Alcohol in cosmetics: the good and the bad

   No, this is not about the drinking laws. It's alcohol in cosmetics: did you know that there are several types and some are actually moisturising ?

edit: to all those with capillary problems: avoid cosmetics with any kind of alcohol.

Why is alcohol added to cosmetics ? 

  • It is antiseptic
  • It is an emulsifier (combines water and oil)
  • Stabilizes the substance, giving it a longer shelf life (this allows natural cosmetics to not contain any other preservatives)
  • It gives that "fresh, tingly feeling" and it removes oils.

   However, cosmetic alcohol is not a single ingredient but many. Different alcohols perform different functions and affect the skin in different ways.

The good alcohols 

   Also called fatty alcohols. Provide emollient effect, lubricity, and stabilise the emulsion. They smooth the skin, prevent static in hair.
Natural alcohols do exist, though they may not be so easy to find.
These do not irritate the skin, aggravate acne,

Natural grain alcohol:
This is naturally derived Ethanol, usually fermented from corn, but also from wheat, cane, beet, grape or apple. This may sometimes be denatured with pure natural essential oils, this is safe.
Lanolin Alcohol and Acetylated Lanolin Alcohol
It is hypoallergenic, however, it may block pores in some persons, should be avoided in products for the face. 
Stearyl Alcohol
Cetyl alcohol
Cetearyl Alcohol
: Cetyl + stearyl alcohols.
Behenyl alcohol
Isocetyl alcohol
Isostearyl alcohol
Lauryl alcohol
Myristyl alcohol
Stearyl alcohol
C30-50 Alcohols

   A rule of thumb: try to avoid anything that has any of the above alsohols in the first five ingredients,  (ingredients are listed by quantity) as it might be too drying. Read more on the good alcohols here.

The bad alcohols

    These alcohols dry out the skin, irritate it, and can even cause inflammations because they strip the skin of its natural protection
They aggravate problems with capillaries, and increase acne.

alcohol denat, aka SD alcohol aka CD alcohol: Ethyl alcohol, in which another chemical has been added to make it unfit for drinking, to make it exempt of duty.

Isopropyl alcohol aka isopropanol: a synthetic alcohol. Allergenic, toxic and a suspected carcinogen and hormone disruptor.

Propanol or propyl alcohol: similar to the above, but more drying.

Alcohol-free cosmetics may contain alcohol under a different name

   Laws state that in cosmetics, 'alcohol' refers to ethyl alcohol (AKA ethanol, grain alcohol, or rubbing alcohol). If a cosmetic does not contain it, then it is allowed to use the 'alcohol free' label, even if they contain other kinds of alcohol.

    Also, this does not distinguish between 'bad' synthetic Ethanol, and 'good' naturally derived Ethanol aka natural grain alcohol.

Where to check for alcohol?

Perfumes, toners and astringents, products for oily skin and acne, and almost everywhere else !
Photo:  Blue Agave by eyecatcher    

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