Alcohol in skincare: the good, the bad and the ugly

When it comes to ingredients in our skincare there’s a short list that many of us avoid. Parabens, sulfates, mineral oils and oxybenzone typically sit at the top of that list, and for good reason: these ingredients have been found to be harmful to our skin, bodies, the environment, or a combination of those things. In recent years many people have added alcohol to that list, but is alcohol in skincare actually bad? Are all alcohols created equal? We’re digging in to see what’s safe and to separate the good from the bad.

The bad: simple alcohols

If you’ve added alcohol to your naughty list it’s probably because of simple alcohols. Ingredients like isopropyl alcohol, denatured alcohol, SD alcohol, and ethyl alcohol (the same type of alcohol you’d find in your cocktail!) have been used in cosmetics for years. These ingredients are typically added to help products go on and absorb more easily or help ingredients dissolve. They’re particularly popular in products designed for oily skin as they can dissolve surface oil and allow products to feel more weightless.

But these benefits come at a cost. When simple alcohol is in skincare it can dry out skin and weaken the skin’s protective barrier, which impacts its ability to stay healthy. When you see these simple alcohols at the top of the ingredients list there’s cause for concern, but regardless of where they sit on the ingredients list they will do some amount of damage to skin.

The good: fatty alcohols

While simple alcohols dry out and erode the skin’s surface, fatty alcohols are non-irritating and can be beneficial for skin. These alcohols, including cetyl (product thickener), cetearyl (an emulsifier), and stearyl (an emollient), are derived from fats and oils and help products feel thick and luxurious. They also help skin draw in moisture and improve its lipid barrier.

So do fatty alcohols get the gold star? Well, it’s complicated here too, because these ingredients can also clog pores.

The ugly

In this category we’d put those tequila shots we did last summer 😉 Just kidding—a high concentration of simple alcohol in skincare products (most frequently old school toners or moisturizers) is about as bad as it gets.

The bottom line

Even though simple alcohols can help products feel light and oily skin feel degreased, they can do real damage to the skin. At the very least we recommend avoiding any products with these listed in the first few ingredients—save it for happy hour!

Want all the good stuff?

We started Kura to take the guesswork out of skincare. It’s why we share 101 on everything from how to wash your face to intel on how your sheets could be causing breakouts. But it’s also why we created a simple quiz and a smart algorithm to connect you with the right products and ingredients for your individual needs.

To get started with routine built around you, create a skin profile at kuraskin.com and we’ll take care of the rest.

Good and bad alcohols in skincare

Good alcoholsBad alcohols
Cetearyl alcoholAlcohol
Cetyl alcoholAlcohol Denat.
Stearyl alcoholDenature alcohol
C12-16Ethanol
Lauryl alcoholEthanol alcohol
Myristyl alcoholMethanol
GlycolBenzyl alcohol
Butylene glycolIsopropyl alcohol
PropanediolSD alcohol
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