The festive season might have left your liquor cabinet dry, but there’s probably still some booze lurking in your bathroom cupboard. And while it’s obvious you shouldn’t be taking a big swig of your favourite lotions, serums and mists*, I’m here to tell you that you might want to refrain from putting some alcohol carrying products on your face, too.
So, if Alcohol is bad, why is it in so many of our skincare products?
Well, it’s much more complicated than that. There are many different types of alcohol, some good, and some bad. And the contentious alcohols are used for certain results driven reasons, which makes them hard to abolish them all together.
Which Alcohols are bad for our skin and why?
Derived from ethyl alcohol, the harmful types have a low molecular weight and tend to crop up in your ingredients lists as: Ethanol, Ethyl Alcohol, SD Alcohol, SD Alcohol 40, Benzyl Alcohol, Denatured Alcohol, Methanol, Isopropyl Alcohol, Denatured Alcohol and Alcohol Denat. Used for their ability to give products a weightless feel and to enable ingredients like Vitamin C and Retinol to penetrate the skin quickly and seamlessly, they seem like a blessing.
However, their silky texture and penetrative properties come at the price of your skin’s natural barrier function. The aggressive alcohol breaks down the layer known as the stratum corneum (in science terms) that acts as a bouncer protecting against irritants, aggressors and pollutants. So when the barrier is weakened, and therefore not functioning, your skin is vulnerable to inflammation, sensitivity, and attack from free-radicals, which studies have shown can result in anything from eczema to acne and rosacea. Alcohol will also immediately rid the skin of oil, really drying it out, which is why it is used in many anti-acne products to instantly reduce sebum, and in theory stop spots in their tracks. Sounds ideal, right? Not quite. Clinical studies show that the immediate dryness can cause skin to panic and produce more oil, which will only worsen the acne in the long run.. Scary stuff.
Thanks to our continuously booming beauty industry, there are plenty of smart, accessible alternatives that allow your skin to thrive, avoiding these types of alcohol altogether. But a good rule of thumb is, if you spot any of these harmful types lurking near the top of your ingredients list, don’t risk it.
Which Alcohols aren’t so bad?
The non-damaging types of alcohol are benign. Known as fatty alcohols, they’re derived from fats and oils and used as humectants for hydration and to deliver ingredients to the upper layers of our skin. They also have a higher molecular weight than their evil counterparts and tend to go by the names of: Glycol, Cetyl Alcohol, Cetearyl Alcohol, Lauryl Alcohol, Myristyl Alcohol, Stearyl Alcohol and C12-16. It’s also worth noting that there are two types of non-fatty alcohols that won’t threaten your skin’s natural barrier, called Butylene Glycol and Propenediol.
*They go through a process called denaturing, anyway, which makes them undrinkable.