Alcohol in Skincare: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

Alcohol. A word that brings out so many visceral reactions. (We’ve all had our experiences, am I right?) Because alcohol is commonplace in so many different forms, we often overlook how deeply ingrained it can be in our daily routines and even our skincare. Even though alcohol finds its way into a ton of popular products, it’s actually a big no no.  

Think about how your hands feel after you use hand sanitizer or alcohol wipes. Dry, cold, harsh… that's all because of their main ingredient: alcohol! The same amount of alcohol that is in a disinfectant, like hand sanitizer, may also secretly be hiding in your medicine cabinet! Why would we ever want to put a product that harsh on our faces? Here’s our advice for what to do instead.

All alcohol is NOT created equal! What to run away from:

Bad alcohols = SD alcohol, benzyl alcohol, ethyl alcohol, denatured alcohol or less often, isopropyl alcohol (1). These alcoholic products often gear their marketing towards people yearning for a quick-drying finish to rid themselves of oily skin. (It’s similar to the alcohol used in hairspray for the way it hardens, cools, and dries so damn quickly!) These alcohols are super cheap, so they are often added to products as a filler, but it’s this drying type of alc that we want to avoid.

Unfortunately, these cheaper alcohols can lead to a lot of long term damage. Alcohol can easily erode the surface of your skin, causing potential strain on how your skin reboots while healing old blemishes and rejuvenating itself!

TL;DR: it’s probably best to avoid products with any drying alcohol, especially if it’s one of the first six ingredients listed.

How to make acne worse? Alcohol!

Alcohol is obviously a germ killing agent (we get it!), but many acne medications overdo it. Sure, it may rid your face of acne, but it can also burn and dry out good, healthy oils that your skin is producing to heal and reinvigorate itself! That's The Catch: while some ingredients may help “rid” you of an issue, they also have the potential to take away the good along with the bad.

The natural barrier on our skin does a badass job of sealing in moisture to protect from environmental stress or harm. We want to maintain our “barrier” function to the best of our abilities. Alcohol erodes this barrier, causing skin to lose its hydration, often ending up leaving red marks in the place of acne or even super-dry skin spots like eczema. Research has shown that cells on our skin barrier will actually die after too much exposure to alcohol (2). (Like, SAME.)

The irony of using alcohol-based treatments is that the damage they cause leads to an increase of acne-causing bacteria, making inflammation worse, and leaving red marks that stay around for much longer than they otherwise would (3). The product that is supposed to help us may in fact be harming us…

The good stuff!

Fatty alcohols, which are inherently non-irritating can be super helpful in an everyday routine! Because of their natural “fatty” acid content, they may aid in moisturizing skin without any of the gnarly drying effects. These fatty acids are also known as “wax” alcohol and are often derived from natural fats and oils found in waxes (hence the name ;)) (2). Alcohols like these thicken creams, moisturize and emulsify, helping to create the best dang moisturizers/creams out there! It goes without saying, but if your skin is super duper sensitive, you may want to avoid these good alcohols as well.

Even though there are some alcohols that aren't the total worst out there, these “fatty” alcohols still have the ability to potentially clog pores because of their oil basis. So even in your gentlest of skincare products, if you are finding a lot blackheads trying to make a new home on your face, fatty alcohol may be the reason for it! Put the product on hold for a bit, and see if they clear up. Like anything else, if you find your skin is having a weird lil’ breakout or a funky reaction, it’s trying to talk to you! Listen closely to what your skin is saying, it will always let you know what’s up.

What to look for in an ingredient list?

In leggings and in skincare, one size does not fit all. We recommend getting all up in the ingredient lists of products you are thinking of using, and researching them to understand what they specifically target and how they will work in tandem (or not) with your skin!

Pro tip: You can gain a better understanding of how concentrated a specific ingredient is in the formula by determining its position in the ingredient list, which is organized from the most concentrated components to the least (4).

For you overachievers, try to determine if the ingredients listed compliment each other when combined or if they are known for reacting negatively.

Now what?!

Unsurprisingly, alcohol is NOT the answer to everything. Challenge yourself to get acquainted with your products’ ingredient lists! Just as two people might order totally different alcohols at the bar, you may need totally different types of alc for your skincare. Think of this research as finding the best signature cocktail for yourself. It takes time, but pays off in a magical way.


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