There is so much incomplete or misleading information online, it’s easy to believe that alcohol-based moisturisers or treatments aren’t really all that bad for your skin.

Formulas loaded with alcohol (SD alcohol, ethanol, denatured, isopropyl, methanol or ethyl alcohol) often have a pleasing, quick-drying finish that feels weightless on skin, so it’s easy to see their appeal. Despite the conflicting information you’ll come across, the research is clear:  No matter your skin-care concerns, alcohol as a main ingredient in any skin-care product is a problem.

Can Alcohol Ever Be Good for Skin?

Surely, you think, there must be a good reason so many skin-care companies include alcohol in their products. Right? Of course, there are a few reasons, but in my experience, there are only two primary explanations. As mentioned above, alcohol can make a thick skin-care product feel almost weightless, creating a deceptively pleasant aesthetic.

The second reason is that your skin is very good at keeping ingredients out. Skin-protective substances (think lipids, enzymes, and antioxidants) repel beneficial ingredients in your serums or other treatments from getting in. Alcohol helps ingredients like retinol and vitamin C penetrate in to the skin more effectively, but it does that by breaking down the skin’s barrier—destroying the very substances that keep your skin healthy over the long term.

If Alcohol Evaporates, How Damaging Can it Be?

If alcohol evaporates quickly, it seems reasonable that the damage will not be so severe. Unfortunately, research reveals that this logic is only wishful thinking. Alcohol immediately harms the skin and starts a chain reaction of damage that continues long after it has evaporated. Once alcohol has done its damage, your skin isn’t quite the same, and it won’t be as good at protecting itself from further damage.  Skin is no longer able to keep water and cleansing agents from penetrating into it, thus further eroding the skin’s barrier.

The Good Types of Alcohol

There’s a class of ingredients known as fatty alcohols, which are not the least bit harmful for skin. Often confused with the bad alcohols, such as denatured alcohol, the fatty alcohols include, among others, cetyl alcohol and stearyl alcohol. Typically, fatty alcohols are used as emollients and thickeners in skin-care products. Fatty alcohols are not irritating and, in fact, can be beneficial for dry skin.

Alcohol’s Connection to Oily Skin and Acne

Alcohol has two benefits that could reasonably appeal to someone with acne and/or oily skin. Alcohol can kill acne-causing bacteria on the surface of the skin, which is why some swear by alcohol-based anti-acne products to reduce their breakouts. Alcohol also quickly de-greases skin, and that instant gratification is attractive to those with super-oily complexions.

The irony of using alcohol-based treatments is that the damage they cause leads to an increase of acne-causing bacteria, and makes inflammation worse, the consequence of which are red marks that stay around for much longer than they would otherwise.

For those with oily skin, alcohol can stimulate oil production at the base of the pore, so the immediate de-greasing effect is eventually counteracted by oily skin producing even more oil!

The Bottom Line

In the case of alcohol-based products, because we know they’re always bad news for skin it doesn’t make any sense to use them given that there are more advanced but more importantly, natural alternatives.

The research is clear: Alcohol harms your skin’s protective barrier, triggers free-radical damage, makes oily skin and redness worse, and is best described as “pro-aging.” Why bother, given the damaging effects of topical alcohol and the hundreds of skin-friendly alternatives available?


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