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Types of Alcohol in Skincare

Types of Alcohol in Skincare

A common question we get here at primary man is why is there alcohol in my skincare?

Too many parties at the lab? 

The first thing to note is that there are different types of alcohol used in skincare, some are beneficial, while others can have negative effects on your skin for a long time.

Let’s break down each type of alcohol. 

Bad Alcohol

The Bad: Ethanol, ethyl alcohol and SD alcohol 

Anyone who has been recently using hand sanitizer will be familiar with at least one type of ‘bad’ alcohol, ethanol.  The bad types of alcohol (ethanol), are often used in skincare as they are able to help reduce certain types of filler products in cosmetics.

An example of this is ethanol ability to dissolve oily active ingredients, reducing the oiliness of the finished product. This is why it can be found in products that want a matte finish, like hair pomades.

Alcohol in cosmetics also works as a preservative, helping to reduce potential infection of products.

Ethanol is found in many cosmetic products.

While this is beneficial, it is also why alcohol has so many detractors. Ethanol can severely dry out our skin and weaken barrier function. Dry skin is more than just a mild inconvenience.

When our skin is dry it’s lacking in moisture, meaning it is less able to keep itself firm and healthy-looking. Reduced barrier function also makes our skin more vulnerable to UV rays and causes of free radicals, such as smog and pollution. 

Ethanol: Classified as an industrial compound.  Ethanol, also called ethyl alcohol, grain alcohol, or alcohol. It can be derived naturally from the fermentation of carbohydrates, such as grain or corn. It can also be made synthetically via the hydration of ethylene.

Hydration of ethylene is achieved by passing a mixture of ethylene and a large excess of steam at high temperatures and pressure over an acidic catalyst.

SB Alcohol:  Stands for Specially denatured is a form of ethanol that has been specifically designed, to taste bad, so it avoids USA alcohol taxes. In cosmetics, it’s an anti-foaming agent, astringent, antimicrobial agent, and solvent.

The Good:  Fatty Alcohols

Fatty alcohols are often misunderstood in the skincare world, getting lumped into the same category as ethanol. 

But Fatty alcohols are a more structural complex and a much more beneficial substance. Derived from either coconut, soy or palm oil, Fatty alcohols are a waxy, white substance that’s solid at room temperature. 

They are commonly used as emulsifiers in cosmetics. With most products on the market made of water and oil, fatty alcohols help these products to combine together and allow products to be more evenly distributed across your skin.

Cetearyl Alcohol is a product that can be derived naturally from vegetables or it can be made synthetically.

There are a variety of Fatty acids but the most common are Stearyl Alcohol, cetyl Alcohol and the combination of the two Cetearyl Alcohol.

Cetearyl Alcohol is a product that can be derived naturally from vegetables or it can be made synthetically. It’s a mixture of both cetyl and Stearyl alcohol

It has a multitude of uses in cosmetics, able to be used as an emollient to stop oil and water separating, enhancing product texture, such as increasing the viscosity ( thickness ) of a product and a carrier agent for other ingredients. 

It’s great at conditioning hair and moisturising skin. You’ll often find it in shampoos and conditioners and moisturisers.  


So now you know the difference between alcohols, you can make a more informed choice when choosing your cosmetics. 

So will you be using products with fatty alcohols? Let us know below.

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