Alcohol in Skincare products

 Alcohol in skincare products is one of those widespread internet debates, Is alcohol in skincare bad? Should it be avoided in your skincare routine? Which types of alcohol should be avoided in your skincare? And much more!

What is alcohol and why is it used in Skincare?

There are many different types of alcohol in most skincare products. Alcohol basically is a molecule that has a hydroxyl group at one end, a hydroxyl group is an oxygen atom bonded to a hydrogen atom. Alcohol functions vary, based on alcohol structures and weights.

The most important thing to realise is that it’s extremely hard to avoid alcohol in life and your skincare. There are alcohols everywhere, in your body, nature and most of your favourite topical products.

Even though it is unpopular by many, the function of alcohol in skincare can be very helpful. Alcohol in your skincare products are determined by the alcohol’s molecular weight and size. It’s not purely about the alcohol function but also how it interacts with the other ingredient of the skincare product. This can determine the effect of alcohol on your skin.

Types of Alcohols in Skincare products


Low Molecular Weight

Types of low molecular weight alcohols found in skincare products include isopropyl alcohol, ethyl alcohol, as well as denatured alcohol.

Low molecular weight alcohols are liquids that evaporate very quickly and their primary function in skincare products is to allow ingredients to dissolve better along with contributing to the overall feel and aesthetic of the product. Since these alcohols evaporate very quickly on the skin, they give products a non-greasy feel. For anyone with oily skin, products that contain alcohols with low molecular weight alcohols can feel nicer, less greasy, and less heavy on the skin. This will also allow ingredients like vitamin C, vitamin C serum and retinol products to rub into the skin a little better.

When applying skincare topically, the ingredients need to cross this wet wax lipid barrier. Alcohol assists to disrupt this skin barrier and assists in ingredients to penetrate better, its solvent properties also allow for ingredients that otherwise would dissolve, to dissolve. For example, sunscreen ingredients need dissolving before being placed on your skin.

High Molecular Weight


The opposite of the low molecular weight alcohols is the high molecular weight alcohols. These are also present in skincare products, these usually go by the names cetyl, stearyl, and cetearyl.

These are also known as fatty alcohols and remain solid at room temperature. They are primarily used as a thickener in skin care products. You would find them in heavier creams. These larger molecules keep solids and liquids from separating and add volume to the product which creates the softer skin feeling, along with smoother and more radiant skin.

Some examples include Behenyl Alcohol, Cetearyl Alcohol, Cetyl Alcohol, Lanolin Alcohol and Stearyl Alcohol.

These fattier alcohols trap hydration and reduce trans epidermal water loss, you will also notice these are derived from more natural sources such as plants. These will ultimately reduce skin dryness and irritation. The only major disadvantage is that they cannot be mixed with water. 

Skin reactions to Low molecular weight alcohols


As they evaporate quickly they will a product to feel less heavy which can feel great if you have oily skin. The downside is that the quick evaporation can sometimes cause your skin to feel dry and irritated. This can also be also worst if you are using too many low molecule weight alcohol products.

Skin reactions to High Molecule weight alcohols


Usually, as these come from plant sources, we assume its safer and more natural. Unfortunately in higher concentrations, it can irritate. There are also those unlucky people who might also have reactions to these plants or the man made plant substitutes found in some products.

Final thoughts on alcohol for skincare


If your skin is irritated or you feel you might be having a reaction to an alcohol based skincare product or prescription topical, then take a look at the type of molecular alcohol used, its content along with the concentration. 

When the alcohol content is 5% or less this will have lesser negative effects on the skin because it evaporates completely while the product is applied to the skin. Another way to check this is by checking your product’s ingredient list and if the alcohol appears from the middle to the top of the list, the concentration is stronger.

By looking at these factors, it might assist in deducing which ingredient or alcohol is causing the irritation. Alcohol can be extremely important in the effectiveness of skincare products, so its essential check before purchasing and assess if the skincare product is right for your skin type.