alcohols in skincare

drying or denatured alcohols vs. fatty, long-chain alcohols and why you need to know the difference

You’ve heard it before - alcohols are terrible for your skin, they’re drying, they’ll strip away all moisture, and they should absolutely always be avoided in skincare. But is that true for all alcohols all the time?

The truth of the matter is that not all alcohols are created equally. Yes, there are plenty of alcohols that do far more harm than good to the skin, but there are also many that are nourishing to the skin and extremely beneficial to skincare formulas. Let’s dive in. 

first, what exactly are alcohols?

Alcohols are a group of molecules with at least one hydroxyl group stuck on the end, a hydroxyl group being an oxygen + a hydrogen, often abbreviated as “-OH.” That is the only thing that all alcohols have in common. 

What differentiates types of alcohols from others is the chain of other molecules besides the hydroxyl group. Some alcohols contain a short chain of only 1-2 carbons, whereas others have longer chains with up to 27 carbons. That’s where the terms “short-chain alcohol” and “long-chain alcohol” come from. 

An example of a short-chain alcohol would be methanol (CH3OH) which only has 1 carbon, or ethanol (C2H5OH) which only has 2 carbons. Short chain alcohols are also often designated as “simple.”

An example of a long-chain alcohol would be stearyl alcohol, which you’ll find in our sea kale clay mask and pore refining concentrate. This alcohol has a chain of 18 carbons with a hydroxyl group at the end. There is no specific cutoff that indicates whether a chain is short or long; their distinctions are a bit more vague, like how you might qualify a line at the grocery store as “short” or “long.”

Denatured alcohols (sometimes listed as “alcohol denat.”) are alcohols that contain added chemicals which make them undrinkable. For example, you can take ethanol, which is drinkable, and add a denaturant like methanol to it, making it toxic for humans to ingest, but great for cleaning or chemistry.

which alcohols should always always be avoided in skincare?

The alcohols you should always avoid in skincare are drying alcohols - mostly simple, short-chain, or denatured. Drying alcohols are considered volatile, meaning they evaporate quickly. Some names you might recognize: isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol), ethyl alcohol (commonly used in hand sanitizers), or ethanol (found in vodka).

These alcohols can be sensitizing, irritating, extremely drying, and can even weaken the skin’s natural barrier. They should always be avoided in skincare, especially if they appear near the top half of the ingredient list - this indicates that the formula in question has a ton of drying alcohols in its base. 

When used topically, drying alcohols can immediately reduce oil on the surface of the skin. That’s why some skincare companies use them in formulas designed for oily or acne-prone skin. They can also be used in cream products to help improve their texture and make them feel lighter. 

However, the drying effects of these alcohols will usually eventually outweigh the immediate benefits, leaving skin dry, irritated, and even broken out.

which alcohols are safe and beneficial to use in skincare?

Fatty alcohols, or long-chain alcohols with fatty components, are entirely different; they’re nourishing to the skin, instead of drying or irritating. Fatty alcohols are derived from natural fats and oils found in plants, and they’re loaded with skin-loving lipids that help plump, hydrate, and soften skin. They can also work as emulsifiers, keeping oils and waters mixed and formulas consistent and uniform. 

Some fatty alcohols we love in skincare include: cetyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol, lauryl alcohol, oleyl alcohol, C8 alcohol, and C10 alcohol. 

Interestingly enough, the FDA actually allows products that contain only fatty alcohols and no drying alcohols to be listed as “alcohol-free.” In their words, “in cosmetic labeling, the term "alcohol," used by itself, refers to ethyl alcohol. Cosmetic products, including those labeled ‘alcohol free,’ may contain other alcohols, such as cetyl, stearyl, cetearyl, or lanolin alcohol. These are known as fatty alcohols, and their effects on the skin are quite different from those of ethyl alcohol.” This is a testament to how vastly different volatile, drying alcohols are from fatty, long-chain alcohols, especially in the context of skincare. 

To sum things up, not all alcohols are created equally, and not all are bad for your skin - there are plenty of nourishing, non-drying, plant-derived fatty alcohols out there that are great for the skin, despite their harsh-sounding names.

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