Is alcohol bad for your skin? Many people see the word ‘alcohol’ in the ingredient list for their cosmetic products and think that is going to cause problems for their skin. Maybe they got this idea because of irritating toners they may have used as a teenager.
Alcohol does serve a purpose in skin care products. Alcohol can help dissolve many active ingredients found in skin care. It can act as a preservative in larger amounts. It can be used to dissolve fragrances. Because it evaporates quickly, it can have a nice feel on the skin. But, the amount of alcohol found in most products would be very minute and not cause any issues.
There are many different types of alcohol that we will discuss below. Alcohol is a very general term chemically speaking. Anything that has a hydroxide group (-OH) attached to a carbon is considered an alcohol regardless of what the rest of the molecule looks like. Oftentimes when we refer to alcohol we are more specifically referring to ethanol which we drink or isopropanol also known as rubbing alcohol.
Alcohol Consumption and your Skin
Drinking alcohol (ethanol) can cause many problems in the body including skin problems. It can lead to dehydration which dries out the skin and can even cause sunken eyes. It causes restless sleep resulting in dark circles, aggravates rosacea causing redness of the skin. It can even cause rosy cheeks without having a rosacea condition. Decreased elasticity, dull complexion, dry lips, and increased fine lines and wrinkles can also result from drinking too much alcohol. And of course, cancer risk is also increased with alcohol consumption. This is not to say that a drink here and there puts you at risk, but excessive drinking is something to avoid for many reasons.
Topical Use of Ethanol on Skin
Ethanol can increase penetration of some substances through the skin. Because of this it is sometimes used in drug delivery systems. Ethanol dissolves some of the protective lipids on the skin. This removal of some of the lipid barrier material makes the skin more permeable. Ethanol can affect both lipids and proteins of the skin leading to damage to the skin barrier function. It is this weakening of the skin barrier function that also causes skin to become drier and loose moisture.
If you are already suffering from a disrupted skin barrier due to skin irritation, eczema or rash, then using a product with alcohol may cause additional problems.
Alcohol is antiseptic and can decrease bacteria on the skin surface which may make it useful for acne prone skin. As an antiseptic, alcohol wipes are used on skin before using a hypodermic needle and in hand sanitizers. Many people experience skin issues from excessive use of hand santizers. While soap and water is the best way to remove infectious agents from the hands, we know that hand sanitizers are sometimes necessary. Although excessive hand washing can also cause irritation.
Studies show that topically applied ethanol is not absorbed through the skin in any significant amount to be a safety concern. This is as long as the skin is in tact. Wounded (lacerated) skin however, has been shown to be able to absorb ethanol. The skin of the mouth, known as a mucosa, can also absorb more alcohol than other skin. This may be problematic if used chronically.
While there is a clear link between alcohol consumption and increased risk of various types of cancer, the link is not so clear with topical use of alcohol. Excessive consumption of alcohol also increases the risk of skin diseases include psoriasis, eczema and skin infections and delayed wound healing.
Types of alcohol
The simple alcohols are named by the number of carbons:
Methanol has one carbon.
Ethanol has two carbons.
Isopropanol commonly known as isopropyl alcohol or rubbing alcohol has 3 carbons.
These very short alcohols are very soluble in water. As the carbon chain increases, the alcohol becomes less soluble in water. When this carbon number gets up to 10, these alcohols are no longer soluble in water and they are called fatty alcohols. This is because they are soluble in fats/ oils.
Know your fatty alcohols
Fatty alcohols are very beneficial in skincare products. They act as skin conditioners and help emulsify a product. They are beneficial to the skin as they help moisturize and coat the skin to prevent water loss. They are much different than the water soluble alcohols.
Fatty alcohols include lauryl alcohol, myristyl alcohol, cetyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol and behenyl alcohol as well as a few others. They all have carbon chains higher than 10.
Lauryl alcohol has 12 carbons.
Myristyl alcohol has 14 carbons.
Cetyl alcohol has 16 carbons.
Stearyl alcohol has 18 carbons.
Cetearyl alcohol is a combination of cetyl and stearyl alcohol.
Behenyl alcohol (also known a 1-Docosanol) as 22 carbons.
These fatty alcohols are naturally found in plants, animals and bacteria. For cosmetic purposes they are derived from a variety of plant oils. The fatty alcohols are in an entirely different category of ingredients from the short chain alcohols and can be used in products that are labeled as ‘alcohol-free’ by the FDA.
Behenyl Alcohol Structure
We like to use behenyl alcohol, cetyl alcohol and cetearyl alcohol in some of our products. It provides a wonderful feel to the skin as well as provides functionality of moisturizing the skin.
So when you see alcohols on your cosmetic labels stop and think about what preceeds that word. If it is ethyl alcohol there may be a concern that it could dry your skin. But it is probably is such a minute concentration that it would not be drying. It would also be balanced with other ingredients to moisturize skin.
If the alcohol is a fatty alcohol such as cetyl alcohol or behenyl alcohol it is going to be beneficial as far as moisturizing the skin goes. These fatty alcohols are also used in hair products to provide emollience to the hair shaft.
More information can be found here.
Lachenmeier, D.W. Safety evaluation of topical applications of ethanol on the skin and inside the oral cavity. J Occup Med Toxicol 3, 26 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1186/1745-6673-3-26