Alcohol in Cosmetics: Safety & Effects

You might have seen something on this topic before; an image on Instagram with a list of ‘good’ alcohols on one side and ‘bad’ alcohols to avoid on the other. But is that information accurate? It seems like there are so many rules about what’s good in skincare and what isn’t these days, plus it seems like it’s always changing! 

However, avoiding a specific skincare ingredient doesn’t always pay off - and in the end, you’ve probably avoided a lot of skincare ingredients that were actually amazing for your skin!

One example of this is alcohol. Is it something that we really need to avoid in skincare, or is it really as bad as everyone says? Let’s find out!

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What’s the ‘Problem’ With Alcohol?

The biggest reason why people are told to avoid skincare with alcohol is that it overly dries out your skin, causing flakiness and a disrupted moisture barrier - the truth behind that is something we’ll touch on later. There’s a catch when it comes to identifying ingredients as ‘alcohol’, though.

Just saying ‘alcohol’ actually doesn’t refer to any single type of ingredient - it’s a broad category that includes a lot of skincare ingredients that you don’t realise are (from a chemistry point of view) an alcohol molecule. 

It’s really important to make this distinction because after all, cosmetic chemists and formulators are the ones creating these formulas and we need to speak on their terms! Technically, alcohols in skincare even include glycerin (aka glycerol), which is an amazing humectant that boosts skin hydration - so what are the alcohols that people are talking about that are supposed to be harmful to your skin? 

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It goes by a few different ones, but it can appear in ingredients lists as SD Alcohol, Alcohol Denat., Ethanol, and Isopropyl Alcohol, to name a few. It shouldn’t be confused with fatty alcohols, which are actually ingredients that work as emollients to moisturise and soften skin. 

Examples of fatty alcohols include Cetyl Alcohol, Stearyl Alcohol, and Myristyl Alcohol - and that’s just to name a few. As emollients, they’re excellent at ensuring your skin is moisturised and hydrated and are often derived from natural sources. They provide thickness and help give skincare creamy, moisturising textures. 

Why is Alcohol Denat. Added to Skincare?

It actually has a few crucial roles when it comes to skincare formulas. One of its major duties in any skincare formula is as a penetration enhancer - that is, it helps active ingredients in skincare products to pass to the epidermis more readily, ensuring your skincare is effective. It also helps to make some skincare products feel lighter on the skin and more spreadable for better application! 

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So, Is Alcohol Denat. Really That Bad for Skin?

Answer: not really! There’s a lot (like, a lot) of research and opinions on this topic because it’s so contentious - however, we’re more likely to lean on the side of no, it’s not necessarily bad for your skin. 


There have been many, many studies performed on how rubbing alcohol affects the skin, and most found that yes, it could eventually affect your moisture barrier - if you applied pure rubbing alcohol to your skin repeatedly more than 50 times a day! The biggest reasons why rubbing alcohol has such a low likelihood of truly damaging skin is because it just evaporates away so quickly.

However, not all of us have skin that behaves the same way - some of us have hardy skin that rarely gets irritated, while some of us are more sensitive with skin that flares up if you so much as look at it wrong. If this sounds like you, alcohol might be a skincare ingredient that you should skip - however, it shouldn’t be a problem for most other skin types. 

The bottom line is no, you don’t need to be too worried about alcohol in your skincare!

Ultimately, the most important thing is to listen to your skin. If you’re dealing with sudden, unusual dryness, it’s worth taking a look at any new skincare you’ve introduced to see if it’s got Alcohol Denat./Ethanol/SD Alcohol. If your current skincare has alcohol and your skin looks and feels amazing - why fix what isn’t broken? 

Everyone’s skincare is a journey - that’s why we created our skincare quiz to help you find your perfect skincare routine!

Beauty Affairs Skin Type Quiz Australia

Alexis Adrienne

Alexis Adrienne

Alexis Adrienne is a passionate beauty writer with over 10 years of experience. She’s incredibly keen on all things skincare, makeup and cosmetics, with a fingertip on the pulse of the latest global beauty trends at all times.

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