Alcohol In Skin Care, Is It Safe? Find Out!

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Why Alcohol in Skin Care is Safe, Despite What Paula Begoun Says

I’ll admit it: I’m not good at conflict. My boyfriend can tell you this – I get emotional, I get flustered, sometimes I even cry. So you can imagine I was not sure what to say when yesterday, we got quite a startle from Paula Begoun. The consumer advocate, most known for her best-selling Don’t Go to the Cosmetics Counter Without Me series, countered that we are wrong about alcohols, and her writing shows alcohol “isn’t beneficial in the least, not now or ever.”

[Read more: Paula’s scathing post about us]

Yet I’m not alone in believing that alcohol in skincare products can be beneficial. According to well-renowned DERMADoctor dermatologist Dr. Audrey Kunin, M.D.: “If I had to pick a single ingredient as the most misunderstood, it would be alcohol. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard ‘I can’t use that product, it contains alcohol and will dry and irritate my skin.’ Is this true? Probably not” (The DERMADoctor Skinstruction Manual). Alcohol can be drying – yes, this is true. But in a properly-formulated skincare product, it can help increase penetration of key ingredients. Some alcohols also act as slip agents, emollients, and/or hydrators.

[Read more: The Most Misunderstood Skincare Ingredient: Alcohol]

Once I managed to get myself together – Paula has been a role model of mine since I got my first copy of Don’t Go to the Cosmetics Counter Without Me in middle school – I decided to take a closer look at her counterargument. And here is what my team and I found:

1.) Topically-Applied Alcohol Does NOT Cause the Release of Free Radicals.


The “Wu” review does not say topically-applied alcohol causes release of free radicals. This review came to the conclusion that “ROS and other reactive molecules are indeed formed in human alcoholics.” It also concluded that many of the negative effects from consuming alcohol could be “prevent[ed] or ameliorat[ed] by antioxidants, agents that reduce the levels of free iron, or agents that replenish glutathione levels”(National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism).

But what does this have to do with skincare? Ingesting alcohol and topically applying alcohol to the skin are two completely different things. If you don’t believe me, think about the different effects drinking water and bathing in it has on your body – one makes you pee, the other makes your skin all crinkly! But, for the sake of argument, let’s pretend that they are the same thing. Moderate alcohol consumption has been shown to be good for your health, as it may have cardioprotective effects through mild vasodilation (relaxation) of blood vessels, increased levels of good HDL cholesterol, decreased levels of LDL cholesterol, prevention of clot formation, reduction in platelet aggregation, and lowering of plasma apolipoprotein(a) concentration (Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental ResearchAlcohol and Alcoholism). Moderate alcohol consumption has also been associated with lower risk of osteoporosis, as published in BMJ and mentioned on ABC News earlier this year.

So, let’s suppose Paula has concluded that ingesting and topically applying alcohol are the same thing. I don’t understand why she doesn’t present both sides of the argument. After all, if any alcohol from skin care products is absorbed into the body, it would certainly be more “moderate” dose than “alcoholic” consumption, wouldn’t it?



2.)  Cell culture is not equal to topical application to a living, breathing organism.


The Neuman study published in the journal Alcohol initially triggers a “What?!” reaction: It is titled, “Ethanol signals for apoptosis in cultured skin cells.” Given that apoptosis is programmable cell death, this sounds like ethanol is like putting the Grim Reaper in a bottle on your face. Terrible!

[Read more: Is Ethanol in Skin Care Products Safe?]

But further analysis reveals this is not the case at all. First of all, “Ethanol signals for apoptosis in cultured skin cells.” I worked in biomedical laboratories for seven years, and I am proud to say that I did cell culture for a number of those years. A cell culture (in vitro) is drastically different from a systemic application or test (in vivo).



Small amounts of alcohol on these skin cells in a petri dish was found to decrease their antioxidant capacity – but antioxidants in small amounts of alcohol applied to a living person’s skin allows for these beneficial ingredients to penetrate the skin better. Furthermore, penetration is not by, as Paula says, “destroying important protective aspects of skin;” rather, it is by creating temporary microscopic openings in the lipid bilayer that later close, leaving skin intact and healthy (Skin Pharmacology and Applied Skin PhysiologyCosmetics and Toiletries).

Think about this logically: if alcohol really went on a blazing path of destruction and “destroyed important protective aspects of skin,” why on earth do medical professionals use rubbing alcohol to clean a wound? If Paula was right, all of your “antioxidants, good emollients, and barrier repair ingredients” would be destroyed and every pediatrician in America would have a malpractice suit.

3.)  The Warner Study: This is About Sulfates, Not Alcohol


We never dispute the fact that alcohol can be drying. We don’t like hand sanitizers or any other products with the vast majority of alcohol either. But when it is a part of a well-formulated skincare product, it can be a benefit, thinning out the solution and increasing its penetration into the skin, and ultimately, its efficacy.

Paula uses the Warner study to conclude that alcohols are drying. But the Warner study says, “The kinetics of damage and its repair, and epidemiological evidence suggest that modern synthetic detergents as used in foaming liquid cleansers are the major offender“(Journal of Hospital Infection). It concludes that agents like sulfates are damaging to the skin. But modern synthetic detergents are soap molecules, with a hydrophillic head and a hydrophobic tail, attached to a sulfate. And we completely agree that sulfates are harsh to the skin. Maybe Paula and I should do a joint post on that (I do mean that earnestly, not sarcastically).

4.)  Why Do Paula’s Products Contain Alcohols?

Safe Alcohols in Skincare

Though she tears me up for saying that “fatty alcohols” are hydrating (and they are), her products are loaded with alcohols of all kinds. She also uses a fatty alcohol (cetearyl alcohol) in her Paula’s Choice Skin Balancing Oil-Reducing Cleanser. Quick lesson: In chemistry, the suffix “-ol” is an indication a substance is an alcohol. There are a few exceptions, like panthenol, but “-ol” on the end is the general rule from IUPAC. Curiously enough, Paula puts big smiley faces on her site next to “butylene glycol” and “phenoxyethanol” and the other alcohols in her products. Check out all the alcohols in her Paula’s Choice Skin Balancing Pore Toner:

Water, Glycerin (skin-repairing ingredient), Butylene Glycol (slip agent), Niacinamide (vitamin B3/cell-communicating ingredient), Adenosine Triphosphate (cell-communicating ingredient/skin conditioning agent), Anthemis Nobilis (Chamomile) Flower Extract (anti-irritant), Arctium Lappa (Burdock) Root Extract (antioxidant), Hydrolyzed Jojoba Esters, Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein (skin conditioning agents), Sodium PCA, Panthenol, Sodium Hyaluronate (skin-repairing ingredients), Sodium Chondroitin Sulfate (skin conditioning agent), Ceramide 3, Ceramide 6 II, Ceramide 1, Phytosphingosine, Cholesterol (lipid-based skin-repairing ingredients), Tetrahexyldecyl Ascorbate (vitamin C/antioxidant), Oleth-10, DEA-Oleth-10 Phosphate, Sodium Lauroyl Lactylate (emulsifiers), Polysorbate-20 (skin conditioning agent), Caprylyl Glycol, Hexylene Glycol (preservatives), Sodium Citrate (pH adjuster), Xanthan Gum (thickener), Trisodium EDTA (chelating agent), Phenoxyethanol (preservative).

Butylene glycol is a well-known penetration enhancer (International Journal of Pharmaceutics), particularly in such high concentration as in this product. However, it is listed in her dictionary and ingredients list as merely a “slip agent.” The penetration it induces is safe and I approve of it – but I’m surprised she omits this part of its definition altogether. Based upon her thinking, I guess stating the alcohol butylene glycol helps ingredients penetrate faster into skin would negate her claim that alcohols increase penetration by “destroy[ing] important protective aspects of skin (think fighting dryness and free radical damage)” (Alcohol in Skin Care: The Mistake You Don’t Want to Make).

[Read more: Is SD Alcohol Harmful for the Skin?]

Bottom Line

I strongly dislike arguing and even debating – I’m a pretty emotional person. I’m actually exhausted from writing this post. I’m hoping after this, Paula Begoun and I will be able to peacefully exist within the same space – kind-of like how Fox News and CNN cover the same events, but from different angles. It might actually be a huge benefit to our readers to hear two different interpretations of scientific literature! Nonetheless, no matter what this well-meaning, well-written consumer advocate says in return, I’m not going to mention her directly or indirectly again, and I hope that she does me the same courtesy.

However, what we say on the FutureDerm blog about alcohols, we stand behind firmly. Alcohol in skin care products is safe. It can be somewhat drying for those with dry skin, but alcohol-containing skincare products do not cause the death of skin cells, the destruction of important aspects of skin, or the widespread systemic induction of free radicals (unless you eat them). I hope that the evidence presented today has convinced you of such. To discuss this matter further, please note that we will not tolerate negative comments posted from either side; we want to keep the Comments of our website clean, and I hope that you understand and respect that. If you would like to discuss with me further, please use the Contact page, and a member of our team or I would be more than happy to discuss. Thank you!

Looking for the best skin care? FutureDerm is committed to having its customers find — and create — the best skin care for their individual skin type, concern, and based on your ingredient preferences. Learn more by visiting the FutureDerm shop!

Please note: This post may contain sponsored and/or advertorial links.The placement of such links does not affect the view or opinions of the author.

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Nicki Zevola is the founder and editor-in-chief of FutureDerm.com. Named one of the top 30 beauty bloggers in the world by Konector.com since 2009, Nicki