Separating Good and Bad Alcohol in Skincare Products

Posted on: 03/05/2019

skin cream tubeWe all know many rosacea patients are affected by alcohol, but what about the alcohol hiding in your medicine cabinet? When you read the ingredient label on the back of a skincare product, you may discover multiple varieties of alcohol listed. Each of these can serve a different purpose, which may or may not be problematic for rosacea skin.

“Although there aren't any alcohols that need to be avoided at all costs, it's important to understand why it's in a product and whether the concentration is high enough to merit attention,” explained Dr. Estee Williams, assistant professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical School.

Most people assume that applying alcohol to their skin will cause irritation, and this is true when alcohol is used in a product for drying, antibacterial properties or for fragrance. On the other hand, many forms of alcohol are used in products to prevent epidermal water loss or to give products a smoother, creamier consistency. Common harmless alcohols include cetyl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol, lauryl alcohol and stearyl alcohol, among others.

Below is a list of astringent alcohols frequently used in skincare products. They may have drying and irritating effects on the skin depending on the amount included in the product. 

Astringent Alcohols
“Alcohol”
Ethyl Alcohol or ethanol
Methanol
Isopropyl Alcohol
SD Alcohol
Benzyl Alcohol

“Over-the-counter products are not required to list concentrations, so there is no way for you to know just how much alcohol a product has,” said Dr. Williams. “However, if it is listed as one of the first three or four ingredients, or is the 20th ingredient in a product with 50 ingredients, it should be considered significant.”

Before incorporating new products into your skincare routine, review their ingredients list. Many forms of alcohol go by multiple names, and the Environmental Working Group offers a useful website where you can look up unfamiliar ingredients and their relative hazards. If your skin is prone to dryness, you may want to avoid products that list astringent alcohols among the first few ingredients. And with any new product, it’s a good idea to test it on a small patch of skin before using it on your entire face. 

Visit the National Rosacea Society’s Skincare & Cosmetics section for more tips and advice on sunscreen, makeup and cleansing.

Photo courtesy of Marco Verch on Flickr.