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Alcohol For Your Skin

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So, let’s talk about something uncomfortable here, both for cosmetic curator like me and k-beauty fan like you. So do we really have to avoid them like we do for parabens? Or we can just chill out and say “Come on, it’s gonna be fine.” So, this time I want to talk about alcohols and cosmetics.


So, what is alcohol? In organic chemistry, alcohol is defined as any molecule with –OH (hydroxyl) group on their structure. Generally these guys have name –ol as a suffix, so we can easily recognize alcohols in many cosmetic ingredients. So by this definition, plenty of known moisturizers contain full of alcohol? So butylene glycol, butylenes glycol, panthenol are all alcohol family, so do we have to avoid them for moisturized skin?

alcohol?not that one

The answer is ABSOLUTLEY NO. The character of alcohol is heavily influenced by their main body. So, one or two –OH on long carbon chain (a.k.a fat) won’t dry up your skin. Then, why so many people talk about the alcohol-free toners and moisturizer? Because when we say “alcohol”, it generally refers to the ethanol or Alcohol Denatured (sometimes it is written as Alcohol Denat. Or SD alcohol.)

In mid 20 th , the cream-type cleanser and alcohol based toner became popular in Europe (especially in Paris.) At that time, the make-up products contained quite thick, paint like pigments so people needed oil based creams to clean them up. Also, in Paris’ tap water, the lime concentration was really high this cream-alcohol toner routine was widely accepted. In other words, the purpose of first toner was to get rid of oily residue of those cream-type cleansers. Back in the days, manufacturers just added alcohol denatured into the toner, simply because their model products from European contained it, without much rational thinking. But, cosmetic companies in 80’s actually realized people sort of like it. Because evaporating of alcohol is endothermic process (meaning, it absorbs heat from skin,) so it gives “coolness” or “refreshes” feeling to skin and cosmetic brands keep them in their ingredient list, and cosmetic producers began to use alcohol denatured in non-toner products for this “refreshing” texture such as serum, emulsion and gel-type creams.

Of course, denatured alcohol has various functions other than this “refreshing” texture, a.k.a “penetration enhancer.” It is known anti-septic, and as they used for alcohol in mid 20 th , it may be used as a lipid solvent (dissolving oil contents with mixture) as well. However, science – more specifically so-called “organic” boom didn’t allow ethanol’s glory for long. Several researches suggested some concerns over alcohol denatured, and people began to hate this.

I have mixed feeling about alcohol denatured. Yes, it dries up your skin very quick and it is a quite strong skin irritant for someone. But, generally most of the researches were done in relatively high concentration of ethanol so we don’t really have to be concerned about alcohol denatured in the ingredients list as long as you don’t have irritation. I mean, it certainly gives quick-absorbing, refreshing finish on your skin. This applies to isopropyl alcohol as well, which has very similar molecular structure to ethanol (one more carbon branch though.)

Actually, we have more alcohols other than those fast drying alcohols. Actually it is quite opposite. Long carbon chain alcohols such as stearyl alcohol, myristyl alcohol, and caprylic alcohol are used to thicken the texture and to emulsify the mixture. So, those alcohols contains long carbon (fat chain), so it makes texture heavier and prevent dehydration of your skin. Recently, 1-2 hexanediol is often used in sheet masks and other products because it does not affect the texture of the solution so nicely stabilizes cosmetics while providing hydration to skin.

So my point is, we always have to know what we are paying for. If you are sensitive to alcohol denatured, we definitely should avoid products that contain it, but we do not really have to be overly concerned when we see other fatty alcohols. They are not same alcohols. Do not get obsessed with refreshing, fast-absorbing texture if you have dry skin. Some stickiness or some greasy feeling sometimes does great things on your skin.

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