Real Talk: Is Alcohol in Skincare Bad for You?

Alcohol in skincare products is bad news, right? Well, if half the internet is to be believed, then yes, it's about time we go fully tee-total on our skincare regimen and throw out anything that contains even a drop of this so-called skin demon, switching to saintly alcohol-free moisturisers and cleansers. 

Well, not so fast. As with all things skincare, it's important to not simply believe the hype. Instead, we spoke to consultant dermatologist Anjali Mahto, MBBCh, BSc, MRCP, to clear the issue up once and for all. Keep scrolling to find out what she had to say on the matter.

"Most people seem to have a negative connotation with this ingredient, due to its ability to dry the skin," she explains. "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."

So it's vital that we don't trash talk alcohol in skincare as a whole because according to Mahto, there are many different types, each with varying properties. The simplest way to look at it is to split them up into two categories: the good and the potentially bad. 

The Good Alcohols

What to look for: cetyl, stearyl, cetearyl

Mahto refers to this category as the “fatty alcohols.” “You’ll often find them in cleansing lotions and moisturisers as a thickening agent and emulsifier. 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.”

The Potentially Bad Alcohols

What to look for: ethanol, ethyl alcohol, denatured alcohol, methanol, isopropyl alcohol, SD alcohol, benzyl alcohol

You'll often find these alcohols in products as a vehicle to deliver other ingredients into the skin, or as an astringent to get oil production under control.

“When one or more of these are found at the top of the ingredients’ list, it means they are of a high enough concentration to be problematic for acne-prone skin, as dryness may result in oil glands going into overdrive and cause spots to appear,” reveals Mahto.

But it isn't just those with acne-prone skin who should be cautious about these types of alcohol. “Alcohol-based toners can also be very drying on the skin, and so I do not recommend these, particularly for those with sensitive skin, eczema or allergies,” she adds. Lesson learned.

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