Alcohol in skincare products – is it safe?

There is a lot of controversy over whether alcohol in skincare products are safe or not. I’m not here to tell you if they are, I’m just going to provide some information so you can make an informed decision for yourself. It’s important to note that there are different types of alcohol so you know what to look out for.


Two popular sunscreens containing alcohol

‘Safe alcohol’ – Fatty Alcohols  These aren’t harmful at all to the skin. They’re often included in products as emollients and thickeners. They aren’t like the alcohol we are used to and are usually oily or a waxy solid. The downside is, some people are sensitive to them and they can cause closed comedones if you are. However, this isn’t the case for most people and you shouldn’t be worried about them in your products if you haven’t had a reaction to them. In fact, they can be very beneficial to those with dry skin. Just make sure to patch test a product to make sure you don’t have any reactions to it! On the label, you will see common fatty alcohols listed as (note, these are just popular ones, there are others):

  • Cetyl Alcohol
  • Cetearyl Alcohol
  • Stearyl Alcohol

‘Dangerous alcohol’ – Other Alcohol There are certain alcohols in skincare that have more controversy than fatty alcohols. You will often find these listed on the label as (these are just common ones):

  • Denatured Alcohol
  • Ethanol
  • Benzyl alcohol
  • SD alcohol
  • Isopropanol
  • Ethyl alcohol
  • Methanol

The reason why there is so much controversy is because there doesn’t seem to be a clear yes or no answer as to whether they are dangerous. Often alcohol is added to sunscreen to make it have a more cosmetically pleasing finish. Many Japanese sunscreens sink into the skin, feel very lightweight and don’t leave the greasy finish we are used to sunscreens having. This is because of the alcohol in it, it acts as a skin penetration enhancer.

Paula’s Choice makes a stance saying that these alcohols in skincare are bad. A quick summary says that it has no benefits to the skin and that they’re always bad news for the skin. There are also claims that it harms your skins barrier, triggers free radical damage and even describes it as ‘pro-aging’.


At Future Derm, Nicki Zevola writes the opposite and even takes a stance against Paula’s Choice on this particular claim. She says that yes, alcohol can be drying to those with sensitive skin. But it does NOT cause the release of free radicals (unless you drink it), does not cause premature death of skin cells and is completely safe for your skin.


Is alcohol bad in skincare? I can’t say, I’m not a dermatologist or a scientist. But I think it’s important to read both sides of the argument and decide for yourself through research, as well as weigh up the pros and cons. Do you want a sunscreen that is lightweight and dries matte? Are you worried about premature ageing? It’s also important to recognise the different types of alcohol and note which ones your skin reacts to (as with any ingredient).



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