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When it comes to skincare, most of us typically think of alcohol as a big no-no. It’s harsh. It’s drying. It’s bad for the skin. Or, maybe you have the opposite point of view. Perhaps you think of alcohol as a means for controlling your oily skin or fighting acne. 

While both perspectives can sometimes be true, we simply can’t generalise about all alcohols in skincare products. The fact is, there are “bad” alcohols that can do a lot of harm to the skin, and there are also “good” alcohols those when used correctly, can be safe and beneficial in your skincare products. It’s important to understand the difference between the two so that you can find a skincare regimen that will help you maintain a healthy and radiant complexion.

Read on to learn the differences between good and bad alcohols for your skin and how to spot them in your skincare products.

But First, A Word About Oil

Before we dive into the different types of alcohols, it’s important to speak about a closely related topic: Oil. This is because the vast majority of people who use alcohol on their skin in the first place do so with the intention of combating oil, reducing shine, fighting acne etc. Many products that contain the bad kinds of alcohol are marketed for these very conditions.

All of us have sebaceous glands in our skin that produce sebum—which most of us refer to as oil. Sebum is our body’s natural way of keeping our skin & hair healthy and moisturized.

Sebum has another purpose, too. The body is constantly sloughing off old skin cells to make way for new ones. At the same time, the body is secreting sebum, which combines with these sloughed-off cells as it makes its way to the skin’s surface. The sebum carries these sloughed off cells away and out of the body, ensuring that the skin stays continuously moisturized, healthy and renewed. Though most of us think of oil as a negative thing, as you can see, it’s actually carrying out a very important function.

This natural bodily process of producing oil can sometimes get out of whack. If our body doesn’t make enough sebum, it results in dry skin. If it makes too much, the skin feels oily. This latter scenario is what causes many to reach for products containing alcohol—to whisk away that oily surface layer.

Unfortunately, stripping the skin of its oil can send the sebaceous glands into overdrive. The body thinks it doesn’t have enough sebum, prompting our glands to produce even more oil to make up for the difference, making the oil problem get exponentially worse!

Instead of treating oily skin with harsh alcohols, it’s best to focus on finding a product that provides the skin the appropriate level of moisture it needs and helps balance its sebum production.

Bad Alcohols for Skin

Now that we have a better understanding of how and why our skin produces oil, let’s talk about the bad guys when it comes to alcohol. These are the types of alcohols that might make you wince when you think about putting them on your skin (or at least, they should!).

Bad alcohols include what’s commonly known as “denatured” alcohol, which is ethanol containing a denaturing agent. If the term “denaturing” sounds unsavory to you, you’re on to something. Denaturing agents are additives that are intended to make the alcohol cheaper to produce and are also one of the reasons the alcohols smell so pungent. Denatured alcohols are not suitable for human consumption and are extremely drying to the skin. They’re similar to products like rubbing alcohol, which is often used as a topical antiseptic. Never use rubbing alcohol on your face!

Though denatured alcohols give the skin an appealing squeaky-clean feeling and can give the immediate sensation of reducing oil, skin-care experts agree that they actually come with terrible long-term side effects for skin. They strip the skin of its natural oils, which, as mentioned earlier, stimulates the sebaceous glands to produce more oil—not good for the oily-skinned! These alcohols also damage the essential barrier function of the skin, weakening its structure and making it susceptible to infections.

This excessive oil production, along with the additional irritations and skin infections from using harsh denatured alcohols, can lead to acne breakouts. These bad alcohols can even cause damage to those who have normal, healthy skin!  

How to Spot Bad Alcohols in Skincare Products

Always check the ingredients list on your product. It is advisable to do some research, as denatured alcohols can appear under some not-so-obvious names. Denatured alcohols are often found on ingredient labels by the names Ethanol/Ethyl alcohol, Propanol, Methanol, Alcohol Denat., SD alcohol, Isopropyl alcohol or Benzyl alcohol.

In short, you want to avoid skincare products that contain denatured alcohol, especially if they’re among the first five or six ingredients. Ingredients are often listed in descending order of quantity, so the ones that appear on the top of the list are the ones that may make up the majority of the product.

Good Alcohols for Skin

So, now that we’ve got the bad guys out of the way, let’s talk about the good guys. These are the types of alcohols that don’t harm your skin, rather, they come with a beneficial purpose.

Good alcohols, sometimes called fatty alcohols or esters of alcohol, don’t have the same skin-irritating properties as denatured alcohols. Actually, they can actually be quite valuable to your skin. Fatty alcohols give products a smooth, creamy texture and help keep the other important active ingredients stable. What’s more, experts agree they are excellent emollients, helping the skin retain moisture and giving it a plump look and supple feel.

When used in moderate amounts, these “good alcohols” are beneficial and do not cause any known adverse reactions to the skin. While it may work for most people, everyone is different and therefore, we always recommend checking in with your dermatologist if you’re experiencing any skin irritations or allergic reactions.

How to Spot Good Alcohols in Skincare Products

Good alcohols, like bad ones, go by many names. Here are a few of the ingredients you can mark on the ‘safe’ list: Cetyl alcohol, Stearyl alcohol, Isostearyl alcohol, Cetearyl alcohol, Lauryl alcohol, Isopropyl myristate, Isopropyl palmitate and Glyceryl stearate.

It’s All About the Moisture

Moisturizing is one of the most important steps to achieving healthy, youthful and radiant skin. Dry or oily, every type of skin needs moisturizing to help it look and feel its best. Instead of thinking of alcohol as a means to treat oil, focus on finding a moisturizer with the right combination of ingredients for you.

Everyone is different. The moisturizer that works for your friend might not necessarily be the right fit for you. Also, a product that you have loved for years may no longer work as well, as your skin changes with aging. This is why it’s important to invest time to find the right products for your skin. At Iryasa, we use natural ingredients such as Almond oil and Patchouli oil in some of our skincare products, which help modulate sebum production.

Here’s an exercise that will help you get a better handle on your skin’s moisture needs. Rather than thinking of your skin in terms of ‘dry’ or ‘oily,’ try shifting your perspective to think about its moisture content and all of the factors that contribute to it.

If you’re experiencing dry skin, your skin is clearly in need of moisture, but that doesn’t mean you necessarily need to go slathering on a heavy cream. Consider the following: Are you drinking enough water? Are you spending most of your day in a drying environment? Are you using a new product that could be causing an adverse reaction? All of these contribute to dry skin, not just your skin’s lack of oil production.

The same goes for oily skin. Just because your skin feels oily, it doesn’t mean it’s appropriate to reach for a product to dry it out. Are you washing or exfoliating your face too frequently? Are you skimping on your moisturizer, causing your skin to overcompensate? Do your parents, siblings or other members in your family have a history of oily skin?

Understanding your skin from a holistic point of view rather than just ‘dry’ or ‘oily’ will help you make the right decisions when it comes to what products to use and what changes might be appropriate to make in your lifestyle.