When it comes to ingredients, alcohol seems to have developed a reputation for being as bad for our skin as it is for our health. Often associated with leaving skin stripped and drier than a glass of crisp Sauvignon Blanc, are our beauty products better if they opt to stay sober? It’s a topic that’s given rise to a lot of debate over the years and the answer is far from clear-cut. However, as with our drinking habits, the solution appears to lie in moderation rather than on complete abstinence.
“There’s a lot of confusion and misinformation regarding alcohol and its role within skincare on the internet,” comments Dr Anjali Mahto , consultant dermatologist at the Cadogan Clinic. “Most people seem to have a negative connotation with it due to its ability to dry the skin. However, this is only partly true as the effects of alcohol actually depend on the type and the quantity of the ingredient within a product, as well as how suitable it is for your skin type.”
From its different guises to its different properties, here’s our guide to better understanding the hazy world of alcohols and skincare.
1. Some can be good for dry skin types
Contrary to popular belief, there are specific types of alcohol that can actually help hydrate rather than dehydrate. “Known as ‘fatty alcohols’, ingredients such as cetyl, stearyl and cetearyl alcohol, are often found in cleansing lotions and moisturisers as a thickening agent and emulsifier,” explains Dr Mahto. “Due to their ability to lock moisture into the skin and form a protective barrier that water can't penetrate, products with these ingredients can be beneficial for dry skin.”
Moisturisers that have put fatty alcohols to particularly good use in their ingredients lists in Dr Mahto’s opinion include Aveeno Daily Moisturising Body Lotion , £3.59, (with cetyl alcohol), and Avene Extremely Rich Compensating Face Cream , £16.49, (with cetyl alcohol). Pai Avocado and Jojoba Hydrating Day Cream, £32, (with cetearyl alcohol) also ranks highly with us, with its inclusion of omegas 3 and 6 and organic oils helping to deliver long-lasting moisture to parched skin types.
2. Some types can be problematic for the acne-prone
While certain alcohols can be beneficial for dry skin, the breakout-prone should exercise caution - particular types can actually make concerns such as acne worse. As Dr Mahto explains: “Alcohol is often used in skincare and cosmetics as a carrier to help other ingredients sink into the skin or for its astringent properties as a treatment for oily types - this can be a problem for acne-prone skin, as dryness may result in oil glands going into overdrive and cause spots to appear.” Dr Mahto highlights ethanol or ethyl alcohol, denatured alcohol, methanol, isopropyl alcohol, SD alcohol and benzyl alcohol as the main troublemakers. In her experience, where one or more are found at the top of the ingredients list of a product, it means they are of a high enough concentration to be problematic for acne-prone skin.
If you’re looking for a cleanser hard-working enough for oily or acneic skin types and that follows the above guidelines, Dr Mahto recommends trying La Roche-Posay Toleriane Dermo-Cleanser , £9.38, or Avene Cleanance Cleansing Gel , £10.49. We’d also recommend the sebum-sapping Vichy Normaderm Purifying Cleansing Gel , £12, for oily skin types and for a more targeted treatment, La Roche Posay Effaclar Duo + , £16, a daily gel moisturiser that hydrates and tackles blemishes.
In summary: not all alcohols are created equal. Some are of some benefit to the skin while others can be counterproductive - it all depends on the types present in your products, their concentrations and your skin type. “Most of the beauty advice about alcohol is negative and tells you to avoid it; the problem with this rule though is that alcohol is a general term and there are actually many different types with many different properties,” says Dr Mahto. And while there might be other ingredients that boast greater skincare credentials when it comes to say, hydrating dry skin types as per the point made in 1 above, the overriding message here is that all alcohols aren’t to be feared.
That being said though, there are certain types that have a greater tendency to be more drying than others and specific skin types would be best advised to steer clear of high concentrations of them. “Avoid any products with ethanol or ethyl alcohol, denatured alcohol, methanol, isopropyl alcohol, SD alcohol and benzyl alcohol listed at the top of the ingredients list, especially if you have problem-prone or dry skin,” recommends Dr Mahto. “Alcohol-based toners can also be very drying on the skin and so I do not recommend them, particularly for those with sensitive skin, eczema or allergies.”
Being label aware is key and so to provide a useful guide for identifying some of alcohol’s most common guises and understanding their different functions, pharmacist, cosmetologist and founder of Twelve Beauty Pedro Catala has devised the below list of other buzzwords to help make sense of it all.
- Cetearyl alcohol: gives consistency to emulsions and is derived from palm kernel and/or coconut oil.
- Behenyl alcohol: gives consistency to emulsions and comes from rapeseed oil.
- Myristyl alcohol: gives consistency to emulsions and comes from palm kernel and/or coconut oil.
- Cetostearyl alcohol: a synthetic emulsifier. You might read it in traditional barrier creams under the name: cetomacrogol 1000.
- Cetylstearyl alcohol: is a synthetic emulsifier. You might read it in traditional barrier creams under the name: cetomacrogol emulsifying wax.
- Cetyl alcohol: gives consistency to emulsions and comes from palm kernel and/or coconut oil.
- Stearyl alcohol: gives consistency to emulsions (thickener) and comes from palm kernel and/or coconut oil.
- Benzyl alcohol: can be a solvent, preservative or fragrance ingredient. It is found in different essential oils.