Alcohol in Skincare Can Be Good (Seriously!)

Face cream woman

You have dry or sensitive skin. Your derm suggests you opt for alcohol-free skincare to avoid redness and flakes. You hit the drugstore, pick up a moisturizer, scan the ingredients and spot an exotic word with “alcohol” on its backside. No good. You pick up another. Same thing.

Out of 20 skincare products, at least 12 will contain some form of alcohol. Alcohols are an incredibly useful skincare ingredient. And if you have dry skin, they’re not all out of question for you. Here’s a quick organic chemistry lesson: Alcohol is a broad term for a group of chemicals with a common section in their chemical structure, which looks like a ball. The rest of the molecule is a chain. The ball always looks the same, but the chain varies, which is what determines how the alcohol looks and behaves on your skin.

Ethanol Is the Alcohol That Can Cause Dryness
When we talk about alcohol in general, we’re usually referring to ethanol. It’s the same stuff that’s in beer, wine and spirits, but slightly altered to taste so bitter that (hopefully) no one would dare to drink it – the last thing we want is for you to be tempted to down your toner.

Ethanol has a very simple chain and is a thin liquid that evaporates faster than water. Cosmetic chemists use it in skincare to speed up a product’s dry down time, reduce tack, and to introduce oil-based ingredients (fragrances, salicylic acid, etc.) into water. Because ethanol evaporates quickly, it may dissolve surface oils, then flash off, drying out skin. This can be irritating to some with sensitive skin.

Ethanol shows up on ingredient labels as: Alcohol Denat., SD Alcohol 3-A, SD Alcohol 30, SD Alcohol 39, SD Alcohol 39-B, SD Alcohol 39-C, SD Alcohol 40, SD Alcohol 40-B, SD Alcohol 40-C or just plain alcohol.

Many Alcohols Won’t Cause Dryness
Other common alcohols found on ingredient labels are referred to as “fatty” alcohols. They are the total opposite of ethanol, with much longer chains, and because of that, they’re usually waxy solids. They are used in skincare to help improve stability, adjust skin feel, or added as a moisturizer to body creams and lotions.

They’re commonly listed on labels as: cetyl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol, behenyl alcohol, arachidyl alcohol and myristyl alcohol.

Bottom line: The “Alcohol-free” claim only applies to the more simplistic forms of alcohol, like ethanol. So if you’re avoiding alcohol because your skin is dry or sensitive, look for this claim. But if the ingredient label has other alcohols listed on it, don’t worry – they’re the moisturizing type.

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