The term ‘alcohol’ represents a variety of chemicals that contain an alkyl group and a hydroxyl group. Most commonly we think of ethyl alcohol or ethanol when this term is used.
Ethanol is regulated by the government agency ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms), is highly taxed, and regulated due to its ability to be consumed. Ethyl alcohol is also used as a solvent in many topical products. In this instance the alcohol is not consumed. So, to avoid the need for excessive taxation and regulation, alcohol used for reasons other than to be consumed is ‘denatured.’ This denaturing process does not alter the alcohol’s chemical structure, but simply renders the alcohol bitter and un-drinkable. Denaturing can be achieved using many substances, including isopropyl alcohol, acetone and methanol. These denaturing ingredients make up a minute portion (typically less than 0.5%) of the alcohol. The denatured alcohol is typically also a very small portion of the final product in which it is being used – typically less than 10%. Denatured alcohol is completely safe and is used as a solvent, or sometimes as part of a preservation system, in skin care.
The real confusion about the word alcohol comes about when we talk about fatty alcohols. These are not volatile (meaning they evaporate quickly at normal temperatures), but are actually conditioning to the skin. These alcohols typically come from palm or coconut and are solids at room temperature. Common fatty alcohols used in skin care are cetyl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol or behenyl alcohol.
So be sure that when you see the word alcohol on a label that you are clear which type of alcohol it is before assuming that the product in question might be drying to the skin. If it is a fatty alcohol, it will provide moisturizing benefits. Clearly not all alcohols are created equal.