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The Astoria Naturals Blog

Alcohol. Cosmetic Ingredient to Avoid (4 of 12)

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Despite the somewhat conflicting information you'll come across, the research is clear: no matter your skin-care concerns, alcohol as a main ingredient in any skincare product is problematic.

Alcohol is used in lotion and face product formulas for three reasons: 1) to create a pleasing, quick drying finish that feels weightless on the skin and 2) to allow ingredients to penetrate the skin, and 3) as a preservative system.

While the light and dry feeling alcohol provides may feel good, it’s anything but good for your skin.


Alcohol can be harmful to your skin in at least three ways:

  1. It’s drying
  2. It’s an irritant
  3. It breaks down the skin’s natural barrier

When we talk about alcohol in general, we’re usually referring to ethanol. It’s essentially the same stuff we find in beer, wine and spirits.

Ethanol has a very short chain and is a thin liquid that evaporates faster than water. Cosmetic chemists use it in skincare to speed up a product’s dry down time, reduce tack, and to introduce oil-based ingredients (fragrances, salicylic acid, etc.) into water. Because ethanol evaporates quickly, it may dissolve surface oils, then flash off, drying out skin. This can be irritating to someone with sensitive skin.

But wait, there are good alcohols!


There's a class of ingredients known as fatty alcohols, which are not the least bit harmful for skin. Often confused with the bad alcohols, such as denatured alcohol, the fatty alcohols include, among others, cetyl alcohol and stearyl alcohol. Typically, fatty alcohols are used as emollients and thickeners in skin-care products. Fatty alcohols are not irritating and, in fact, can be beneficial for dry skin. As far as your skin is concerned, fatty alcohols are about as related to skin-damaging alcohol/ethanol as a martini is to a cup of olive oil.

They are the total opposite of ethanol, with much longer chains, and because of that, they’re usually waxy solids. They are used in skincare to help improve stability, adjust skin feel, or added as a moisturizer to body creams and lotions.

You can find these beneficial fatty alcohols in Astoria Naturals products.


Alcohol can have dramatic effects on skin cells. In a study, small amounts of alcohol applied to skin cells in lab settings (~ 3% alcohol - but keep in mind skin-care products contain amounts ranging up to 50%!) over the course of two days increased cell death by 26%. It also destroyed the substances in cells that reduce inflammation and defend against free radicals.

The damage to cells continues over time with repeated alcohol application. The same study found that only two days of exposure was dramatically more harmful than one day of exposure, and that was using an alcohol concentration of less than 10%, which is much lower than what's in many alcohol-based skin-care products.

There’s more evidence too, a lot more. A 2003 study published in the Journal of Hospital Infection found that with regular exposure to alcohol-based products, skin is no longer able to keep water and cleansing agents from penetrating into it, thus further eroding the skin's barrier.

This research clearly demonstrates the connection between damage to skin cells and alcohol exposure. Interestingly, this is exceptionally similar to the free-radical damage that results from excessive consumption of alcohol in the short and long term.


Alcohol damages skin cells


The research is clear: Alcohol harms your skin's protective barrier, triggers free-radical damage, makes oily skin and redness worse, and is best described as "pro-aging." Why bother, given the damaging effects of topical alcohol and the hundreds of skin-friendly alternatives available?


Ethanol shows up on ingredient labels as: Alcohol Denat(ured) , SD Alcohol or just plain alcohol.

Stay tuned for our next post when we cover the fifth member of the skin care Dirty Dozen!

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