Alcohol in Skin Care: The Facts
Recommended Alcohol-Free Products
Can Alcohol Ever Be Good for Skin?
Surely, you think, there must be a good reason so many skin-care companies include alcohol in their products. Right? Of course, there are a few reasons, but in our experience, there are only two primary explanations. As mentioned above, alcohol can make a thick skin-care product feel almost weightless, creating a deceptively pleasant aesthetic.
The second reason is that your skin is very good at keeping ingredients out. Skin-protective substances (think lipids, enzymes, and antioxidants) act like little nightclub bouncers, keeping beneficial ingredients in your serums or other treatments from getting in. Alcohol helps ingredients like retinol and vitamin C penetrate into the skin more effectively, but it does that by breaking down the skin's barrier—destroying the very substances that keep your skin healthy over the long term. Like a cowboy in a bar fight scene from an Old Western movie, alcohol is hurling retinol through the windows of your skin's barrier without a second thought.
If Alcohol Evaporates, How Damaging Can it Be?
We understand the logic—if alcohol evaporates quickly, it seems reasonable that the damage will not be so severe. Unfortunately, research reveals that this logic is only wishful thinking. Alcohol immediately harms the skin and starts a chain reaction of damage that continues long after it has evaporated.
Once alcohol is done raiding your skin's barrier like a SWAT team, your skin isn't quite the same, and it won't be as good at protecting itself from further damage. A 2003 study published in the Journal of Hospital Infection 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 the skin's barrier.
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 many 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.
The consumer's go-to site for medical advice, WedMD, states that, "rubbing alcohol to clean an injury can actually harm the tissue and delay healing."
The Good Types of Alcohol
There's a class of ingredients known as fatty alcohols, which are not the least bit harmful for skin. Often confused with the bad alcohols, such as denatured alcohol, the fatty alcohols include, among others, cetyl alcohol and stearyl alcohol. Typically, fatty alcohols are used as emollients and thickeners in skin-care products. Fatty alcohols are not irritating and, in fact, can be beneficial for dry skin. As far as your skin is concerned, fatty alcohols are about as related to skin-damaging alcohol/ethanol as a martini is to a cup of olive oil.
Alcohol's Connection to Oily Skin and Acne
Alcohol has two benefits that could reasonably appeal to someone with acne and/or oily skin. Alcohol can kill acne-causing bacteria on the surface of the skin, which is why some swear by alcohol-based anti-acne products to reduce their breakouts. Alcohol also quickly de-greases skin, and that instant gratification is attractive to those with super-oily complexions.
Research demonstrates that alcohol-based anti-acne products increase both irritation and dryness, and this can make it harder for those battling acne to stick to their routine. Not surprisingly, the same research noted that anti-acne products that contain milder alternatives to alcohol were better for skin. The irony of using alcohol-based treatments is that the damage they cause leads to an increase of acne-causing bacteria, and makes inflammation worse, the consequence of which are red marks that stay around for much longer than they would otherwise.
For those with oily skin, alcohol can stimulate oil production at the base of the pore, so the immediate de-greasing effect is eventually counteracted by oily skin producing even more oil! Talk about spinning your wheels!
In many ways, alcohol-based products are the handsome bad boys of skin care—flashy, attractive, even dangerous, but we all know it's a relationship that's going to do more harm than good.
Alcohol & Skin Cells: For the Science Lovers
We must include the facts on how alcohol affects skin cells, because it's a free-radical bonanza. Small amounts of alcohol applied to skin cells in lab settings (about 3% alcohol, but keep in mind skin-care products contain amounts ranging from 5% to 60% or more) over the course of two days increased cell death by 26%. It also destroyed the substances 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! Worst skin-care guest ever.
The damage to cells continues, and it's not pretty: Exposure to alcohol causes skin cells to literally self-destruct. Seriously—they just give up and go boom, and the longer the exposure to alcohol continues, the worse it gets for your skin cells. 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 skin-care products.
This research clearly demonstrates the connection between free-radical damage to skin cells and alcohol exposure. Interestingly, this is exceptionally similar to the free-radical damage that results from excessive consumption of alcohol in the short and long term. Cheers to that? We think not!
Our team always asks when reviewing a product ingredient list: "What benefits does an ingredient have for skin or to the formulation, and if an ingredient has some negative aspect, can another ingredient with no downside be used instead?" In the case of alcohol-based products, because we know they're always bad news for skin (whether you're seeing the damage now or 10 years from now), it doesn't make any sense to use them given that there are more advanced alternatives. We here at Paula's Choice don't develop SD alcohol/ethanol-based products for the same reason we don't take a horse and buggy to work, it's an antiquated way to formulate cosmetics.
The research is clear: Alcohol harms your skin's protective barrier, triggers free-radical damage, makes oily skin and redness worse, and is best described as "pro-aging." Why bother, given the damaging effects of topical alcohol and the hundreds of skin-friendly alternatives available?
Sources: Biochmica et Biophysica Acta (BBA), volume 1818, issue 5, May 2012, pages 1410–1419; Skinmed, January-February 2011, pages 15–21; Journal of Investigative Dermatology Symposium Proceedings, August 2009, pages 20–24; Clinical Dermatology, September-October 2004, pages 360–366; Journal of Investigative Dermatology, volume 120, 2003, pages 275–284; Journal of Hospital Infection, volume 55, issue 4, December 2003, pages 239–245; Dermatology, January 2003, pages 17–23; Alcohol, volume 26, issue 3, pages 179–190; Dermatologic Clinics, volume 16, issue 1, January 1998, pages 25–47; and http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh27-4/277-284.htm.