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Alcohol-Free Skincare: Decoding the Labels

When it comes to your skincare, not all alcohols are created equal. Our cosmetic chemistry expert compares apples and oranges (or better yet, balls and chains).

Alcohol-Free Skincare: Decoding the Labels

You have dry or sensitive skin. Your derm—or favorite lady website—suggests you opt for alcohol-free skincare to avoid redness and flakes. You hit the drugstore, pick up a moisturizer, scan the ingredients and spot an exotic word with “alcohol” on its backside. No good. You pick up another. Same thing.

Out of 20 skincare products, at least 12 will contain some form of alcohol. Alcohols are an incredibly useful skincare ingredient. And if you have dry skin, they’re not all out of question for you. To understand why, here’s a quick organic chemistry lesson.

Alcohol isn’t just what’s powering your lychee martini. It’s a broad term for a group of chemicals with a common section in their chemical structure. This common section looks like a ball, and the rest of the molecule is a chain. The ball will always look the same, but the chain can be long or short, single or branched, and it’s the chain that determines how the alcohol looks and behaves—on your skin and within your skincare.

Therein lies the confusion.

Ethanol Is the Alcohol That Can Cause Dryness
When we talk about alcohol in general, we’re usually referring to ethanol. It’s the same stuff that’s in beer, wine and spirits, but slightly altered to taste so bitter that (hopefully) no one would dare to drink it—the last thing we want is for you to be tempted to down your toner.

Ethanol has a very simple chain and is a thin liquid that evaporates faster than water. Cosmetic chemists use it in skincare to speed up a product’s dry down time, reduce tack, and to introduce oil-based ingredients (fragrances, salicylic acid, etc.) into water. Because ethanol evaporates quickly, it may dissolve your skin’s surface oils, then flash off to leave your skin feeling drier. This can be irritating to some with sensitive skin who have compromised skin lipid barriers—and is the reason skincare experts recommend some people avoid it.

Ethanol shows up on ingredient labels as: Alcohol Denat., SD Alcohol 3-A, SD Alcohol 30, SD Alcohol 39, SD Alcohol 39-B, SD Alcohol 39-C, SD Alcohol 40, SD Alcohol 40-B, SD Alcohol 40-C or just plain alcohol.

Many Alcohols Won’t Cause Dryness
Other common alcohols found on ingredient labels are referred to as “fatty” alcohols. They are the total opposite of ethanol, with much longer chains, and because of that, they’re usually waxy solids. They are used in skincare to help improve stability, adjust skin feel, or added as a moisturizer to body creams and lotions.

These are the alcohols that are commonly found on skincare ingredient labels: cetyl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol, behenyl alcohol, arachidyl alcohol and myristyl alcohol.

Bottom line: The “Alcohol-free” claim only applies to the more simplistic forms of alcohol, like ethanol. So if you’re avoiding alcohol because your skin is dry or sensitive, look for this claim. But be assured that if the ingredient label still has other alcohols on it, they’re the moisturizing type.

MORE: Exactly What to Eat For Glowing Skin

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