by Dr. Stacy Matthews Branch
It is not hard to become befuddled regarding the use of skin care products containing alcohol. Many people do not know that products can contain different types of alcohols. The term alcohol is a chemical designation. It is not just the commonly known form that we use as “rubbing alcohol” (isopropyl or ethyl alcohol) or the substance in alcoholic beverages (ethyl alcohol, also called ethanol). The various types of alcohol substances used skin care can have beneficial and not-so-beneficial effects.
The nature of the alcohol is only one thing to consider. The amount of a given alcohol that appears in a skin care product and the type of product in question are also important. The simple alcohol ethanol (often listed as just alcohol or SD alcohol
) can dry the skin when used alone or when it is present at substantial levels in a skin care product. While the ingredients lists do not state actual amounts and concentrations, they are organized from the most to the least concentrated ingredient. Many simple astringent products contain considerable amounts of ethanol or other simple alcohols that seem to help with oiliness at the beginning of their use but later make the situation worse. Those with acne prone skin
who gravitate towards a "dry out the skin" method, unknowingly cause more harm with high alcohol containing products. The rebound effect of accelerated sebum production only exaggerates the clogged pores and leads to worse acne breakouts.
Alcohols such as stearyl alcohol or cetyl alcohol are considered fatty alcohols and are non-drying. These actually have emollient properties (skin soothing and softening). Benzyl alcohol
is also found in a number of skin care products. It is an example of an aromatic alcohol and functions mainly to provide fragrance, but it is also a preservative (to increase shelf life) and solvent (to help in the mixing and dissolving of other components in the product). It can cause skin irritation in those most sensitive to it. Choosing a fragrance-free product can help avoid this.
Simple alcohols are used to help the other ingredients penetrate the skin. However, there are good water-based products
available to avoid the risk of skin drying often associated with ethanol-containing products. Many of these water-based products use phenoxyethanol as a preservative instead of benzyl alcohol. It is considered less irritating and does not release formaldehyde (a toxic substance) as do some other preservatives. At Seaside Medical Technologies, we've developed a waterless cleanser that acts as both a toner and cleanser without the harsh benzyl alcohol or other toxic ingredients. The disinfecting function comes from plant enzymes instead. At the end of the day, you will have to try a product to see if benzyl alcohol for acne works for you.