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Alcohol in cosmetics: is it good or bad?

There is a lot of argument about alcohol in cosmetics for a very long time. Websites are full of articles stating that it dries skin, irritates it and consumers are more cautious in their choice of products especially when the products state the frightening word “Alcohol” in the ingredient list. However, alcohol is a big class of organic compounds which includes even such a popular component called glycerin! Surprised? Let’s figure it out together.

Glycerin is contained in nearly all cosmetic creams and is a polyatomic alcohol. Thanks to its small molecular size, it can penetrate lipid skin barrier and go deep into epidermis. That is exactly why small amounts of glycerin are commonly used in cosmetics. It has a moisturizing effect, softens the skin and according to the latest research it stimulates normal life of epidermis cells.

That’s why it is important to divide alcohol into two groups in order to understand which ones are bad and which ones are good.

Bad vs. Good

Monatomic alcohol a.k.a the bad alcohol. These compounds are the ones with aggressive behavior towards skin. They destroy its protection layer, cause dryness, irritation and expands blood vessels and consequently increases its sensitivity. These compounds are commonly known as ethyl alcohol, isopropyl alcohol, benzyl alcohol and some others. All of them are colorless inflammable liquids with very peculiar smell.

On the other hand, we have polyatomic alcohols a.k.a the good alcohol, which are compounds that are necessary for cosmetic goods, and they are frequently used as thickeners and emulsifiers. The most frequent use is in creams, balms and masks for hair. They are also known as fatty alcohol and commonly listed as cetearyl alcohol, cetyl alcohol and stearyl alcohol. Thanks to them, our favorite creams have the consistency and texture that we enjoy. Moreover, they are different in the way they look as well. Polyatomic alcohols are solid wax like and are usually extracted from vegetables oils.

What Experts Say?

Now we know that not all alcohols are bad for skin, Halal cosmetics guidelines forbid use of ethyl alcohol, though it is quite commonly found among ordinary cosmetics. Is it that harmful?

 “It’s a very common question. Ethyl alcohol is most frequently used in cosmetics goods as a preservative. It requires a relatively high concentration amount of it in order to be effective and this will definitely have a negative effect on human skin. Moreover, scientists have already developed preservatives that do not have such a harmful effect.” dermatovenerologist Elkanova Angela Hanafievna M.D tells us. 

In addition, it is a popular opinion that it is necessary to use alcohol-based cosmetics to care for oily and problem skin - but this is fundamentally not true.

“When alcohol is used, the natural lipid barrier of the skin is destroyed, and this leads to disruption of the sebaceous glands and the formation of acne as it causes a surge in the production of sebum, which in turn becomes a breeding ground for bacteria. There were many of such examples in my professional activity. I would advise not to use cosmetics containing ethyl alcohol, and in this I fully agree with the standards of Halal cosmetics,” explains Angela Hanafievna.


Now you have the knowledge that alcohols can be different and not all of them are harmful. Adding “bad alcohol” such as ethyl alcohol to cosmetics allows manufacturers to get stable emulsions that are protected from the proliferation of bacteria, but in general, its presence is not necessary. With the development of technology, new preservatives and emulsifiers have appeared, thanks to which high-quality cosmetics can be produced without risk to health.


*Credits to AIS Cosmetics for original content. Edited by The Min List.