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Are Beauty Products With Alcohol Safe? We Break It Down For You

The good, the bad, and why it’s best to proceed with caution

Imagine you’re at your local personal care store, scouring the shelves of the beauty aisle for a new facial wash or toner. You see one you’ve been eyeing on social media. Or one you’ve been using for ages. Either way, you flip it over to briefly go over the ingredients. One word stands out in stark relief: Alcohol. You remember everything you’ve read on the Internet. Suddenly you’re not so sure you want to buy it anymore. 

What’s the real score with alcohol in beauty products, anyway?

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To start, here’s a rundown of some types of alcohol you might find on product labels:

Ethanol / Ethyl Alcohol

The type of alcohol used in alcoholic beverages. Widely used as a solvent and is common in beauty products.

Denatured Alcohol / Alcohol Denat.

In a nutshell, this is ethanol with additives. To avoid paying hefty beverage taxes—the added chemicals makes it taste bad—cosmetics companies often use this in their formulations. It’s often found in makeup, lotions, fragrances, and skin, hair, and oral care products. 

Isopropyl Alcohol / Rubbing Alcohol

Yes, what you’ve been using to religiously disinfect your hands since the unthinkable happened. Most common in hair, skin, and nail care products, it serves as an astringent or antifoaming ingredient.

Benzyl Alcohol

An organic alcohol found in fruits and teas. It's used in makeup, cleansers, bath, and even baby products. 

Cetyl, Stearyl, Cetearyl, or Lanolin Alcohol

Fatty alcohols that are very different from what was mentioned up top. Found in hair conditioner, foundation, cleansers, and skincare products, they help moisturize skin and prevent oil and liquid from separating. 

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Based on this list alone, it’s safe to say there are both pros and cons to using alcohol in beauty products. They can dissolve oil and dirt, guard against microbial contamination, and help enhance the penetrative quality of other ingredients. If you have an oily complexion, you may find such alcohols particularly helpful because of the refreshing tightness they give the skin. They’re great for spot treatments as well, as they can easily dry up any infection.

However, experts say that the bad outweighs the good. If denatured, isopropyl, benzyl, and ethanol are listed as one of the first six on the label, the concentration is definitely high and they will prove cruel to your skin in the long run. Chronic use will disrupt the skin’s protective barrier, allowing moisture to escape, leaving it dry and inflamed. 

Classified as the “good” kind, fatty alcohols are non-toxic and well-tolerated by the skin. They lock in moisture via a protective barrier that is water-impenetrable, making them incredibly helpful. Those with dehydrated skin benefit from such ingredients.

So, should you skip out on the alcohol? Proceed with caution, but it’s probably best that you do. You can easily avoid the “bad” kind by switching to products classified as alcohol-free, which only contain the helpful variants. Take note of your skin type, understand how it may react to certain ingredients, and be mindful of how concentrated they are in any formula. Always check your labels and set an appointment with your dermatologist for any serious concerns. 

Lead photo by Mathilde Langevin on Unsplash

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