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I’m confused about alcohol in cosmetics

SkinBiz says: I am a little confused re. the use of alcohol in skincare products, can anyone help me with which ones are not good for the skin and which ones are beneficial? Also what does it mean when a product range is certified halal?

The Beauty Brains respond:

Alcohol in cosmeticsred-wine-505296_640

There are two kinds of alcohol used in cosmetics that can be drying to skin:

  • Ethyl alcohol (also listed as Ethanol, Alcohol Denat or SD Alcohol)
  • Isopropyl alcohol (also listed as isopropanol)

These are drying to skin because they are short chain alcohols (very few carbon atoms in their backbone) which means they are liquids and can act as solvents. They can dissolve the natural protective oils in your skin.

Other kinds of alcohols can actually be good for your skin because they are long chain fatty alcohols which means they act like an oily moisturizer. The most common ones include:

  • Cetyl Alcohol
  • Stearyl Alcohol

Halal cosmetics

Essentially “halal” means the product is lawful according to The Islamic Food and Nutriition Council. In the case of foods you must avoid the following:

  • Pork and pork by-products.
  • Improper slaughter techniques for animals.
  • Ingredients made from carnivorous animals.
  • Intoxicants like alcohol.

You can learn more about halal products here: http://www.ifanca.org/halal/

{ 10 comments… add one }

  • Aspsusa April 17, 2015, 10:07 am

    Maybe you could expand a bit on reasons for having ethanol or isopropyl alcohol in cosmetics? Couldn’t these be used for example for getting another ingredient into the cream/lotion/whatever in a handy way? I’m thinking herbal extracts, but maybe other stuff too?

    And are these alcohols really necessarily that drying when used as one ingredient among many?

    I have this feeling that ethanol and isopropyl are on the verge of being one of the next big dangerous baddies that should be avoided at all costs… Sucks to be a perfumer when that happens!

    • Eileen April 17, 2015, 2:33 pm

      I think you bring up an excellent point: Ingredients must be listed whether they are stand alone or used to incorporate/process another substance. It frequently happens that a so-called “bad” alcohol is being used in the processing of a “good” substance. Since most of us are not cosmetic chemists and wouldn’t have the slightest idea as to what purpose the “bad” alcohol was being used; much less the amount, I suppose we must look to the ingredient list and hopefully find the “bad” alcohol listed towards the end. Even Paula B. –who is not the most rational or unbiased reviewer around–has often said, when reviewing a product that otherwise meets her approval, that the tiny amount of “bad” alcohol in the product should not be a problem for people with normal, healthy skin. Extremists; however, will condemn the product no matter how infinitesimal the amount of “bad” alcohol or to what purpose it is being incorporated but then that’s their fear and they are entitled to it.

      • Randy Schueller April 17, 2015, 2:46 pm

        Yes, sometimes ethanol is added as a processing aid and it may have almost all evaporated by the time the product is finished!

  • Christopher April 17, 2015, 11:32 am

    I think their main purpose in cosmetics is to act as solvents. Sometimes they’re also included in products marketed for those with oily skin because of their astringency. The alcohols you mentioned can be irritating at a high % but if they appear towards the bottom of the LOI it should be fine.

    • Randy Schueller April 17, 2015, 2:24 pm

      Christopher: Just to be clear, do you mean that the solvent alcohols can be irritating? If that’s the case, we agree. If you mean the fatty alcohols can be irritating then we disagree. Thanks!

      • Christopher April 18, 2015, 2:30 pm

        Yes, I was talking about the solvent alcohols.

  • Rebecca April 20, 2015, 11:17 pm

    My impression was that Muslims could use alcohol as long as it wasn’t being used for the purposes of intoxification… so there is no issue with alcohol chains that provide moisturising not intoxifying affects?

    • Randy Schueller April 21, 2015, 6:35 am

      Makes sense to me Rebecca but they might also have to know the source of the fatty alcohols since they can be animal derived.

  • riz August 6, 2015, 9:31 am

    hi mr perry and randy,

    in this post, u agreed that solvent alcohols are drying and irritating BUT in your recent post u said that solvent alcohols is non-drying & non-irritating.

    which one is your latest stand now? :)

    • Randy Schueller August 7, 2015, 8:47 am

      In our most recent discussion, Perry reviewed evidence that ethanol is NOT irritating to skin. (So our latest stand lines up with the latest data.)

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