“Alcohol,” the term, refers to a group of organic compounds with a vast range of forms and uses, in cosmetics and in other areas. For skin, there are good alcohols and bad alcohols, corresponding roughly to high-molecular-weight alcohols and low-molecular-weight alcohols, respectively, which can have emollient properties or act as detergent cleansing agents. There also are benign forms, including glycols, which are used as humectants to help deliver ingredients into skin.
Alcohols with low molecular weights—the bad-for-skin alcohols—can be drying and sensitizing. The alcohols to be concerned about in skincare products are ethanol or ethyl alcohol, denatured alcohol, methanol, isopropyl alcohol, SD alcohol, and benzyl alcohol (when one or more of these are listed among the main ingredients; tiny amounts aren’t a problem).
In addition to being drying and sensitizing, these alcohols can disrupt skin’s surface layers. Alcohol helps ingredients like retinol and vitamin C penetrate into the skin more effectively, but it does that by breaking down the surface layers of skin—destroying the very substances that keep your skin feeling healthier over the long term.
Alcohol immediately harms the skin and starts a chain reaction of damage that continues long after it has evaporated. A 2003 study published found that with regular exposure to alcohol-based products, cleansing becomes a damaging ordeal—skin is no longer able to keep water and cleansing agents from penetrating into it, thus further eroding its surface layers.
It also destroyed the substances in skin that help soothe and defend against environmental damage.
If that weren’t bad enough, exposure to alcohol causes healthy substances in skin to self-destruct. The research also showed that these destructive, aging effects on skin’s substances increased the longer the exposure to alcohol; that is, two days of exposure was dramatically more harmful than one day, and that is only a 3% concentration.
When alcohol ingredients are at the top of an ingredient list, they are problematic for all skin types; when they are near the bottom of an ingredient list, they aren’t present in a high enough concentration to be considered a problem for skin.
References for this information:
Biochimica et Biophysica Acta, May 2012, issue 4, page 1410
The Journal of Hospital Infection, December 2003, issue 4, pages 239-245