Alcohol-free or not?


You’re probably aware that excessive consumption of alcohol has a dehydrating effect on our skin and is not very healthy beauty-wise.  But what about alcohol-based skincare products?  Are products that contain alcohol definitely bad for our skin and therefore we should only use alcohol-free only products?

Misconceptions on alcohol
Many will swear off products containing alcohol because they associate it with the beverage and hence with harshness, irritation and dryness.  However, the noun alcohol is part of a large and diverse family, with different names and a variety of effects on the skin.  While some alcohol can be irritating or drying to the skin and hair, some are actually good for the skin by helping deliver emollient benefits.  These are called fatty alcohol which function more like emulsifier or thickener such as cetyl alcohol derived from vegetable oil, lanolin alcohol from sheep wool oils plus others like stearyl alcohol or cetearyl alcohol.

Alcohol of concern
The alcohol to be concerned about in skincare products are denatured alcohol, ethyl alcohol, ethanol, methanol, benzyl alcohol, isopropyl and SD alcohol 40, which dissolve and destroy our skin’s natural moisturizers as well as pH balance.  At the same time, they tend to absorb water from our skin which inadvertently dries us up and speed up the wrinkling process.  Very much similar to the effects when we consume too much alcoholic drinks.

Alcohol-free label
So when you read on a label that a product is “alcohol-free”, it really means that the product does not contain ethyl alcohol (aka SD alcohol or alchohol denat if it has been specially denatured).   But that same product may contain fatty alcohol, which have much different effects on skin and do not inherently possess negative attributes.


  1. Tine says:

    I use Clinique’s Clarifying Lotion 2, which contains alcohol. I have oily/combination skin, and feel that toners without alcohol just feel like water on my skin. Well, so far so good ?

    Tine: I use an alcohol one myself in the evening. For pple with oily skin, alcohol toners actually work better.

  2. PJ says:

    Hello Sesame,

    This is really a concise and well-summarized post of the alcohol issue in skincare!

    I have oily skin but my skin is also sensitive and reacts negatively to alcohol (the kinds of alcohol you mentioned, of course), so all my toners and moisturizers are alcohol-free. I also try to tell my friends that those kinds of alcohol are potential irritants and have no long-term benefits to the skin.

    I do find that it takes a bit of time to explain what types of alcohol are potential irritants and what types are essential in skincare formulations. (Certainly people should not put products back on the shelves simply because they see the word “alcohol” in it…)

    Hopefully, posts like yours can help more of us make informed decisions!

    PJ: Thanks for your comments! I was ignorant about alcohol ingredients as well and had to do quite a bit of reading before getting a better picture. Labels are not an easy thing to read for everyone…

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