For many of us, 2020 has involved a lot of drinking. And while sipping a white claw before your 2 o’clock Zoom meeting may be the new norm, alcohol in skincare seems to be more taboo than ever. Everyday one of my favorite makeup artists or estheticians is telling me to avoid alcohol in any and all skincare products.
But the more product labels I scrutinize, the more I realize that alcohol is in… like.. everything.
After a little bit of digging I have concluded that… alcohol in skincare is actually more complicated than beauty gurus let on. But don’t worry, I’m going to walk you through it.
The most commonly used alcohols in cosmetic products can be separated into two categories: low molecular weight and high molecular weight.
So Let's talk low molecular weight alcohols and why they are commonly used in skincare products.
Low molecular weight alcohols are volatile alcohols (meaning they evaporate quickly) such as Isopropyl, Ethanol, SD, and Denatured alcohol.
Low molecular weight alcohols are primarily used to dissolve ingredients that are not soluble in water as well as to lighten the texture of product formulations.
Pros of Low Molecular Weight Alcohols in products:
- Low molecular weight alcohols are great at disturbing the waxy outer layer of our skin, allowing the active ingredients of a skincare product to penetrate efficiently
- Low molecular weight alcohols help products to feel lightweight, and non-greasy on skin
- These alcohols can preserve the ingredients in our skincare products
- Disruption of the outer layer of skin means the increased penetration of irritating ingredients like fragrance - this can also increase your skin’s sensitivity over time
- In SOME cases this disturbed outer layer of skin can lead to transepidermal water loss (especially if you are not using hydrating products within your skin care routine)
So... What's the big deal??? Well, believe it or not these are the types of alcohols that beauty gurus are telling you to avoid! And while yes, certain skin types will find low molecular weight alcohols to be slightly drying, it's important to remember that they also play an important role in the penetration of active ingredients (which is why they are so commonly seen in Vitamin C serums and Retinols).
So let's move on to High Molecular Weight Alcohols (also known as Fatty Alcohols). These are alcohols typically derived from plants and will appear on product labels as Cetyl, Stearyl, or Cetearyl alcohol.
Fatty alcohols are typically used to thicken products and emulsify oil based ingredients with water
Pros of Fatty Alcohols in products:
- These are emollients! Meaning they help products (and our skin) feel smooth and luxurious
- Fatty alcohols can fight transepidermal water loss by trapping water in our skin
- Certain skin types will find plant derived ingredients like fatty alcohols irritating
So... these are the types of alcohols that we should be looking for in our skincare products right? Well... sort of. The truth is, that too much of either alcohol (low or high molecular weight) can be irritating to certain skin types.
Skin care is incredibly personal, meaning that no single ingredient is guaranteed to perform a certain way. It is all too easy, and frankly kind of trendy, to let influencers and beauty gurus demonize certain ingredients! But the truth of the matter is, a lot of times these ingredients, like alcohol, are playing an important role in the product formulation and their "negative side effects" are often blown out of proportion by the internet. Remember to do you own research, take your entire skin care routine into account when considering a new product, and don't let trends influence how you treat your skin.
In conclusion, I really think alcohol within skincare products is one less thing we need to worry about.