All Alcohols Are Not Created Equal – Good and Bad Alcohol in Skincare

When you see the word “alcohol” in your skincare product, what kind of image appears in your mind? 

I bet most people would associate alcohol with the clear liquid that dries the skin and sometimes causes irritation.  That is only part of the story, though, since “alcohols” are a large family of substances and some alcohols especially the fatty alcohols are very good for our skin.

At the risk of sounding like a total nerd, I’ll first give the definition of alcohol:  an alcohol is an organic compound in which the hydroxyl group (-OH) is bound to a carbon atom and this carbon is saturated.  Now we did it, and we can go on and talk about the useful stuff. 

Alcohols That Are Bad for Our Skin

If you see the word “alcohol” alone in the ingredient list, it is the same alcohol contains in our beer, wine, and hard liquor.  It is also called ethanol or ethyl alcohol.  Many times, you see the word SD alcohol such as SD alcohol 40, SD alcohol 23-A.  SD alcohol means specially denatured alcohol, and it means an additive called denaturant is added to the alcohol to make it undrinkable, so it doesn’t end up down somebody’s stomach.  This alcohol is bad for your skin since it is drying and irritating, even though it has antibacterial, antiseptic, and astringent properties.  

Another liquid alcohol is isopropanol, or isopropyl alcohol, or IPA.  Isopropanol is used similarly to ethanol, except it is more toxic than ethanol but less drying to skin.  

A less commonly used alcohol in skincare products is methanol, or methyl alcohol.  It is the lightest alcohol, quite toxic, and should be avoided.  

Below is the “bad alcohol” list.  Don’t buy a skincare product if one of these appears near the top of the ingredient list.

- Alcohol, ethanol, ethyl alcohol
- Isopropanol, isopropyl alcohol, IPA
- Methanol, methyl alcohol
- Benzyl alcohol (usually used as a preservative, ok if you see it towards the end of the ingredient list)

Alcohols That Are Good for Our Skin

A group of good alcohols is fatty alcohols, and they don’t look anything like the liquid alcohols above.  Rather, most of them look like white pearls, as shown on the right side of the picture.  They gave a slippery feel, and they protect and soften our skin.  Most of these fatty alcohols are derived either from vegetable sources such as coconut oil or palm oil, or from petroleum.  

Cetyl alcohol is usually extracted from coconut oil, although it was originally derived from whale oil, after it was discovered in 1817.  Its name cetyl also comes from the Latin name for whale, cetus.  Cetyl alcohol helps to form protective barrier on the skin so water cannot evaporate, thus locking in the moisture.  

coconutStearyl alcohol is another commonly found fatty alcohol in skincare products.  It is derived from cocoa, shea butter, or from animal fat.  Stearyl alcohol acts as a good emollient, and as an emulsifier — helping oils and water to form smooth mixures.  

Cetearyl Alcohol is a mixture of cetyl alcohol and stearyl alcohol, usually derived from coconut oil.  It acts as an emollient, keeping moisture in the skin. 

Lanolin alcohol is another commonly used fatty alcohol, and it is derived from the oil glands of sheep’s wool.  It is a great emollient, and a good emulsifier.  However, some people find lanolin alcohol slightly irritating. 

Below is the “good alcohol” list.
- Myristyl alcohol: emollient
- Cetyl alcohol: emollient – Stearyl alcohol: emollient, emulsifier
- Cetearyl Alcohol: mixture of cetyl alcohol and stearyl alcohol: emollient, emulsifier
- Behenyl alcohol: emollient, emulsifier 
- Lanolin alcohol: emollient, emulsifier.  May cause allergic reaction in some people.