this can be a disaster.”