There are many questions and much uncertainty regarding alcohol in skincare. I am going to try and answer as many of these questions as possible over the next few weeks, however please feel free to comment and ask more questions. Shall we make it our aim to get to the bottom of the alcohol question??
What is an alcohol?
An alcohol is a compound where a hydroxyl group (-OH) is bound to a carbon atom or carbohydrate like sugar. The hydroxyl group makes the alcohol more polar. That means it gives the alcohol an electric charge. This hydroxyl group also enables alcohol to easily attract water.
Why alcohol is harmful to the skin?
Alcohols in skincare products draws water out from skin cells. Hence alcohol dehydrates skin cells. These cells which are normally plump due to being filled with water (almost 80 % of the cell is water) are tightly packed together to form a protective barrier. The skin is an organic which has many functions of which the following two are the most vital:
- Preventing moisture loss from the body and also preventing too much of water from entering the body, like when we take a shower. Can you imagine what would happen if we absorbed all that water?
- Preventing bacteria and environmental toxins from entering the body.
However when the alcohol draws out water from the skin cells they shrink, think of a grape that is dried to become a raisin. When the cells shrink spaces around the cells gets larger. Environmental toxins and bacterial that normally will not be able to enter the skin can do so now due to the spaces being larger.
Recent studies suggest that a large number of people with chemical sensitivities are actually allergic to alcohol. Furthermore alcohol in compromising the skins integrity, exposes the deeper layers of the skin to environmental toxins, that may otherwise be unable to penetrate into the skin. Hence alcohol is also a sensitising agent.
Alcohol also stimulates melanocytes which can result in hyper pigmentation of the skin and increased age spots.
All alcohols, organic grain, alcohol denat as well as fatty alcohols such as cetyl, ceteryl, stearyl, benlzyl and phenoxyethanol have the hydroxyl group and have the ability to dehydrate the skin. Obviously the larger amount of alcohol in the product, the more dehydrating the product.