You might have heard, at some point or other, that alcohol in skincare is to be avoided at all costs—but the truth is, it’s not quite so simple. From acting as a preservative to providing absorption-enhancing properties, alcohol can have a lot of benefits, which is why it’s long been a staple ingredient in skincare formulations. But not all alcohols are created equal.
Here, we’ll break down the role of alcohol in skincare, and explain everything you need to know about the different types of alcohol, so you can make informed decisions on what products to include in your skincare routine.
Alcohols are used in skincare for various purposes; they can act as a solvent and a preservative, and they can enhance the penetration of active ingredients. They can be found in a wide array of products aside from skincare, including hair styling products, foundations, perfumes, and deodorants.
One of the primary reasons alcohols are used in skincare is due to their high volatility. This means that they evaporate quickly after you apply them, leaving no residue behind. This can be particularly useful in products like perfumes and deodorants, where a quick-drying effect is optimal.
Another essential function of alcohol in skincare is its preservative action. This helps extend the shelf life of products by inhibiting the growth of bacteria and other microorganisms. This is particularly important for water-based products, which are more susceptible to microbial contamination.¹
Aside from drying quickly and extending the shelf life of products, alcohols like ethanol can make your skincare products more effective by increasing absorption. This is great for creams and lotions as it enhances the penetration of rich active ingredients into your skin's superficial layers.²
Aside from ethanol, there are also some other alcohols that can provide different benefits to your skin. Here are a few to be aware of.
You probably didn't know that vitamin A1 (retinol) and vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol) are alcohols, too! Both of these ingredients offer considerable skin benefits.
Retinol is known especially for its anti-aging effects on skin.³ One study found that 0.5% retinol provides clinical benefits when it comes to enhancing overall skin tone, skin elasticity, and moisture. This same study also concluded that the regular use of retinol can brighten skin and reduce the signs of aging.⁴
Topical vitamin E is a popular skincare ingredient because of its antioxidant properties. This makes it especially useful for anti-aging benefits.⁵ If you want to fade hyperpigmentation, taking vitamin E supplements may help.⁶
Cetyl alcohol is a synthetic fatty alcohol derived from natural sources like palm oil and coconut oil. Its primary functions in skincare products include improving texture and working as a thickening agent. Cetyl alcohol is also known for its water-binding ability, making it an effective emollient. This helps prevent skin from drying out and keeps it soft and supple.⁷
According to the FDA Code of Federal Regulations, cetyl alcohol is considered generally safe for use in food and food component synthesis, provided that it meets specific purity criteria. This indicates that cetyl alcohol is a well-regulated and safe ingredient for various applications.⁸
This alcohol is also listed in the FDA's Over-the-Counter (OTC) ingredient list as a skin protectant to help soothe skin irritations caused by poison ivy, oak, sumac, and insect bites or stings.⁹
The Curology Rich Moisturizer contains cetyl alcohol and is formulated to provide deep hydration and nourishment to your skin. Since cetyl alcohol helps prevent dryness and chapping of your skin, this moisturizer is an excellent choice if you’re looking for additional hydration and protection.
Like cetyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol has moisturizing properties and it’s used as an emollient to trap moisture in your skin.¹⁰
The Curology Gentle Cleanser contains stearyl alcohol and is designed to effectively cleanse your skin while maintaining its natural moisture balance. The presence of stearyl alcohol in the cleanser ensures that it offers a soothing and moisturizing effect while effectively removing dirt, makeup, and excess oil from your skin. As a result, skin feels clean, refreshed, and hydrated after use.
Cetearyl alcohol is a fatty alcohol used in cosmetics for its emollient properties and its ability to emulsify and control viscosity. As an emollient, it helps soften and moisturize skin, providing a smooth and comfortable feel. Its emulsifying and viscosity-controlling properties evenly distribute cosmetic ingredients, creating a stable and consistent texture.¹¹
If you’re looking for a sunscreen that not only protects your skin from harmful UV rays but also offers moisturizing benefits, the Curology Everyday Sunscreen could be an excellent option for you.
This sunscreen offers broad-spectrum protection. The presence of cetearyl alcohol in this sunscreen enhances your skin moisture and contributes to a smooth and comfortable texture, making it easy to apply and pleasant to wear throughout the day.
Propylene glycol is an alcohol that is used as a humectant in skincare. This means that it has the ability to attract water into your skin, and can help maintain and improve your skin hydration.
It also serves as a solvent in cosmetic formulations. This means it helps dissolve other ingredients, allowing for more even distribution of components in the product. The use of propylene glycol as a solvent can enhance the overall effectiveness and performance of cosmetic products, ensuring that the active ingredients are delivered efficiently to the skin.¹²
If you're in search of an acne-targeting cleanser that contains propylene glycol because of its skin-conditioning and humectant properties, the Curology Acne Cleanser is a great option to consider. This cleanser not only effectively removes dirt, oil, and makeup but also helps to maintain your skin's hydration.
All these fatty alcohols can offer significant benefits to your skin, but there are some alcohols you may want to avoid.
One alcohol you may want to avoid in skincare is alcohol denat (also known as SD alcohol). Alcohol denat is not all bad—it has bactericidal activity and is often used as a topical disinfectant.¹³ However, it may strip the natural oils from your skin and potentially disrupt your skin barrier.¹⁴
The FDA approves the use of certain specially denatured alcohols, such as SD Alcohol 23-A, SD Alcohol 40, and SD Alcohol 40-B, in limited amounts for topical application in cosmetics. However, it's essential to consider the potential negative effects of alcohol denat on your skin, especially if you have dry or sensitive skin.¹⁵
To minimize the risk of skin irritation or disruption of the skin barrier, you may want to opt for skincare products without alcohol denat or to choose products with gentler alcohols that are known for their emollient and moisturizing properties.
Gentler alcohols like cetyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol, and propylene glycol, can be a beneficial addition to skincare products by enhancing ingredient penetration, providing preservation, and creating a lightweight application feel. They may also offer advantages such as helping moisturize your skin and eliminating bacteria.
In moderate amounts, alcohol is generally harmless, but if you have sensitive, dry, or eczema-prone skin, you should exercise caution when using certain types of alcohol, like alcohol denat.
Above all, carefully read product labels and consult your dermatology provider if you have concerns about alcohol causing you any skin issues.
Founded by board-certified dermatologist Dr. David Lortscher in 2014, Curology’s line of products have been developed and tested by our team of dermatology experts. Our over-the-counter products include cleansers, moisturizers, sunscreens, and other items that promote skin health. We also offer personalized Rx skincare formulas that are all designed to work synergistically to deliver optimal results. We will pair you up with one of our 100+ licensed dermatology providers to guide you every step of the way.
Give your skin the care it deserves and experience the difference that Curology can make in achieving a healthier, more radiant complexion. Visit our online shop to explore our range of products and start your journey toward healthier skin today by signing up for our trial.*
Alcohol is a common ingredient used in skincare. Some of the most commonly used alcohols include cetyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol, propylene glycol, and alcohol denat. Many of these alcohols are used as emollients and can help moisturize your skin, while alcohol denat can cause dryness and irritation.
Rubbing alcohol may be effective at killing bacteria, but it dries out the skin. Dry skin can make your acne worse or lead to more breakouts so it’s better to avoid using it on your skin, especially if you have acne.¹⁶ It’s always better to use a lower concentration of alcohol on your skin.
Other common names of alcohol in skincare include SD alcohol, alcohol denat, ethanol, methyl alcohol, and isopropyl alcohol.
National Center for Biotechnology Information. PubChem Compound Summary for CID 702, Ethanol. (2023, April 29).
Gupta, R., et al. Molecular mechanism of the skin permeation enhancing effect of ethanol: a molecular dynamics study, RSC Advances. (2020, n.d.).
Michalak, M., et al. Bioactive Compounds for Skin Health: A Review. Nutrients. (2021, January 12).
Zasada, M., et al. A Clinical Anti-Ageing Comparative Study of 0.3 and 0.5% Retinol Serums: A Clinically Controlled Trial. Skin Pharmacol Physiol. (2020, n.d.).
Keen, M.A. and Hassan, I. Vitamin E in dermatology. Indian Dermatol Online J. (July-August 2016).
Michalak, M., et al. Bioactive Compounds for Skin Health: A Review. Nutrients. Ibid.
National Center for Biotechnology Information. PubChem Compound Summary for CID 2682, 1-Hexadecanol. (2023, April 29).
U.S. Food & Drug Administration. CFR - Code of Federal Regulations Title 21. (2023, January 17).
U.S. Food & Drug Administration. OTC Ingredient List. (2010, April 7).
National Center for Biotechnology Information. PubChem Compound Summary for CID 8221, Stearyl Alcohol. (2023, April 29).
National Center for Biotechnology Information. PubChem Compound Summary for CID 62238, cetostearyl alcohol. (2023, April 29).
National Center for Biotechnology Information. PubChem Compound Summary for CID 1030, Propylene Glycol. (2023, April 29).
National Center for Biotechnology Information. PubChem Compound Summary for CID 702, Ethanol. (2023, April 29).
American Academy of Dermatology Association. Dermatologists' Top Tips for Relieving Dry Skin. (n.d.).
U.S. Food & Drug Administration. “Alcohol Free”. (2022, February 25)
American Academy of Dermatology Association. MOISTURIZER: WHY YOU MAY NEED IT IF YOU HAVE ACNE. (n.d.).
Meredith Hartle is a board-certified Family Medicine physician at Curology. She earned her medical degree at Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine in Kirksville, MO.
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Meredith Hartle, DO