Alcohol In Skin Care – Everything You Need To Know

Medically reviewed by Dr. Kendall R. Roehl, MD, FACS Dr. Kendall R. Roehl Dr. Kendall R. RoehlMD, FACS facebook_icontwitter_iconlinkedin_iconinsta_icon
Written by , MA (English Literature) Ramona Sinha MA (English Literature) Experience: 11 years
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Alcohol is probably the most misunderstood ingredient in the beauty world. If it could speak, it would have probably screamed like a cranky teen, “Why don’t you get me?” Yes, alcohol makes the skin feel dry and tight, and that’s why most of us end up banishing it from our beauty routines. But, not all types of alcohol turn into a nightmare for your skin. Some love your skin as much as you do! Let’s clarify and clear the confusion.

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Is Alcohol Good Or Bad For Your Skin?

The answer is: it is a double-edged sword! Our skin shares a bittersweet relationship with alcohol. Alcohol is undoubtedly an irritant, but that doesn’t mean all categories of alcohol are bad for your skin. Also, whether alcohol is good or bad for your skin depends a lot on your skin type.

Alcohol is an organic compound that has been used in medication, beverages, and solvents for ages. It is known for its antiseptic and antibacterial properties. The preservative and solvent properties of alcohol have made the skin care industry embrace it.

Alcohol shows up in almost all skin care products – from moisturizers and body lotions to toners and cleansers. Most of us have, at some point in time, used an alcohol-based product and realized that it is not meant for our skin. It leaves the skin dry, irritated, and tight. Not to mention the acne flare-ups! Alcohol also strips your skin of its natural oils, which makes your skin sensitive and causes dehydration.

Hence, you need to know which alcohol to avoid and which one to use to protect your skin from damage. We have discussed that in the later part of the article, but before we get there, let’s find out what role alcohol plays in skin care.

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What Is Alcohol’s Function In Skin Care? Why Is It Used?

Alcohol’s Function In Skin
Image: Shutterstock

If alcohol is that bad, why do all skin care brands use it in their products? There must be some reason, right? Yes, there are reasons for its presence in your lotions and creams.

First, alcohol can make a very thick skincare product (like a moisturizing body lotion) feel almost weightless on your skin.

Second, alcohol helps other skin care ingredients (such as vitamin C and retinol) sink deep into your skin.

But, remember, it breaks down your skin barrier to help it absorb other ingredients better. Your skin barrier is what keeps your skin healthy, and when it’s damaged, your skin becomes sensitive and irritated.

Alcohol also acts as

  • a solvent (helps to mix other ingredients in the product)
  • an antiseptic (kills bacteria)
  • an emulsifier (helps blend two different substances)
  • a preservative (minimizes spoilage and preserves the cosmetic product)
  • a fragrance fixative
  • a buffer (to balance your skin’s pH level)
  • a stabilizer (prevents unwanted reactions)
  • an astringent (in toners and cleansers to shrink pores and tighten your skin)

These are the reasons manufacturers use alcohol in skin care products.

Are you still skeptical? Before jumping to any conclusion, find out which alcohol hurts your skin and which doesn’t.

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Types Of Alcohol Used In Skin Care

Alcohol Used In Skin
Image: Shutterstock

There are three types of alcohol used in skin care products:

  1. Simple alcohols
  2. Fatty alcohols
  3. Aromatic alcohols

1. Simple Alcohols

These are water-like substances derived from starch, sugar, or any other carbohydrate source. Simple alcohols are antibacterial and mainly used as an antiseptic. However, they can dry out your skin and make it sensitive. Avoid any skin care products that contain simple alcohols such as:

  • Ethanol
  • Methanol
  • Ethyl alcohol
  • Benzyl alcohol
  • Isopropyl alcohol
  • Denaturated alcohol (also called Denat alcohol)
  • SD alcohol

Simple alcohols can dissolve the oil present on your skin’s surface. They evaporate quickly, weakening the skin’s protective barrier and exposing it to irritation. However, everything depends on what other ingredients are present in the formula. But then, the manufacturer never mentions the proper concentrations of alcohol in the product.

2. Fatty Alcohols

These are non-drying alcohols. Unlike simple alcohols, fatty alcohols have a thick and creamy texture and emollient properties. Fatty alcohols are used in skin care products to give them a velvety and creamy feeling. These alcohols make the product glide smoothly onto your skin. Fatty alcohols include:

  • Caprylic alcohol
  • Behenyl alcohol
  • Decyl alcohol
  • Cetearyl alcohol
  • Myristyl alcohol
  • Lauryl alcohol
  • Oleyl alcohol
  • Stearyl alcohol
  • Isostearyl alcohol
  • Cetyl alcohol

Some fatty alcohols have occlusive properties, which makes them an excellent option to prevent water loss. Manufacturers mostly use this type of alcohol as:

  • Emulsifiers (to help mix water and oil to create a creamy solution)
  • Emollients (for moisturization)
  • Thickeners ((to give a thick, rich, and creamy texture to a product)

These alcohols are non-drying and may not harm your skin. However, people with sensitive skin should avoid them as they might irritate the skin. A study conducted on rabbits found that the topical application of cetyl alcohol caused mild irritation (1).

3. Aromatic Alcohol

This type of alcohol is similar to simple alcohol, but it has a pleasant fragrance. This alcohol is used in skin care products as a preservative or fragrance. The most common aromatic alcohol used in skin care products is benzyl alcohol. However, if this alcohol is derived from essential oils, it might irritate your skin.

Now you know which names to look out for while going through the list of ingredients of any skin care product.

It is important to note that the presence of these alcohols in a product does not indicate that the product is drying. It depends on what else is present in the product. There could be emollients and moisturizers that could prevent drying. It is always best to try the product on your skin before buying it.

So, what’s the verdict? Is alcohol an “aye” or a “nay”?

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Should You Use Alcohol-Based Products?

It depends on how your skin reacts to alcohol-based products. For instance, I have oily skin, and I have used alcohol-based products without any side effects or irritation. It all boils down to your skin’s tolerance level.

You can try products that contain fatty alcohols and avoid any skin care product that contains the other types of alcohol. If you have dry skin, it’s better to avoid alcohol-based products altogether. Listen to your skin – for, it knows what works best for it.

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Have some doubts? Why not post a comment and let us know? We will be more than happy to resolve your queries.


  1. 5 Final Report on the Safety Assessment…” SAGE Journals

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Dr. Kendall R. Roehl
Dr. Kendall Roehl is a board-certified plastic surgeon with 20 years of experience at Memorial Plastic Surgery in Houston, Texas. She offers cosmetic surgery procedures for the face, body, and breasts including facelifts, tummy tuck surgery, and breast reconstruction.

Read full bio of Dr. Kendall R. Roehl
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