What do retinol, vitamin E and glycerin have in common? Firstly, chemically speaking, all three substances are alcohols. Second, when these three make the INCI list, we tend to think of skincare superheroes rather than skin-irritating villains. So is alcohol in cosmetics not as bad as its reputation suggests? And what do we actually mean when we say that our cosmetics are alcohol-free? Clearly there is an urgent need for clarification. In this article you will read what alcohol in skin care is really all about.
Alcohol in cosmetics: what does it mean?
Alcohol in cosmetics can have many faces. And if you can only think of disinfectants when you think of the connection between alcohol and skin, you already know one of them: Certain alcohols have a germicidal and preservative effect - which makes them a popular ingredient for some cosmetics manufacturers. But first things first.
- In chemistry, the term "alcohol" refers to molecules that have at least one hydroxy group.
- A hydroxy group is a combination of one hydrogen and one oxygen atom.
Alcohols are a whole group of substances with one thing in common: there is a hydroxy group in their chemical structure.
In the form of glycerin and vitamin E, they are really good for our skin. Other alcohols such as ethyl alcohol or ethanol, on the other hand, can have a drying and irritating effect – by the way, such mischief-mongers are not used in the pot at FIVE.
How alcohols work in skin care products and what they do to your skin depends on their molecular weight, ie their structure. And it's quite different. It sounds complicated, but it's actually quite simple. We'll show you how to recognize good and bad alcohols in cosmetic products.
Which alcohol in cosmetics is "bad"?
Let's start with the villains. Alcohols with a low molecular weight usually fulfill two functions in product formulations : as a preservative, they ensure shelf life and as a solvent , they combine the ingredients into pleasantly light textures.
For our skin, however, such alcohols are more of a nightmare: they have a drying effect, can damage the skin barrier 1 and encourage the formation of free radicals.
You can find these bad alcohols on the INCI list under the names: alcohol, alcohol denat., ethanol, ethyl alcohol, SD alcohol, propyl alcohol, propanol, benzyl alcohol, isopropanol, isopropyl alcohol, phenethyl alcohol and methanol.
☝️ You are meant when we say that the FIVE cosmetics are alcohol-free .
This is what “bad” alcohol does to your skin!
Bad alcohols like ethanol unbalance our skin barrier because they have a fat-dissolving effect. What sounds like an advantage (don't we all dream of a matt complexion?) is fatal for the protective barrier lipids of our top layer of skin. Because they also simply dissolve such alcohols 2 .
The result – without the barrier lipids, our protective barrier becomes more permeable. Ultimately, this is what the following effect of alcohol in cosmetics is based on : It increases the absorption capacity of the skin and ensures that active ingredients reach the deeper layers of the skin more quickly 3 .
However, we pay a high price for these properties of alcohol as an ingredient in skin care . The skin barrier no longer works as it should, irritations and irritations are promoted and the skin dries out in the long term because the water loss through the skin's surface increases 2 .
Can it actually get any worse? Unfortunately yes. In a study in which alcohol was applied to skin cells in the laboratory 4 , increased cell death could be demonstrated. Also, alcohol makes us look pretty old (literally!) - there are numerous studies on the general connection between oxidative stress, alcohol and the cell-damaging effects of free radicals 5 .
So why is alcohol used in cosmetics at all?
A good question, because: For us, not a single argument is powerful enough to convincingly justify the use of bad alcohol in cosmetics . But then why do some cosmetics manufacturers use such alcohols in their formulations?
- They preserve and have an antibacterial effect . If used in a sufficient concentration, alcohol effectively prevents the growth of germs in cosmetics and makes them last longer. We find: Why use alcohol when you can do without? That's why we rely on detox skin care - we use natural ferments and preserving oils as preservatives in our products. You can read more about this in this article: Natural preservatives: You can also do it without alcohol .
- They give products an airy, light texture . Because alcohols ensure a good distribution of the active ingredients in the respective formulation, cosmetics with alcohol often feel particularly light and weightless on the skin. For a short time we are happy about the soothing, matting finish. But appearances are deceptive: over time, our skin barrier is damaged and our skin dries out.
- They promote the penetration of skin care ingredients into the deep layers of the skin . We already mentioned that briefly above: the fat-dissolving properties of alcohol break down the important barrier lipids and in this way make the skin barrier more permeable. This allows active ingredients to get into the skin better, but in the long run our barrier function gets out of balance.
- They make certain herbal active ingredients available . Alcohols such as ethanol can dissolve non-water-soluble active ingredients from plants. Some natural cosmetics manufacturers use alcohol in cosmetics for precisely this reason: they take advantage of this property to be able to use such active ingredients in their product formulations.
What is alcohol denat.?
This abbreviation stands for "alcohol denatured ". It is one of the bad alcohols mentioned in the previous section and, like these, is used as a preservative and solvent – with the well-known side effects. But there is one special feature: unlike pure drinking alcohol, denatured alcohol is not taxed, so it can be produced inexpensively.
And this is how it works: Through the process of denaturation or denaturation, pure ethanol is changed in such a way that it becomes denatured as alcohol. then no longer drinkable . In this way, no more alcohol tax has to be paid. Great for the manufacturer, less great for our skin - the denaturants used can lead to allergic reactions.
What is benzyl alcohol?
Benzyl alcohol is a natural component of many essential flower oils. They include jasmine and ylang-ylang. Because it is a potential allergen, it must be declared - it therefore belongs on the INCI list. Like the alcohols mentioned above, it can extend the shelf life of cosmetics. Benzyl alcohol is therefore added to some products and used as a preservative.
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Is there also good alcohol in cosmetics?
Yes - the good always wins in the end. And among these good alcohols there are even a few old acquaintances that we love for their phenomenal skin care effect.
- From a chemical point of view , cell-regenerating retinol and antioxidant vitamin E belong to the group of monohydric alcohols because they have a hydroxyl group in their molecular structure. Didn't you think so? The two skin-flatterers are actually quite open about their origin: the suffix -ol in retinol and tocopherol (this is the scientific name of vitamin E) indicates that they belong to the group of alcohols.
- Moisturizing glycerin is a sugar alcohol (as is birch sugar aka xylitol, by the way). This is why you sometimes find it on the INCI list under the name glycerol . Glycerin is an important component of the skin's natural moisturizing factors (NMFs) and helps the skin retain moisture better. Because glycerin also controls water loss across the skin's surface, it's a fantastic ingredient for a plump, plumped-up complexion.
- Chemically speaking , panthenol or D-panthenol, which promotes wound healing, is also an alcohol. You can find the popular ingredient in baby creams and ointments that are supposed to support wound healing. In addition to its regenerating effect, it is best known as a gentle moisturizer.
- Fatty alcohols such as cetyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol and cetearyl alcohol are characterized by a high molecular weight. They give creams a rich, smooth and luxurious texture. By preventing the fat and water phases of cosmetics from separating, they ensure a homogeneous, smooth texture in the finished product. However, there is a downside: their use in combination with certain emulsifiers can lead to dry skin on dehydrated skin.
Conclusion: When it comes to alcohol in cosmetics, it depends on the right skincare cocktail!
So it really is true - alcohol in skin care is better than its reputation. At least when we refer to the huge group of alcohols. Because alcohol in cosmetics also includes such beauty stars as glycerine, vitamin E and panthenol - after all, we don't want to do without their phenomenal care effects!
When it comes to bad alcohols such as denatured alcohol, ethanol and the like, we at FIVE Skincare practice abstinence. Ultimately, our philosophy stands for minimalism and pure skin detox : We do not use alcohol in any of our products and instead rely on effective natural alternatives such as preserving oils and natural, vegan ferments.
Would you like to pamper yourself with gentle feel-good skincare? Discover our vegan skin care with a maximum of 5 valuable ingredients now in the FIVE Shop !
All the best,
- Saraogi P, Kaushik V, Chogale R, Chavan S, Gode V, Mhaskar S. Virgin coconut oil as prophylactic therapy against alcohol damage on skin in COVID times. J Cosmetic Dermatol. 2021 Aug;20(8):2396-2408. doi: 10.1111/jocd.14258. Epub 2021 Jun 18. PMID: 34121304; PMCID: PMC8447131.
- Lachenmeier DW. Safety evaluation of topical applications of ethanol on the skin and inside the oral cavity. J Occup Med Toxicol. 2008 Nov 13;3:26. doi: 10.1186/1745-6673-3-26. PMID: 19014531; PMCID: PMC2596158.
- Bommannan D, Potts Russell O, Guy Guy Richard, Examination of the effect of ethanol on human stratum corneum in vivo using infrared spectroscopy, Journal of Controlled Release, Volume 16, Issue 3, 1991, Pages 299-304
- Manuela G Neuman, Julia A Haber, Izabella M Malkiewicz, Ross G Cameron, Gady G Katz, Neil H Shear, Ethanol signals for apoptosis in cultured skin cells, Alcohol, Volume 26, Issue 3, 2002, Pages 179-190
- Wu D, Cederbaum AI. Alcohol, oxidative stress, and free radical damage. Alcohol Res Health. 2003;27(4):277-84. PMID: 15540798; PMCID: PMC6668865.