When is alcohol an okay ingredient for skincare?

If you’re into natural skin and hair care, then you’ve probably heard that an important ingredient to avoid is alcohol. The reason behind this is that alcohol can be very drying to both the hair and skin. So naturally, you’d want to stay away from it. But is this always the case? Is there ever an instance when alcohol could be a good thing, or at the very least, a benign thing? Today, we’re going to put these questions to rest, once and for all.

First, it’s important to understand that there are different kinds of alcohol used in skincare products. You can divide them into two groups: fatty and non-fatty. Non-fatty alcohols include ethanol and isopropyl alcohol, and their main use in private label skincare formulations is to help other ingredients penetrate into the skin. Which doesn’t sound so bad, right? Not so fast! See, these alcohols are very strong solvents, and they are extremely drying to the skin. And that “dry” feeling is indicative of something more than just moisture loss going on. It’s an indication of a disruption in the skin’s very important acid mantle. Which is NOT something you want to be messing with! You want to avoid stripping away your acid mantle at all costs, as skin is at its happiest when the acid mantle is balanced and continually supported to act as the first line of the skin’s defence.

Fatty alcohols include ingredients like cetearyl and cetyl alcohol. These guys are a bit misleading because their textures are actually waxy rather than liquid, and are used in skincare formulas to act as emollients rather than solvents. Where the non-fatty alcohols get busy enhancing ingredient penetration, stripping away that acid mantle and causing dryness, fatty alcohols get to work basically doing the opposite- helping the skin hold onto moisture. Fatty alcohols are also used to help the overall texture of a product so that it feels nice, smooth and creamy when you apply it.

Now, there are a couple alcohol outliers that don’t fit into either of these categories, but still need to be mentioned. The first is benzyl alcohol. While not a fatty alcohol, it’s also not the same as the non-fatty solvents. General consensus on this ingredient is somewhat conflicted and can simply come down to personal preference. In large amounts it can be irritating to the skin and is even listed as an allergen in the EU. And at the same time it’s generally used in natural skincare products as a very important preservative that prevents the growth of harmful bacteria and contaminants. In the age of more and more people requesting “preservative free” skincare formulations, it’s important to remember that with any formula that includes water, there must also be a preservative. Why? Because water breeds life. And you don’t want a bunch of stuff growing in your lotion! So, when it comes to benzyl alcohol, as long as it’s used in small and appropriate amounts, it’s generally regarded as an okay alcohol to use for natural and organic skincare products.

The second alcohol outlier might come as a bit of a surprise to you, but as a natural skincare manufacturer that deals with a large amount of natural ingredients every day, we felt it was important to include it here: botanical extracts! Remember that alcohol is a solvent, which makes it the perfect medium for extracting the beneficial properties of plants that we want to put on our skin. And it might sound obvious, but there’s no way to get rid of the alcohol from the extract. You’ve got to use it all, which means that, even though it will be a very small amount, botanical extracts will add a bit of alcohol to the skincare product they’re a part of. As long as the alcohol used in the extract is of good quality, this really isn’t a problem and shouldn’t cause any undesirable results the way using non-fatty alcohol solvents in a formula does.

Hopefully by now you have a better understanding of what kinds of alcohols are found in natural skincare products, what they do, and which ones are and are not worth using. In short, stay away from non-fatty alcohols like ethanol and isopropyl alcohol. You can smile and know that your skin will be okay when you see ingredients like cetyl alcohol. Recognize that benzyl alcohol is an approved preservative for natural formulas. And know that all your favourite herbal extracts, though extracted in (quality) alcohol, are actually great for your skin.

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