Alcohols in skincare: The good, the bad, and the ugly.

Posted by Dionne Schedler Cofta on

Alcohols in hair and skincare products have long been a source of debate in the professional skincare community. Are they good or bad? Many of us avoid using alcohol in our skin and hair care products to avoid the drying effect caused by these products, and rightfully so; alcohols such as ethanol, denatured alcohol, ethyl alcohol, benzyl alcohol, isopropyl alcohol, and sd alcohol are all considered "short-chain alcohols, and they strip our natural oils, causing drying and irritation.....These definitely fall into the "bad" category. We like to look at it this way: If we throw a lit match into an ingredient and it can either burst into flames or explode; it's not too likely going to be found in any of our formulas for skin or hair.

Now for the confusing part: 

There's another class of alcohols, called fatty alcohols. Fatty alcohols differ from short-chain in that they're not the drying, quickly evaporating, highly flammable substances that their cousins are; in fact, they're quite the opposite. 

Fatty alcohols, such as Lauryl alcohol, Cetyl alcohol, Myristyl alcohol, Stearyl alcohol, Cetearyl alcohol, and Behenyl alcohol are derived from plants (coconut or palm) and come in the form of a white, waxy solid. These types of alcohols are often used in skin and hair care products for their conditioning and protective properties. 

Fatty alcohols work as an emollient, emulsifier, and/or a thickener. They keep the oil and water parts of an emulsion from separating and give products good spreadability. As a thickening agent and surfactant, they help alter the viscosity and increase the foaming capacity of non-aqueous (i.e. lotions) and aqueous solutions (i.e. shampoo). They effectively condition and soften the skin and hair. Because of they're multi-functional capabilities, they are often used in a wide range of personal care products such as moisturizers, face creams, shampoos/conditioners, anti-aging treatments, sunscreen, and lipsticks; and are not drying at all.

We use fatty alcohols in the following products:

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