5 Ways Alcohol in Skin Care Is Harming Your Skin Highlights:
1. Alcohol is not a sterilizer and in fact delays wound healing.
2. Overuse of alcohol in cosmetics leads to dry, damaged skin
3. Overuse of alcohol as a sanitizer leads to super-organisms living on our skin.
4. It is a myth that alcohol helps get rid of acne. It likely makes it worse.
5. It is best to use alcohol-free cleansers or toners to get rid of environment debris and toxins.
They say one’s sense of smell conjures up memories more sharply than any other pathway in the brain. For me it’s the strong odor of alcohol that takes me back to my father’s medical clinic circa 1982 where vivid flashbacks of dirty wounds under fluorescent lights amid cold orange tiles live. There was nothing sterile within those walls and the notion that alcohol cleansed everything was as false of an association then as it is in my medical practice today.
It baffles me that after all research has shown us about the cytotoxic effects of alcohol, its denaturing of proteins and drying out effects, we continue to load our patient’s skins and our own hands and faces with alcohol containing swabs, sprays, gels, serums and liquids for the sake of cleanliness. Why do we continue to link alcohol with sterility and disinfection at the cost of disseminating super organisms and delayed wound healing? Perhaps because that statement is partly true. Alcohol kills bugs. SOME BUGS, but not all. Therein lies the biggest misconception we the public as well as the Establishment aka medical professionals foster around the use of alcohol in the medical setting as well as in skincare.
We keep alcohol in our first aid kits, and “wisely” clean our wounds with it before placing the bandaid. The nurse swiftly tears open a 2X2 fresh moist alcohol swab and purposefully disinfects your arm before injecting it with a vaccine. At the eye doctor, before you rest your face onto the chin holder, she wipes it clean with a swipe of alcohol and you find comfort that you will not pick up the germs from the person who sat there before you. And the best one of all…the acne prone teen who vigorously rubs an astringent loaded with alcohol in his relentless quest to rid the skin of any oils, then lets out a sigh of relief after a whiff of that infamous con of a disinfectant.
There are plenty such examples all around the world, in many settings where humans find comfort in the belief that alcohol is the master sterilizer. Psychologically we are bound to alcohol and its magical odor, and we’ll go to great lengths to ensure it will always have a place in our fascination with sterilization.
The fact is that alcohol can potentially do more harm than good. Alcohol delays wound healing by damaging surrounding healthy tissue. Alcohol denatures proteins, damages membranes, leads to super-organisms and strips natural H2O from the surface of the skin. According to the CDC, alcohol is considered an intermediate disinfectant, not a sterilizing agent. While it reduces harmful microorganisms, alcohol cannot kill all microorganisms nor bacterial spores. In the operating room, surgeons don’t use alcohol to disinfect, they use iodine or chlorhexidine. Autoclaves use heat to disinfect surgical equipment or cosmetic supplies, not wiping them down with alcohol swabs.
Some argue that alcohol based solutions are cheaper, therefore the preferred disinfectant in clinical settings, and the preferred cleanser in cosmeceutical products. The underpinning of alcohol’s ubiquitousness may be explained by our deeply seeded psychological belief of its power to clean and of its odor being associated with sterility. Think about it, alcohol is made by spores, living organisms that need human consumption to propagate their species. We are more microgramism than human cells and we live to provide for our vast reservoir of microbes. Would that be the basis of the insanity surrounding our insistence and reliance on alcohol as a cleansing agent, where science has proven otherwise? Hum…
When it comes to skincare, there are various types of alcohol mixed in as either a solvent, fragrance, preservative or disinfectant. We wrote about the different types of alcohol in skincare in the article found here. One prominent issue with alcohol in acne-targeted skincare or products for oily skin is precisely its drying effect. Initially the user may find relief from getting rid of the “oils”, but soon enough the pores begin to over work to replenish the sebum, that protective barrier our skin needs to prevent environmental toxins from penetrating the surface. Over-production of sebum coupled with dry, damaged tissue leads to worsening case of acne. Astringents and toners with high concentrations of alcohol may destroy some acne-causing bacteria, but it will come at a cost. It is a myth that alcohol helps acne-prone skin or prevents future acne from appearing on the skin.
Alcohol in skin care products is also commonly found in everyday toners and waterless cleansers, usually topping the list or second after water. Unfortunately, the drying nature of alcohol in face products provides nothing more than a thirsty skin left overnight to fend against pathogens and toxins with a half-empty tank.
When we began formulating a prepping solution for our patients undergoing aesthetic procedures, we steadfastly kept to the principle of using no harsh alcohols. The botanic hydrosols, nontoxic amino acids and silky MSM wipe away debris better than any 2X2 alcohol swab I’ve come across in a decade practicing medicine. The skin is wholly cleansed (not sterile, doesn’t need to be for simple procedures) and conditioned with Seaside’s Cytotone Waterless Cleanser, ready to take on the botox, filler or peel.
As medical professionals as well as skincare consumers we should be more conscientious in our quest to rid the skin of dirt, debris and organisms with alcohol in our skincare by choosing clinically proven non-toxic solutions. More importantly, we must open our eyes to the potentially toxic effects of rubbing our skin with harsh alcohols and drift away from the ill-informed notion of alcohol as our primary sterilizing agent of choice.
In good health and progress,
Chemical Disinfectants. (2019, April 4). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/infectioncontrol/guidelines/disinfection/disinfection-methods/chemical.html
Hemani, M. L., & Lepor, H. (2009). Skin preparation for the prevention of surgical site infection: which agent is best?. Reviews in urology.
McDonnell, G., & Russell, A. D. (2001, January 14). Antiseptics and Disinfectants: Activity, Action, and Resistance.
Walters, R. M., Mao, G., Gunn, E. T., & Hornby, S. (2012). Cleansing formulations that respect skin barrier integrity. Dermatology research and practice, 2012.
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