If you look through the ingredients on your cosmetic and skincare products, you may find that the word alcohol comes up a lot. You may find in the form of denatured alcohol, isopropyl alcohol, cetyl alcohol, or stearyl alcohol. In this post I’ll be looking at what these different types of alcohols are and whether or not you want them in your cosmetics products.
You’ll find alcohol in cosmetic and skincare ingredient list across the board, but not all of these alcohols are the same. Generally there are two main classes of alcohol ingredients: simple alcohols and fatty alcohols. Simple alcohol is not a completely well defined term, but it generally includes short carbon chain alcohols such as methanol, ethanol, and isopropyl alcohol. You may often see simple alcohols with the word denatured. Denatured alcohol means that the alcohol has a denaturing ingredient that makes it have an unpleasant taste. Denatured alcohols are often used as antimicrobial agents in industrial products. Fatty alcohols are derived from natural fats and oils and have much higher molecular weight than simple alcohols. These alcohols have longer carbon chains, and, due to their amphipathic nature (possessing both hydrophilic and hydrophobic components), they can function as surfactants as well as emollients and thickeners.
(Left) Isopropyl Alcohol, a simple alcohol comprised of a short three carbon chain. (Right) Cetyl Alcohol, a fatty alcohol comprised of a long sixteen carbon chain.
Knowing that both of these types of alcohols may appear in your cosmetic and skin care products, are they safe for use on the skin? Fatty acids are generally seen as quite safe for the skin and even beneficial. Because of their long hydrophobic carbon chains, fatty alcohols have wax-like, oily properties. This makes them perfect as emollients, which can soften and soothe the skin. They can function as occlusives (like Vaseline) that form a barrier on the skin to trap moisture. Fatty alcohols are also popular in cosmetics products as a thickener to give us those thick, luxurious cosmetic creams we love.
Fatty alcohols can help give us those thick creamy moisturizes like this First Aid Beauty Ultra Repair Cream. This specific moisturizer contains cetearyl alcohol (source: sephora.com)
All in all, you don’t really need to worry about fatty alcohols in your cosmetics products. That being said, there has been evidence that some people can be sensitive to some fatty alcohols like cetyl alcohol. If you find that products containing certain fatty alcohols trigger itchy, burning, or uncomfortable skin, you may have an allergy to the ingredient and should avoid it. However, the majority of the general population does not have this sensitivity.
While fatty alcohols are generally seen as safe in cosmetics, the jury is still out on simple alcohols. According to a study in 2003, simple alcohol antiseptics used for hand hygiene by medical professionals caused damage to the lipid barrier of the skin and, consequently, hand problems. Additionally, a study in 2011 concluded that alcohol, specifically ethanol, can induce apoptosis (cell death) in skin cells. But before you throw out all your products containing simple alcohols, consider the conditions of these studies. As with all chemical toxicity, you must consider the dosage of the chemical in question.A medical professional is likely using significantly more alcohol antiseptics than the average person, and cosmetics also contain many different ingredients than a general antiseptic. Also note that the 2011 study was conducted in vitro, meaning that it used lab grown skin cells, rather than in vivo, using skin cells in a living organism.
Image taken from rfthatcher.com
While an in vitro study can give some insights, we can’t necessarily apply it to a full organism until an in vivo study is performed. What this tells us is that the science is not in agreement on the safety of simple alcohols in cosmetic products.
While the science of the safety of simple alcohols is not clear, one thing is clear — they can be very drying. Simple alcohols are volatile due to their short carbon chains, meaning that they have low boiling points and evaporate at lower temperatures. This can cause them to be quite drying to the skin. If you have dry and sensitive skin, you probably want to avoid products with simple alcohols in them, especially those with simple alcohols in the first five ingredients (remember that the high up the ingredient is on the ingredient list, the greater amount it’s in).
The very first ingredient is denatured alcohol in a liquid lipstick. Yikes! Talk about some dry lips! Lipsense liquid lip color ingredients taken from seneweb.senegence.com.
The science on alcohols in cosmetic and skincare products is still developing, but checking out your products’ ingredient list for alcohols can still give you some useful information. So if you’re getting sensitive or dry skin, check out the ingredients on your cosmetics products — alcohols may be to blame.