A Primer On Alcohol In Skincare


A few weeks ago, I was battling snakeskin lips. It was a peeling, flaking mess. Constantly applying one of those not-very-expensive drugstore lip balms, the situation only seemed to get worse. It was annoying (and counterintuitive) enough that I booked an appointment with my dermatologist to assess the situation.

After a quick consultation and evaluation of the product I was relying on, my derm isolated the problem: it was the balm. Turns out, what I was using contained isopropyl alchohol, a type of alcohol that was responsible for leaving my lips parched. This got me thinking—how many of my daily go-to products have alcohol in them, and how bad is that for my skin?

The short answer is there's alcohol in just about everything I was using, from eye cream to shampoo to face masks. However, like many short answers, it's not a complete assessment of the issue at hand.

The consensus on alcohol in skincare is confusing (one expert says it’s fine; another expert says it’s not) and while you might know that there’s a little bit of alcohol in most products, the type of alcohol listed in the ingredients matters more than you think. I called up Dr. Jessica Krant, a dermatologist at the Art of Dermatology in New York, for a breakdown.

First, she explained that not all alcohols are created equal: Some alcohols are derivatives of ethyl alcohol, which we’ll call “simple alcohol.” Those can be very drying. This is the same type of alcohol you’d find in a cocktail (and just think of how dry you feel when you're hung over). Simple alcohols—mostly listed as isopropyl and ethanol—can destroy the skin’s lipid barrier over time, if used in excess.

But then there are fatty alcohols (let's call them “fancy alcohols”) which are used to keep mixtures thick. Fancy alcohols—anything called cetyl, cetearyl, or behenyl—are derived from fats and oils, so they can actually be moisturizing as opposed to drying.

Armed with that distinction, I did another close-read on the ingredients in my beauty products. Most things contained the fancier strains of alcohols (behenyl, to be specific), so my eye cream, moisturizer, and my new-favorite sleeping facial from Korres all stayed put in my cabinet. I did decide to ditch my toner and replaced it with Thayers Alcohol-Free Rose Petal Witch Hazel, because it's gentler than ethyl alcohol and makes my face smell like a Valentine’s Day bouquet.

Dr. Krant’s bottom line was to avoid anything with simple alcohol listed among its first few ingredients and to stop using anything that made my skin feel dry—but mostly, “just use what you enjoy.” Definitely can do.

—Arielle Pardes

Photo by ITG.

Arielle is a writer in Los Angeles, where she is constantly reapplying sunscreen and second-guessing whether or not people on the street are celebrities. Her beauty philosophy hasn't changed much since sixth grade; she still buys anything that smells like birthday cake.