dispelling the myths about alcohol in skin care

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.

Alcohol Denat. courtesy of http://www.vivawoman.net.

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.


3 Responses to dispelling the myths about alcohol in skin care

  1. wendy kosmatka says:

    Why is SD alcohol used in topical products? If the % of denatured alcohol is so little why is it listed as seconded or third ingredient listed on some PCA products?

    • Hi Wendy and thanks for your question. SD Alcohol 40-B is ethyl alcohol denatured with denatonium benzoate and t-butyl alcohol. SD alcohol 40-B is an effective astringent and solvent for cosmetics.

      Solvents are necessary in cosmetics because they assist in dissolving other substances. It is important to think of the product’s ingredient listing as a whole rather than singling out one ingredient based on its ranking within the listing.

      The PCA SKIN products that contain SD Alcohol 40-B are:
      Acne Gel, Perfecting Protection SPF 30, Rejuvenating Serum, Both Pigment Gels®, Activator (Step 3), Intensive Clarity Treatment: 0.5% pure retinol night, A&C Synergy Serum®

    • Moreover, to answer the heart of your question, oftentimes multiple raw materials within one formulation contain small amounts of alcohol. This can move alcohol up on the final ingredient list, but does not mean that high concentrations of alcohol were added to the products.

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