Alcohol in Skincare: The Facts
Recommended Alcohol-Free Products
Bad vs. Good Alcohol in Cosmetic Formulas
When we express concern about the presence of alcohol in skincare or makeup products, we’re referring to ethanol, which you’ll most often see listed as SD alcohol, isopropyl alcohol, or alcohol denat. (denatured alcohol) on the ingredient label. These types of volatile alcohols give products a quick-drying finish that feels weightless on skin, so it’s easy to see their appeal, especially for those with oily skin.
When listed among the first five ingredients on an ingredient label, without question these types of alcohol will cause irritation, and that’s bad for all skin types. Irritation from alcohol causes dryness and free-radical damage, and hurts the skin’s ability to heal, keeping it in a near-constant state of stress.
In contrast, there are other types of alcohols, known as fatty alcohols, which are NOT irritating in the least. Examples you’ll see on ingredient labels include cetyl, stearyl, and cetearyl alcohol. All of these are good ingredients for dry skin, and in small amounts fine for any skin type. It’s important to discern these beneficial forms of alcohol from the problematic types of alcohol.
So now you’re probably wondering: If SD alcohol and the like are so bad for skin, why do so many skincare companies include these forms of alcohol in their products? One reason is that alcohol is often used to keep a formula stable and/or to make an otherwise thick formulation feel almost weightless, creating a deceptively pleasant aesthetic. That’s good for the product, but bad for your skin.
Likewise, you may have heard that alcohol is a good ingredient because it helps other ingredients like retinol and vitamin C penetrate skin more effectively. Although it’s true that it does enhance absorption of ingredients, the alcohol also destroys skin’s barrier, the very substances that keep your skin healthy over the long term. There are certainly other, gentler ways to get good ingredients to penetrate skin, without damaging its barrier, an issue that causes more problems than benefits.
How Alcohol Damages Skin + Makes Breakouts Worse
Alcohol immediately harms skin and starts a chain reaction of damage that continues long after it has evaporated. A 2003 study, published in the Journal of Hospital Infection, found that with regular exposure to alcohol-based products, the skin is no longer able to keep water and cleansing agents from penetrating, thus further eroding the skin’s barrier.
If your skin is oily, it can be tempting to use alcohol-based products because they provide an immediate matte finish, essentially de-greasing the “oil slick.” The irony of using alcohol-based treatments to control oily skin is that the damage from alcohol can lead to an increase in breakouts, enlarge pores, and makes inflammation worse. The result is that the discolorations leftover from acne stay around for much longer than they would otherwise.[3, 4]
And get this: Alcohol can stimulate oil production at the base of the pore, so the immediate de-greasing effect is eventually counteracted, prompting your oily skin to produce even more oil.[5, 6] Talk about spinning your wheels!
If Alcohol is Bad, Why is it Used to Clean Wounds?
Nowadays, most medical professionals do not use alcohol to clean wounds, so this is less of an issue than you might think. Not only is alcohol destructive, it's also ineffective at sterilizing wounded, open skin. According to a report in Dermatology Clinics Journal, "…studies have demonstrated little benefit in [alcohol and topical antiseptics] disinfecting open wounds. Antiseptics are inactivated by organic matter such as clotted blood, serum, pus, and foreign bodies." Although alcohol disinfects skin, which is why the doctor or nurse often swabs your skin before giving you a shot, applying alcohol to an open wound is incredibly harmful—physicians clean wounds with either sterile water, saline solution, or iodine.
Alcohol & Skin Cells: For the Science Lovers
Need more proof that alcohol is bad for skin? Small amounts (about 3% alcohol, but keep in mind skincare products contain amounts ranging from 5% to 60% or more) applied to skin cells in lab settings over the course of two days increased cell death by 26%. It also destroyed the substances naturally present in cells that reduce inflammation and defend against free radicals; so, not only does alcohol crash your healthy-complexion party—it trashes the furniture, too!
The damage to skin cells continues as exposure to alcohol causes them to self-destruct. Literally—they just give up and go boom, and the longer the exposure to alcohol continues, the worse it gets for your skin. The same study found that only two days of exposure was dramatically more harmful than one day of exposure, and that was using an alcohol concentration of less than 10%, which is much lower than what's in many alcohol-based skincare products. Now that’s sobering news!
The research is clear: Alcohol harms your skin’s protective barrier, triggers free-radical damage, incites inflammation, and makes oily skin and redness worse. To put it simply, it’s pro-aging. Given the hundreds of skin-friendly alternatives that are available, it’s a no-brainer to abstain from products front-loaded with the skin damaging forms of alcohol. And just to reiterate, the fatty alcohols such as cetyl, stearyl, and cetearyl alcohol are perfectly fine to use on skin, especially if you have dry skin, as these ingredients are moisturizing.
The Best Skin of Your Life Starts Here: The same type of in-depth scientific research used to create this article is also used to formulate Paula’s Choice Skincare products. You’ll find products for all skin types and a range of concerns, from acne and sensitive skin to wrinkles, pores, and sun damage. With Paula’s Choice Skincare, you can get (and keep) the best skin of your life! Learn more at Shop Paula's Choice.
- Kwak S, Brief E, Langlais D, Kitson N, Lafleur M, Thewalt J. Ethanol perturbs lipid organization in models of stratum corneum membranes: An investigation combining differential scanning calorimetry; infrared and (2)H NMR spectroscopy. Biochim Biophys Acta. 2012;1818(5):1410-9.
- Kownatzki E. Hand hygiene and skin health. J Hosp Infect. 2003;55(4):239-45.
- Toyoda M, Nakamura M, Morohashi M. Neuropeptides and sebaceous glands. Eur J Dermatol. 2002;12(5):422-7.
- Toyoda M, Morohashi M. New aspects in acne inflammation. Dermatology. 2003;206(1):17-23.
- Kurokawa I, Danby F, Ju Q, Wang X, Xiang L, Xia L, Chen W, Nagy I, Picardo M, Suh D, et al. New developments in our understanding of acne pathogenesis and treatment. Exp Dermatol. 2009;18(10):821-32.
- Makrantonaki E, Ganceviciene R, Zouboulis C. An update on the role of the sebaceous gland in the pathogenesis of acne. Dermatoendocrinol. 2011;3(1):41-49.
- Cho Y, Lo J. Dressing the part. Derm Clin J. 1998;16(1):25-47.
- Neuman M, Haber J, Malkiewicz I, Cameron R, Katz G, Shear N. Ethanol signals for apoptosis in cultured skin cells. Alcohol Int Bio J. 2002;26(3):179-90.