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Sober Skin: Common Questions About Alcohol-Free Skin Care

Posted by Nikki Wisher on Sep 14th 2021

Sober Skin: Common Questions About Alcohol-Free Skin Care

We’re all busy people. Most of us don’t put much thought into the ingredients in our skin care. Either we keep buying our same trusty products or if we’re wanting something new, we head to the store, read the marketing claims on the bottles, and pick one that sounds good.

That’s why sometimes, when you see products marketed as being free from certain ingredients (“paraben-free,” “phthalate-free,” and so on), it takes you by surprise. You think, “What is that and when did they start putting it in my face cream in the first place?”

That’s the case with alcohol. When alcohol-free products started getting popular, a lot of folks were surprised to hear that any skin care products had alcohol in them. To take the veil off the mystery, I’m answering some of your burning (haha) questions about alcohol-free skin care.

Why Do Some Products Have Alcohol in the First Place?

I hate to be a party pooper, but skin care manufacturers don’t put alcohol in products to give your skin a nice buzz. There are technically two categories of alcohols in skin care: denatured alcohols and fatty alcohols. Denatured alcohols are the ones that can be problematic (more on that later).

Manufacturers put denatured alcohols in products for a few reasons. First, it makes the product thinner so it feels more lightweight. Second, it allows the product’s active ingredients to penetrate deeper into your skin. That’s why it’s particularly common in toners. Third, it gives your skin a tightened feeling and constricts your pores, so it can make you feel like your skin is firmer and more youthful.

Are All Alcohols in Skin Care Products Bad?

Before we villainize all topical alcohols, let’s revisit that note above: the one about two categories of alcohols. There are denatured alcohols and fatty alcohols. Denatured alcohols have all the “benefits” I mentioned above, like thinning the products and helping them penetrate.

The problem is that these denatured alcohols help ingredients penetrate into your skin because they break down your natural moisture barrier. This makes your skin unable to retain the hydration it needs, so it becomes dry. In fact, that’s why you get the “tight skin” feeling.

Fatty alcohols, on the other hand, have the opposite effect. They actually enhance your skin’s hydration. This is why you might see a rich moisturizer with an alcohol in the ingredient list.

How do you know if a product containing alcohol is a friend or foe? First of all, if a product is labeled as “alcohol-free,” it’s specifically referring to denatured alcohols. It may still include fatty alcohols and the advantages that come with them, so don’t worry that you’re missing out on the benefits of fatty alcohols by shopping alcohol-free.

You can also look at the ingredient list. Fatty alcohols include cetyl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol, and myristyl alcohol. If you see alcohols other than these, they’re probably denatured alcohols and you’d be wise to pick something else.

What Are the Advantages of Alcohol-Free Skin Care?

Now that you know exactly what it means when a product is listed as “alcohol-free,” why should you shop for these products? The primary reason is to protect your skin from dehydration.

Denatured alcohols also leave your skin more vulnerable to irritation. Your moisture barrier keeps hydration in but it also keeps nasty invaders. When alcohols open doors in that barrier to let skin care ingredients in, they can also let in unwanted stowaways like irritants and bacteria.

Denatured alcohols may be okay for people with extremely oily skin, but everyone else is at risk of drying their skin too much, so it’s better to opt for alcohol-free skin care products. Especially if your skin is already sensitive, dry, or prone to irritation, avoid denatured alcohols like the plague.

How Do I Know if My Skin Care Products are Alcohol-Free?

Ready to sober your skin up and cut out denatured alcohols from your skin care routine? The easiest way to start is to look for products that are specifically labeled as being alcohol-free. It’s easier to do this online because you can filter the product list, but alcohol-free products are in high demand, so if you’re shopping in a store, most alcohol-free products will be noticeably labeled that way.

You can also use the trusty ingredient list on any skin care product to find out if it’s alcohol-free. Specifically, you want to avoid products with these ingredients, especially if they’re near the top of the list:

  • Isopropyl alcohol
  • Benzyl alcohol
  • Ethyl alcohol
  • Ethanol
  • Alcohol denat (this is a shortened way to say “denatured alcohol”)
  • Methanol
  • SD alcohol

Keeping Your Skin Hydrated with Alcohol-Free Products

Every skin care product out there has the same goal: to give you more beautiful skin. The problem is that everyone’s skin needs different ingredients (and needs to avoid different ingredients) to make that happen. This is why you need to be your own advocate by knowing what you’re buying and whether it will help or hurt your skin. Opting for alcohol-free products is a simple but effective way to start.