Skincare 101: Is Alcohol a Good Skincare Ingredient?

Written by: Charlotte Raines


It's time to get savvy about what's really in your skincare products. We slather creams and serums on our skin daily, but how often do we stop to analyze the ingredients list?

Ever had a moment when you were standing in the skincare aisle, your eyes darting between ingredients lists? If so, then you've probably noticed 'alcohol' pop up more than once. It's enough to make anyone question - "is alcohol a good skincare ingredient?"

As with many things in life, the answer isn't black and white. Some alcohols should indeed be avoided, while others are perfectly fine and even helpful.

So, how do we find balance?  We're going to dive into the world of various skincare alcohols. From those that moisturize and soothe to others that might dry out your skin, we'll uncover what's behind this common ingredient. The health and beauty of your skin depend on it!

Different Types of Skincare Alcohols

Regarding skincare, alcohol is an ingredient that often raises eyebrows. But did you know not all alcohols are created equal? There's more to this story than meets the eye.

Good Skincare Alcohols: Cetyl, Stearyl, and Cetearyl Alcohol

Let's start with fatty alcohols like cetyl, stearyl, and cetearyl alcohol. These alcohol types get their name because they're derived from fats - think avocados or coconuts. And just like those nutritious foods help our bodies thrive from within, these beneficial alcohols work wonders on our skin.

Fatty alcohols have hydrating properties that make them a boon for dry or sensitive skin types. They give your moisturizers and creams a rich texture - according to research published in the International Journal of Toxicology. Not only do they smooth things out nicely, but also provide some essential moisture-locking capabilities.

Bad Alcohols for Skincare: Denatured Alcohol and Isopropyl Alcohol

Moving onto denatured alcohol and isopropyl alcohol - the simple alcohols, as we call them in skincare lingo. Now, here's where caution kicks into gear. Unlike their skin-benefiting counterparts, these varieties can be harsh - stripping your skin of natural oils and weakening the precious skin barrier if overused.

The thing about simple alcohols is they tend to evaporate quickly once applied on the surface (yes- kind of like rubbing hand sanitizer). This property can make them seem like an excellent choice for oily or acne-prone skin to help reduce excess sebum and give that 'quick-dry' finish. 

However, their drying effect can also trigger excess oil production, making the situation even worse.  And they are rarely a good idea for dry or sensitive skin types.

So, when selecting products to use each day, it's important to consider your skin type - and determine what works best for you to achieve your personal beauty goals. For more general information about selecting ingredients, check out this insightful article.

Key Takeaways:

Not all alcohols used in skincare products are created equal. Fatty alcohols like cetyl, stearyl, and cetearyl alcohol can nourish your skin with their hydrating properties and rich texture. But simple ones like denatured alcohol or isopropyl alcohol might be harsh on sensitive skin but beneficial for oily types due to their quick-drying effect.

Benefits of Fatty Alcohols in Skincare

So now that we know not all alcohol types are the same - and that there are good and the bad alcohols, let's take a closer look at the skin benefits associated with botanical fatty alcohols.

Fatty Alcohols: The Good Guys

The heroes among alcohols are known as fatty alcohols. Unlike their drying counterparts, these hydrating substances have a long carbon chain, which gives them moisturizing properties. Cetyl, Stearyl, and Cetearyl Alcohol fall into this category.

Cetyl Alcohol provides a silky feel to the skin while acting as an emollient, aiding in locking in moisture. This makes products like creams spread easily without feeling greasy or heavy - making it perfect for those who want hydration without the weight.

Stearyl Alcohol also provides similar benefits but has an extra trick up its sleeve; it acts as a thickening agent, giving consistency to lotions and serums so they're not too runny nor too thick.

Nurturing Your Skin Barrier

Fatty alcohols are beneficial emollients that can significantly enhance the skin's barrier function. These non-irritating alcohols, such as cetyl, stearyl, and cetearyl alcohol, are derived from natural fats and oils and are quite different from the drying and potentially irritating alcohols like ethanol. 

When applied topically, fatty alcohols help to replenish and maintain the lipid bilayer of the skin, locking in moisture and protecting against environmental stressors.

This reinforcement of the skin's natural barrier aids in keeping the skin hydrated, supple, and more resistant to irritation. By doing so, fatty alcohols contribute to a healthier, more resilient skin surface, offering an effective defense against the daily challenges our skin faces.

Key Takeaway:

Fatty alcohols, including cetyl, stearyl, and cetearyl - play a beneficial role in skincare due to their moisturizing properties. They also strengthen the skin's barrier by replenishing its lipid layer, thus keeping the skin hydrated, resilient, and protected from environmental stressors.

Potential Risks of Simple Alcohols in Skincare

It's important to know that the quality of alcohol used in skincare can vary. Some can cause skin irritation, particularly for those with sensitive skin.

The most notorious is denatured alcohol, which can strip your skin of its natural oils. It may sound like a good thing if you're dealing with oily skin, but it can lead to overproduction of oil as your skin tries to compensate for the loss. The result? An increased risk of breakouts or even worsening existing conditions like acne.

Drying Effects on Skin

Simple alcohols, such as Isopropyl Alcohol, have been found to dry out the skin. This is because they evaporate quickly and take away some moisture from our precious dermis in the process.

If used regularly over time, this drying effect might disrupt our epidermal barrier function - leaving us more susceptible to environmental damage and premature aging.

Sensitive Skin Woes & Allergic Reactions

Women with sensitive or reactive complexions should exercise extreme caution when using products containing simple alcohols. Repeated exposure might make their condition worse by triggering inflammation and redness.  And some women may be prone to having allergic responses.

Also, be aware that these effects aren't always immediate, so we tend not to notice until much later when possible damage has occurred – yikes.

Blemish Troubles

We mentioned earlier how simple alcohols can potentially exacerbate breakout-prone situations - but there's more to this story.

While alcohol might temporarily reduce the appearance of large pores and make skin feel and look less greasy, it’s a short-lived victory. By drying out your skin too much, you could trigger an overproduction of sebum – your body’s way of rehydrating the skin - which can lead to clogged pores and breakouts in return.

Key Takeaways:

Simple alcohols, like denatured alcohol and isopropyl alcohol, may cause skin irritation, especially for sensitive skin types. These alcohols can strip the skin of natural oils, potentially leading to an overproduction of oil and increased breakouts or exacerbation of acne. Furthermore, simple alcohols might cause inflammation, redness, and allergic reactions in some women.

How to Identify Skincare Alcohols in Products

If you've ever taken a peek at the back of your skincare products, you might have been confused by the long list of ingredients. Identifying different alcohols is not as difficult as it appears.

Choosing "Good"Alcohols for Skincare Products

Let's summarize what we've learned - not all alcohols are created equal. There are 'good' fatty alcohols, so look for the following beneficial alcohols in skincare labels:

Cetyl Alcohol: Derived from coconut oil or palm oil, cetyl alcohol acts as an emollient, emulsifier, thickener, and carrying agent for other ingredients. It's known for its ability to soften and smooth and to provide a silky feel.

Stearyl Alcohol: This is a natural fatty alcohol derived from stearic acid, coconut oil, or vegetable fatty acids and is used to soothe and soften the skin. It also acts as an emulsifier and thickener, giving products a spreadable consistency.

Cetearyl Alcohol: A mixture of cetyl and stearyl alcohols, it's used to help soften the skin and as an emulsifier for keeping products mixed.

Behenyl Alcohol: Obtained from the reduction of behenic acid, which is found in canola oil and some fish oils. It's used as a thickener and emulsion stabilizer in many skin creams and lotions.

Myristyl Alcohol: This fatty alcohol is used as an emollient and thickening agent in ointments, creams, and lotions. It's derived from myristic acid, commonly found in nutmeg, palm oil, and coconut oil.

Spotting "Bad" Alcohols on Skincare Labels

And there are simple or 'bad' varieties like the following, which can potentially dry out your skin. If any of these appear among the first five ingredients on an ingredient list – watch out. High concentrations can lead to redness and irritation for all skin types - especially sensitive skin. Here are the most common simple alcohols to avoid:

Ethanol (or Ethyl Alcohol): Often used as a solvent, antiseptic, or astringent, ethanol can dehydrate the skin and strip away natural oils, leading to dryness and irritation, particularly in sensitive skin.

Isopropyl Alcohol (or Rubbing Alcohol): This is a very drying and irritating alcohol used in skincare for its antiseptic properties. It is commonly found in toners and cleansers and can compromise the skin's barrier function with frequent use.

Denatured Alcohol (SD Alcohol): Also known as specially denatured (SD) alcohol, it is used as a solvent and can give products a quick-drying finish, immediately degrease the skin, and feel weightless. However, it can be very drying and irritating to the skin.

Methanol: Often used as a solvent, methanol is toxic and can be very irritating to the skin, eyes, and respiratory system. It's not commonly used in skincare products due to its adverse effects.

Benzyl Alcohol: This type of alcohol is used as a preservative and solvent in skincare. It can cause irritation and allergies in some people, especially at higher concentrations.

While these alcohols can serve specific functions in skincare, such as improving product texture and penetration or providing antibacterial properties, their potential to cause dryness, irritation, and long-term damage to the skin barrier makes them controversial ingredients, particularly for those with sensitive or dry skin types.

What Does 'Alcohol-Free' Mean?

'Alcohol-free' on a label can be misleading. The FDA stipulates that skincare products claiming to be 'alcohol-free' should not contain any ethyl alcohol or ethanol but make no mention of other types. This term only means the product is free of simple alcohols, not fatty ones. So, even if you see this claim, don’t forget to check the ingredient list, as it may still contain beneficial "fatty" alcohol.

Key Takeaways:

Remember that 'good' fatty alcohols like Cetyl and Stearyl hydrate your skin, while simple or 'bad' ones such as Denatured Alcohol can dry it out. Don't be confused by the 'Alcohol-free' label; it may still contain other types of beneficial "fatty" alcohols.

Recommendations for Different Skin Types

Knowing your skin type is key to building the best skincare routine. It's a bit like dressing for the weather - you wouldn't wear a wool sweater in summer, right? The same logic applies when using beauty products that contain alcohol on different skin types. 


It's also critical to consistently follow the foundational steps an effective daily skincare routine. For all skin types, be sure to cleanse your face morning and night with a gentle face wash to gently remove impurities and excess oils - and avoid harsh fash washes as they strip natural oils and upset the natural balance of your protective skin barrier.

Oily Skin

If your face often shines with excess oil, you have oily skin. Simple alcohols can be beneficial as they help remove oiliness and give a matte finish. But tread lightly. Overuse could lead to more sebum production, throwing off the balance of what we want to fix. Studies show that it’s better to use them sparingly and preferably in combination with moisturizing ingredients. 


Products that contain fatty acids work well for oily skin - so no worries here. Look for products formulated with other beneficial ingredients that work well with fatty alcohols. A few good options for oily skin include this Renewal Serum, which has rosehip and sandalwood oils that help regulate oil production, soothe irritated skin, and control acne-causing bacteria.

Dry Skin

For dry or sensitive skin that feels tight or flaky, fatty alcohols are your friends. They create an occlusive layer on the surface of your skin that helps to trap moisture within your cells. 

As you consider which products to use, remember that not all products labeled "alcohol-free" exclude these beneficial types - so be sure to look for the specific fatty alcohol names in the ingredients list. This Moisture Therapy Cream contains rich moisturizing ingredients like shea butter and sunflower oil.

Combination Skin

If some parts of your face are oily while others remain dry, you likely have combination skin. This can be challenging since what's beneficial for one region may adversely affect another. A smart move would be incorporating a lightweight Hydration Serum into daily routines and the occasional spot treatment using simple-alcohol-based products if needed. 


A great anti-aging option that combines beneficial cetyl alcohol with shea butter, hyaluronic acid, and Vitamin E - is this Retinol Moisture Cream - which can be applied as a spot treatment for troubled areas or as a daily moisturizer.

Key Takeaways:

Knowing your skin type is the secret to a great skincare routine, especially when using alcohol-based products. Oily skin can benefit from simple alcohols in moderation, while dry or sensitive skin needs fatty alcohols for moisture retention. For combination skin, use light hydrating serums with occasional spot treatments as needed. Start by understanding your specific needs and building the best regimen for you.

Skincare Alcohols FAQs

Why is alcohol used in skincare products?

Alcohol serves various purposes in skincare formulations, including acting as a solvent for other ingredients, enhancing product absorption, giving a lightweight and quick-drying feel to products, and serving as a preservative or an astringent.

Are all alcohols in skincare bad for the skin?

No, not all alcohols are harmful. There are fatty alcohols like cetyl, stearyl, and cetearyl alcohol that can be moisturizing and beneficial for the skin. It's the short-chain or simple alcohols, like ethanol or isopropyl alcohol, that can be potentially drying or irritating for some people. 

How can I identify the type of alcohol in a skincare product?

Always read the ingredient list. Fatty alcohols are usually listed as cetyl, stearyl, cetearyl, or behenyl alcohol. Simple alcohols might appear as denatured alcohol, ethanol, isopropyl alcohol, or SD alcohol.

Can alcohol in skincare products cause breakouts?

Some people find that certain alcohols, particularly simple alcohols, can exacerbate acne or lead to breakouts, possibly due to their drying effect, which can disrupt the skin's barrier. However, everyone's skin is different, and not everyone will have this reaction.

Should I avoid alcohol-based products if I have sensitive skin?

It's a good idea to be cautious. Simple alcohols can potentially irritate sensitive skin. If you have concerns, doing a patch test first or consulting a dermatologist is best.

Are alcohol-free skincare products better?

Not necessarily. "Alcohol-free" doesn't automatically mean a product is superior. It depends on the overall formulation and the specific needs of your skin. Some alcohol-free products might be suitable for certain skin types, while others might lack the benefits of products containing beneficial fatty alcohols.

Do alcohols in skincare products cause premature aging?

Overusing products with high concentrations of simple alcohols might dry out the skin and disrupt the skin's natural barrier over time. Chronic dryness and irritation can potentially contribute to signs of aging. However, a combination of factors, including sun exposure, diet, and overall skincare routine, play a larger role in skin aging.

How do I know if a product with alcohol is right for me?

Consider your skin type, the type and concentration of alcohol in the product, and the overall formulation. Conduct a patch test to check for reactions and monitor how your skin feels after using the product. When in doubt, consulting a skincare professional or dermatologist can provide guidance tailored to your needs.


So, is alcohol a good or bad ingredient for skincare products? The answer isn't as simple as you may have thought.

We've learned that not all alcohols are created equal. Some moisturize and soothe, while others can be harsh and cause irritation and dryness.

Fatty alcohols like cetyl, stearyl, and cetearyl work wonders for hydration. But beware of denatured or isopropyl types - they could leave your skin feeling more Sahara than spa day!

The key is knowing how to read product labels correctly and tailoring products based on your unique skin type.

Now, you're ready to navigate the skincare aisle with confidence and to build the most effective skincare routine that is sure to nourish the natural beauty of your skin.