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Alcohol in Skincare: Good or Bad? Experts Explain

Alcohol in Skincare: Good or Bad? Experts Explain

Alcohol is one of those ingredients that certain brands proudly declare their products to be free of. Yet, if you look at most ingredients lists, it’s extremely likely you’ll find alcohol listed. So is alcohol bad for your skin? The short answer: depends on the type of alcohol. 

There are two main types of alcohol. The “quick-drying” kind that have SD, or super denatured, listed in front such as SD-40 and SD-39 as well as isopropyl alcohol and denatured alcohol. It makes the product feel weightless and cooling and also provides preservation benefits. “[It’s] most commonly seen in Asian formulations from Japan dues to hot, humid weather,” says cosmetic product developer Ginger King.

This type is often referred to as the bad type – the one experts say to avoid. “In addition to being drying and sensitizing, these alcohols break down the surface layers of skin, making the skin more dull,” says Manhattan Beach, CA dermatologist Nina Desai, MD.

But this doesn’t necessarily mean you should avoid this type all together. Sometimes, this type of alcohol is necessary and acts as a solvent so that other beneficial ingredients can be included in the formulation. “Overall, one has to judge and compare what benefits or side effect will alcohol bring to the skin,” says cosmetic formulator Annalisa Branca. “Is it used to include other beneficial ingredients? How does your skin react to it? Does it wreak havoc or does it slightly dehydrate? I’m not against alcohol per se. What is important is the overall formulation and how skin reacts to it.”

And then there’s the good type that’s referred to as the “fatty” alcohols. “Acetyl stearyl, acetyl and cetearyl alcohols are good for dry skin and keep your make up stable,” says Redondo Beach, CA dermatologist Annie Chiu, MD.

“Good” alcohols tend to have a higher molecular weight, says esthetician and formulator Bella Schneider. They’re are used as emulsifiers and help thicken cosmetic formulations.

The verdict? “Good” alcohol can be a great, beneficial ingredient in your skincare products and “bad” alcohol can be drying for some skin types.

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