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Oft-Misunderstood Skincare Ingredient: Alcohol

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Is it really bad for my skin?

Alcohols in skincare have gotten some bad rep over the years for being an irritant to sensitive skin, causing skin dryness and more. But did you know, alcohols play an important role in skincare products for various reasons, and not every ingredient with the word “alcohol” means that it actually contains alcohol?

Sounds confusing? Let us explain! Alcohol as an ingredient is broken down into two categories: simple alcohols and fatty alcohols. The former is made of alcohol such as ethanol which can be highly volatile and drying, while the latter takes on a completely different form, in terms of appearance and properties.

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  • Simple alcohols

Commonly listed as ethanol, alcohol, alcohol denat. (denaturated), isopropyl alcohol etc. in the ingredient list, they serve as penetration enhancers to boost efficacy of other ingredients. They are also volatile – easily evaporated at normal temperatures – and impart a cooling sensation with quick vaporisation, allowing skincare to set quickly on the skin. Additionally, simple alcohols are highly antiseptic and help with preserving the product to prevent the growth of bacteria, fungi, yeast and germs.

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Oftentimes, we’re told that these are “bad” alcohols, even though there really isn’t anything “bad” about them. What makes them “bad” and drying for the skin is if they are used at very high concentrations, e.g. 60% or more in hand sanitisers. But when used as solvents at less than 10% in sprays, they are acceptable for normal skin types.

At very high concentrations, simple alcohols can strip your skin of moisture and be sensitising on skin. However, we are seeing less and less of this as skincare brands are increasingly using them in lower concentrations due to consumer sentiments that allow them to be safe for skin yet remain effective at the same time. 

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It’s not always necessary to raise a red flag when you spot “alcohol” on an ingredient list because it really depends on the percentage of alcohol in the product and the overall formulation. Dry and sensitive skin types with poor barrier function may find it irritating for skin, while normal and oily skin types may find it to be completely fine. 

  • Fatty alcohols

They are nothing like ethanol and have a completely different appearance and possess different properties. Unlike ethanol (simple alcohol) which is highly volatile and dehydrating at a high percentage, fatty alcohols have a high molecular weight and contain “lipids/oils” that make them very useful as emollients in moisturisers.

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Commonly listed as cetyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol etc. in the ingredient list, they serve to moisturise, enhance viscosity, and act as an emulsifier in skincare products.

Fatty alcohols are mostly classified as “good” alcohols as they are made of large compounds consisting of lipids, which act as emollients that sit on the surface of your skin to prevent water loss. They also help to impart a pleasing texture to cream formulations and emulsify the products (i.e. hold the products together so that oil and water don’t separate).

These ingredients generally don’t cause adverse reactions as they are non-irritating in nature, making it beneficial even for sensitive skin type users. 

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In conclusion, alcohol is not necessarily bad for your skin, and plays an important role in functional skincare products too! However, always keep in mind that skincare is not one-size-fits-all – what may work for someone else may not work for you. 

A good way to ensure a new skincare product is suitable for your skin (regardless whether it contains alcohol) would be to conduct a patch test behind your ear before using the product on your entire face.

Don’t forget to check out some of ést.lab products containing fatty alcohols which can provide added moisturising benefits to your skin such as the VitaLift A+ OPC Antioxidant Cream, Cellular Ultra-Repair Cream and Multi-Recharge Lifting Cream.

In Good Hands, 
Estetica

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