The ESK blog
Alcohol In Skincare – Sorting Through The Evidence And The Rest
21 July 2021
(spoiler alert, don’t read this if you like to hate alcohol)
If you google “alcohol in skincare” you will find a lot of opinions (almost always stated as fact 😊). And mostly, you will see opinions about why alcohol in skincare is bad. The thing is there is no evidence to support that, and what evidence we have seems to indicate that it is actually just fine!
There are many different kinds of alcohols, but for this blog, the focus is on ethanol, (the form that seems to be the main topic of unpopular opinion on the internet) and at concentrations of up to 10% (the upper end of concentrations used in skincare).
WHY IS ALCOHOL USED IN SKINCARE?
Alcohol has several uses in skincare, it can be used as a solvent (to dissolve other ingredients and have them spread evenly through a product), as a penetration enhancer (allowing ingredients in products to penetrate the skin more easily), to make products “thinner” (or more liquid) and as a preservative.
It also acts as an astringent, which means that it constricts body tissues, particularly tissues which discharge fluids like mucous and sebum (oil produced by the skin). Back when we were kids, we used (a very high concentration) alcohol to dry the skin in order to manage acne. And while that usually “works” short term, we now know drying the skin leads to compromise of the skin’s barrier, which ultimately makes it harder to clear acne.
SO WHAT DOES THE EVIDENCE AND (WHAT DO THE) EXPERTS SAY?
The Environmental Working Group (a good guide on ingredient safety and usually quite conservative) rates ethanol 1 out of 10 ie. about as safe as you can get, and the CIR expert panel also considers alcohol to be safe.
SO WHY ARE PEOPLE WORRIED ABOUT ALCOHOL IN SKINCARE?
It’s hard to know exactly why, but there are a few studies that get referenced in support of this theory. For example, a 2002 petri dish study showed that alcohol can kill dermal skin cells (which sit below the surface of the skin). But drawing a conclusion from that is kind of like concluding that drinking bleach might keep you healthy (Ok it’s only a little bit like that and for the avoidance of doubt, drinking bleach would be really bad for you). Probably most influential though is an article by Paula’s Choice. And while it cites many studies in support of their argument, all of the studies are all like the ones above – petri dish like experiments.
And this is where Evidence comes in!
Most of the concerns about alcohol come from studies which are carried out on skin tissue in a lab (“in vitro” studies) or arguments based on related logic, rather than on studies which directly look at the effects of alcohol on the skin. But we do have some (“in vivo” studies) – and they simply don’t support the concerns… in fact quite the opposite!
Our take away –
Apart from the fact that Alcohol in skin care is fine, my takeaway is actually a bit different… If we look for facts that support a view that we already hold, we will probably find some that we can “use”. But our world doesn’t really care what we believe – it is the way it is. And if we look to the evidence to try and understand it, we will come up with solutions that will actually work… It’s the attitude that led us to start Evidence Skincare. No pre-existing thoughts about what skincare should be, just the best available evidence.