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No BOoZe Skin Care

June 21, 2012
A  common belief amongst skin care junkies is that alcohol is drying and bad for the skin and as such many try to avoid it.  Now, while there is some truth in that statement it isn’t the whole truth and nothing but the truth.  So, let’s take a look at whats what.

Aaaaahhhhh cheers. I’ll take my alcohol out of the bottle thanks.

Alcohol as alcohol.
There are lots of different types of alcohol but the one that us humans are most familiar with is the drinkable stuff – ethanol.  In Australia most of our ethanol starts off life as sugar but ethanol can have many origins (a fact that anyone who has ever tried home brewing can attest to).  Anyway, in skin care ethanol is commonly used  as a solvent in perfumery, in hair gels (so that the resin dries quickly) and in hand sanitizing gels.   I find it hard to think of this type of alcohol as a ‘nasty’ as in all of the above applications it is performing a useful and somewhat essential job. It is also highly probable that using alcohol as a quick-dry agent in hair gels is more Eco friendly than using alternatives (cyclomethicone is one).
 It is true that alcoholic hand wash products can be quite drying but even there the alcohol is not really nasty, in fact it is the alcohol that is killing the germs that we have become so paranoid of. However,  I guess that as we are one big ball of Germiness any germ active ingredient could start to kill us too and that’s where the dry skin feeling comes from, the  alcohol can damage our skin barrier.  The issue here is not so much about the ingredient, it is more to do with the dose and how it is presented.  Most hand sanitizers come formulated with skin soothing actives to help maintain the barrier while stripping the skin of sick-inducing germs.  If used sparingly the hands should survive.
The only other thing that I can think of that might be ‘nasty’ with relation to ethanol on the skin is its ability to act as a penetration enhancer (no pun intended).  When the skin becomes damaged due to the alcohol drying it out it becomes a less effective barrier.  This could mean that other chemicals get through the skin more easily which could be a problem.  Again, I  think that this is more a case of ‘know your skin, know your limits’ than avoid,avoid, avoid and as this feature is well-known most formulations would work to minimize this if that was what the product required (some products are designed to get through the skin).   Of course, just like regular drinking alcohol, the skin doesn’t need it but if used in moderation it CAN  be beneficial.
One last regular use of alcohol is as part of a products preservation system.  This old-fashioned way of preserving products is no longer widely used as the amount of alcohol has to be quite high.  However, if it is a choice between microbes or no microbes I’d go with the alcohol.
and then……..
Alcohol as a ‘family name’
Saying that you don’t want anything ‘alcohol’ in your skin care is like saying ‘I can’t be friends with anyone whose last name is Smith’ , a bit silly. 
So, you may go through your ingredients label and spot other ‘alcohols’ in your product, in fact it is highly likely that you will.  You see ‘alcohol’ is the term used to cover a whole family of chemicals with specific traits.  Chemically speaking alcohols all have an -OH group at the end making them polar which could mean something or nothing to you depending on your background but as far as I am concerned that makes them useful.
Before we go on I wish to point out that while I am talking all chemical don’t think that alcohols only exist inside Dr Evils laboratory.  We already said that alcohol AKA ethanol can be made 100% naturally (even organically) from veggies and now I’m going to tell you that lots of other alcohols also have natural origins.
Here are some common ones.
Cetearyl alcohol –  this ingredient comes from either palm or coconut oil. It is used in cream based products to stiffen up creams (emulsions), make them thicker and more stable, more substantive (longer lasting) and even whiter!  In your product the cetearyl alcohol will not act as a penetration enhancer, a skin irritant or something that will dry your skin. In fact it will help to protect and moisturizer your skin so put your prejudice away!
Benzyl alcohol – this is an anti-bacterial ingredient that is often part of the preservative system but can also form part of the fragrance as it is a good solubiliser.  It would be weird to have this present at higher than 1% in your formula and even that is high so it is unlikely that it would do you any damage and may even do you good (in protecting your product from microbe growth).
Isopropyl alcohol – this alcohol is a powerful solvent and as such is more often used in cleaning than personal care.  Another name for it is rubbing alcohol and it can be used as a cleaner or disinfecting solution in some situations.
Phenethyl alcohol– this can be extracted from rose and as such as a lovely rosy smell.  It is used as part of a natural preservation system and as such is present in very small amounts, less than 1%.  As it is a preservative it can be irritating to the skin but not excessively so.
Lanolin alcohol – this is a natural moisturizing and binding ingredient that can assist in blending oils and waters.  It is rich in cholesterol and other stearols that help protect the skin barrier and as such it is often used in moisturizers and balms for very dry skin.   Another non-drying alcohol.
The verdict.
Dr google is selling alcohol short as far as skin care applications go as many references start with the ‘it dries the skin’ rubbish.  As we have seen above there are different alcohols for different jobs, many are natural and all are useful.   Alcohol is good when it is understood.
One Comment leave one →
  1. July 19, 2012 6:37 am

    This was very informative. It is clear you do your research. Thanks so much for sharing!

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