Beauty Breakdown: Alcohols in skincare

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Skincare brands nowadays seem to have a penchant for advertising their products as being free from a particular controversial ingredient. Does the label “alcohol-free” look familiar to you? So what is it about alcohol that makes this ingredient’s reputation so notorious in the skincare realm? Well you’re about to find out.

   First of all let’s get one thing straight. The alcohol that has garnered a global reputation as a skin-damaging ingredient is not the fatty alcohol that’s beneficial for the the skin such as cetyl, stearyl, and cetearyl alcohol. Fatty alcohols are not alcohols per se, they are fatty acids that have been exposed to hydrogen and gives a slightly waxy, emollient texture to skincare products. The alcohol that damages the skin surface is a drying type of alcohol i.e. SD alcohol, denatured alcohol, ethanol or isopropyl alcohol. It’s important to distinguish between the skin-friendly forms of alcohol and the harmful types of alcohol when analysing a product’s ingredient list.

Drying alcohol functions as an astringent and immediately degreases the skin, making this ingredient appealing to manufacturers to include in products aimed at people with oily skin. However, applying drying alcohol to oily skin is a short-term fix and creates long term damage. Oily skin that’s been exposed to high amount of drying alcohol causes it to be even more unbalanced and leads to over-stimulation of the oil glands. The oil glands produce more oil than necessary in an attempt to compensate for the dry and dehydrated skin surface caused by said alcohol. When there’s excess sebum production coupled with dead skin cells, the pores will become clogged, causing the skin’s oxygen level to decrease and making it an ideal environment for acne-causing anaerobic bacteria to germinate and wreak havoc on the skin! Applying high concentration of drying alcohol on someone with dry skin on the other hand, would further weaken the skin’s structure, leading to collagen breakdown and deterioration of the skin’s surface- an already lack lustre dry skin would appear dull, scaly and irritated. Needless to say, applying products with drying alcohol does nothing more than creating a vicious cycle.

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I do have to say though that there are dividing opinions on whether or not products containing drying alcohol should be avoided altogether. Sometimes, presence of alcohol is not necessarily there to solely strip skin of its moisture barrier. Some manufacturers include alcohol in their products for other reasons such as using it as a solvent, emulsifier, stabiliser or as a preservative.

My two cents on this matter is that if a product that you love contains alcohol but it’s positioned relatively low on the ingredient list and the product doesn’t irritate your skin, then it’s not necessary for you to chuck it away like a cursed object after reading this blog post. In my experience, some products still work wonders on the skin even though alcohol is present. For example, one of my all time favourite facial mists, the Caudalie Beauty Elixir, does contain alcohol but i don’t find it drying at all on my normal skin type. In fact, this cult product actually gives my skin a youthful glow and perks it up whenever my skin needs a little bit of a radiance boost! Granted, the scent does take some getting used to at first. After a while, i find the fragrance uplifting during the day and calming at night. It is worth mentioning here that the alcohol used in Caudalie is a plant-derived alcohol, which has been debated as being an alcohol that doesn’t dry out the skin, rather works as a penetration enhancer and a natural preservation system for the product.

What’s important is to monitor your skin closely when testing out a product that contains alcohol; observe how your skin reacts to it. I recommend asking for product samples first before committing to purchasing any skincare item, especially if you’re thinking of investing in high end products or Sephora brands. Department stores and Sephora actually do give out skincare samples either by handing out little sachets or by decanting a little bit of the product inquired in a tiny container. I do it all the time and the ladies at the department stores and Sephora are always happy to fulfil my request. So don’t be shy and ask for some samples whenever you’re on a hunt for the next holy grail product!

Sources: Naturally Organic Skincare | Just About Skin | Beautypaedia | Futurederm | The Science of Acne

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4 thoughts on “Beauty Breakdown: Alcohols in skincare

  1. Assalam & Hi, samples you get from Sephora that you get in the tiny container, is it you bring empty container from home or they would put inside their tiny container? thanks.

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    1. So basically last time I went to Sephora, I just tried my luck and asked for a sample of this facial mask I was checking out. And the lady kindly scooped up some mask from the tester pot and put it in a mini container from Sephora. Hope this helps!

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