These days, many brands like to tout alcohol-free as one of their major selling points. Since we see this term everywhere, we can’t help but wonder if the ingredient is deleterious to our skin. To determine whether or not alcohol is something worth avoiding across the board, we asked board-certified dermatologist and assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine Jeannette Graf, MD, and board-certified dermatologist at MDCS dermatology Marisa Garshick, MD, everything we need to know about this controversial additive.
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Why is alcohol included in skin care products?
When formulated into skin care products, alcohol works in a myriad of ways. Its main purpose, says Dr. Graf, is to enhance the penetration of other ingredients. For example, alcohol helps antioxidants like vitamin C and retinol sink into the deeper layers of the skin, making them more effective; it can also dissolve stubborn ingredients that don’t wash away with water. Dr. Garshick agrees, noting that this is why alcohol is used prior to a chemical peel, to ensure maximum absorption and efficacy. Another application for alcohol? Oil control. Toners and gel-based moisturizers often use it to balance the skin and reduce excess oil production, explains Dr. Garshick.
How can alcohol damage skin?
According to Dr. Graf, alcohol can break down the skin’s barrier, speeding up the aging process and harming repair pathways along the way. On a lower level, it can be drying and strip the skin of its natural moisture, adds Dr. Garshick, and it can also increase sensitivity. This applies even if you are oily: While alcohol can help regulate sebum, overusing it can cause dehydration, leading to increased oil production to compensate. Ultimately, it’s easy to determine if your skin has been affected by alcohol. Dr. Garshick lists redness, flaking, dryness, sensitivity, tightness, or a burning sensation as some of the most common warning signs.
Do you need to avoid skin care products with alcohol in them?
It depends, as not all alcohol is created equally. Dr. Graf explains that some products with the ingredient can do plenty of good for the skin. “It can be beneficial when used in spot treatments, when a blemish needs to be dried up,” she says. “There are also ‘good’ alcohols, like fatty alcohols, which can actually treat dry skin and eczema by adding an extra layer of moisture.” What’s important is being able to distinguish between those “good” and “bad” varieties. Dr. Garshick notes that fatty alcohol, which may be derived from palm or coconut oil, are often added to thicken products and won’t be harsh on the skin. Other alcohols that are considered gentle include cetyl, cetearyl, and stearyl alcohol; these can have emulsifying or emollient properties. Drying iterations to avoid, she says, are ethanol, denatured alcohol, methanol, or isopropyl alcohol. Those with extremely dry, sensitive complexions or inflammatory skin conditions (like rosacea) should avoid these in particular, she adds, noting that they can cause irritation.
What should you do if alcohol irritates your skin?
If you do end up with dermatitis or pain after using products with alcohol, Dr. Graf advises stopping their use. Then, turn to a dependable moisturizer or petroleum jelly to restore moisture. Dr. Garshick advises aiming for increased hydration at the start of your routine—a gentle hydrating cleanser certainly won’t hurt, and can help repair the skin’s barrier. During your recovery period, avoid active ingredients such as retinoids, benzoyl peroxide, and chemical exfoliants, as these can make irritation and dryness worse.