5 Surprising Truths About the Alcohol in Your Skin-Care Products

Alcohol has become an extremely unpopular skin-care ingredient despite the fact that it can be extremely helpful. At least some of that reputation is because people are still traumatized by whatever pungent, stinging toner they used in middle school. But even more of it is, sadly, straight-up misinformation.

So before you go scouring a product’s ingredients list for a single mention of alcohol to decide whether or not to buy it, there are a couple things you should know.

1. Surprise! Alcohol doesn’t always burn and sting your face.

For starters, there are about a zillion different kinds of alcohol. When you hear the word “alcohol,” your mind probably goes to one of two places: Alcohol you drink or rubbing alcohol—neither of which sounds like something you want on your face. But, in reality, that barely scratches the surface.

“‘Alcohol’ is a chemistry term, [and] it just means that a molecule has a hydroxyl group at one end,” John Zampella, M.D., John G. Zampella, M.D., assistant professor in the Ronald O. Perelman department of dermatology at NYU Langone Health, tells SELF. A hydroxyl group is an oxygen atom bonded to a hydrogen atom, and it’s found on a truly vast number of organic molecules.

Alcohols are extremely diverse, encompassing everything from the fun part of wine to rubbing alcohol to retinol and beyond. All alcohols do share that hydroxyl group, but they can have vastly different structures—with different molecular weights—and that’s what determines how each type of alcohol plays with your skin and other ingredients in a skin-care product.

2. Most commonly, alcohol is used to make products go on and absorb more easily.

It’s actually really common for cosmetics to use alcohols as either solvents or emulsifiers, and which one is which depends largely on molecular weight. Alcohols with low molecular weights, like isopropyl alcohol and ethanol (often listed as SD alcohol or denatured alcohol/alcohol-denat. on ingredients lists), function as solvents, encouraging ingredients that don’t want to dissolve in water do just that. They’re most often liquids and tend to evaporate pretty quickly.

That’s why lower molecular weight alcohols are so useful in achieving a specific product texture, Melissa Piliang, M.D., a dermatologist at Cleveland Clinic, tells SELF. “[Ingredients] like isopropyl alcohol, alcohol denat. or SD alcohol, methanol, [and] ethyl alcohol…make a product feel lighter on the skin and dry quickly,” she says. “They feel nice—especially if you have oily skin.”

Plus, she says, they help increase the skin penetration of active ingredients like vitamin C and retinol. Dr. Zampella agrees, adding that these products also tend to dry “without a greasy feeling,” which many of his patients appreciate.

3. Some types of alcohol can actually be moisturizing.

High molecular weight or “fatty” alcohols like cetyl, stearyl, and cetearyl alcohol mainly keep oil-and-water emulsions from separating, but they also add some extra emollience to the final product, which means it helps make the outer layer of the skin feel smoother and softer. Typically, these alcohols are derived from the fatty acids in plant and/or vegetable oils—hence the term “fatty alcohols.” They’re thick, waxy, and often totally solid at room temperature.

Fatty alcohols—cetyl, stearyl, cetearyl, behenyl—have the opposite effect of low molecular weight alcohols when it comes to how they feel on your skin. “They make a product feel thick and luxurious, with a heavy texture,” Dr. Piliang explains. “They can also act like a moisturizer: They help to protect the skin, draw in a little bit of moisture, and enhance the natural lipid barrier.” So, if you see one of these listed on an ingredients list (like cetearyl alcohol in a moisturizer), that’s probably why it’s there.

Moisturizing? Lipid barrier enhancing? That sure doesn’t sound like the evil alcohol you know and hate…

4. But, yes, OK, using too much alcohol in your skin-care products can definitely cause irritation.

Using too much of either kind of alcohol can have some drawbacks. Solvent-type alcohols are great at increasing water solubility and evaporating quickly, but they can take some of the water in your skin with ‘em when they do. The increased skin penetration they provide is great for active ingredients, but not so great for potential irritants, like heavy fragrances and essential oils.

Even their ability to de-grease a shiny nose can be problematic: “Because they break down grease, [solvent alcohols] can break down the lipids in the outer barrier of our skin,” Dr. Piliang warns, explaining that a compromised stratum corneum can make your skin even more sensitive and irritation-prone than it already is. In high concentrations or with heavy use, solvent-type alcohols can be pretty drying and irritating.

Moisturizing fatty alcohols aren’t all sunshine and roses, either. Most of them are derived from vegetable sources, often coconut or palm oil, which means they come with all the same asterisks as other plant, seed, or nut oils—a tendency to irritate skin or clog pores, in particular.

Just because something is plant-derived doesn’t mean it’s harmless. “We think that if something says ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ or ‘plant-derived,’ that it’ll uniformly be healthy or good for us. But any of these [alcohols] we’ve talked about, you can have an allergy to…and these are fairly common allergens we see for our patients,” Dr. Piliang explains. Plus, plant oils—especially coconut and palm oils—are pretty great at clogging pores.

So, if you’re experiencing dryness, sensitivity, or irritation, it could be worth checking to see if you’re using a lot of products containing solvent-type alcohols, which might show up as isopropyl alcohol, isopropanol, or denatured alcohol on a label. Or if you’re experiencing a lot of clogged pores or new breakouts, check your products for fatty alcohols like cetyl or stearyl alcohol. If you think the alcohol in your products might be a culprit, talk to a dermatologist about whether or not it makes sense for you to switch to something new.

5. How to find the right type of alcohol for your skin:

The bottom line is that different alcohols strongly influence a product’s texture and feel, which of course influences how it will interact with your skin. But it’s important to remember that cosmetic formulas are complex and often more than the sum of their ingredients—the presence of one form of alcohol on an ingredients list tells you just a little bit about the product as a whole. It comes down to how much of which alcohol there is in a product, how you use it, and whether or not it’s suited to your skin type. Here are some basic ground rules to keep in mind:

For oily skin:
“If you have very oily skin, you might want [a product] with a low molecular weight alcohol in it because you want to remove that oil,” Dr. Zampella says, such as ethyl alcohol. “But someone who has more sensitive skin might find that drying or irritating.”

For dry skin:
People with dry skin should look for products with higher molecular weight alcohols that give a more moisturizing feel, like cetyl and stearyl.

For sensitive skin:
Those with sensitive skin—especially those with eczema—should use caution when it comes to all alcohols. They may find that even those moisturizing, high molecular weight alcohols are irritating. In that case, Dr. Zampella recommends sticking with something like Vaseline or Aquaphor.

Even with these guidelines, you may run into issues depending on the concentration of alcohol in a product and the other ingredients that are present. But in general, “you have to look at the total product and you have to start with your skin type,” Dr. Piliang says. “And then it becomes trial and error on some level.”

So the answer to the big existential question about alcohol in skincare is, I guess, “It’s complicated.” But it’s also really not! In the right product, at the right concentration, every form of alcohol can be beneficial, even nasty old denatured alcohol. And who knows? If you have oily skin, you might even like it. Ultimately, the entire formula of the product is what matters most, which is why sometimes it takes a little (or a lot of) trial and error.