Alcohols in cosmetics - good or bad?


The cosmetics industry is by no means teetotal. On the contrary, there are only a few skin care products that are free of any alcohol. There are good reasons for this: Alcohol has many beneficial properties - but some of them come with side effects that are more in the manufacturer's interests than your skin's. So once again, it's worth taking a closer look: What tasks does alcohol perform in cosmetics, what different types are used, and which of them are rather detrimental?

Durability and grease solvent: alcohol is a solution

There is the joking saying "Alcohol is a solution - at least chemically!". Of course, this is only true once substances are dissolved in alcohol. And that is precisely what is often at issue when alcohol is used in cosmetic products. And that is often the case, because hardly any other substance, for example, is so reliably able to kill bacteria and dissolve fat at the same time. The latter is necessary, among other things, because some active plant ingredients are not water-soluble.

Alcohol is the most common extraction agent for natural extracts. In addition, alcohol can be used to preserve a product. Alcohol also helps transport certain substances into the skin because it penetrates the skin barrier. But there is no need to worry: not all alcohol is harmful, and then it always depends on the dose used.

Abandonment of alcohol in cosmetics

Alcohol in cosmetics usually performs three tasks:

  1. Alcohol is an excellent solvent, for example to dissolve fatty or oily substances. Alcohol is also used to dissolve plant extracts.
  2. In addition, alcohol in cosmetics is quite excellent as a preservative due to its antimicrobial properties.
  3. In addition, alcohol - as mentioned - helps transport certain active ingredients into deeper layers of the skin. It can do this because it has the lipolytic function mentioned above. When alcohol comes into contact with our skin, it can temporarily make our skin barrier permeable.

Sounds good so far - but it's not quite that simple with alcohol. This is because alcohol has the potential to dry out and irritate the skin. The latter may sound a bit scary, but there's no need to worry: Just like with a glass of red wine or an after-work beer, it's all about the dose when it comes to harmfulness. Moreover, not every form of alcohol is automatically bad for the skin. In skin care, we therefore distinguish between good (caring) and bad (drying) alcohols. Let's start with the bad alcohol.

What are bad alcohols in cosmetics?

In cosmetics, we basically distinguish between good alcohols, because they care for the skin, and bad alcohols, because they dry it out.

From the skin's point of view, monovalent, short-chain alcohols are among the bad types because they can damage and dry out the skin.

Bad alcohols are further divided into those that have been denatured and those that have not.

But why is alcohol denatured (i.e. made undrinkable) in the first place? The answer, unfortunately, has nothing to do with the care of our skin: So that manufacturers don't have to pay alcohol tax (as with alcohol in beverages). Different substances are used for denaturing, for example other monohydric alcohols or phthalates. Phthalates are also used as plasticizers (for example, they soften plastic), which can be absorbed through the skin.

The fact that denatured (i.e. "denatured") alcohol was used can be seen relatively easily in the INCI list: There it is called "ALCOHOL DENAT". Unfortunately, it is not always clear from the INCI list what has been added to it. However, you should be alert when you read the following designations:

Bad alcohols in cosmetics in the INCIS:


Let's take a closer look at the last-mentioned diethyl phthalate: Diethyl phthalate is a chemical plasticizer that can be absorbed through the skin because it is both fat and water soluble. In 2014, at the request of the German Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, diethyl phthalate was examined by the EU for carcinogenic, mutagenic and/or reprotoxic effects and the result was declared safe.

Critics of this excipient do not share this carelessness. They point out that phthalates are present in numerous products and objects of daily use and that the consequences of their cumulative accumulation in the body have not yet been adequately researched.

In addition, there are indications that the phthalate concentration in denatured alcohol is higher than required. In random samples taken by the Bavarian State Office for Health and Food Safety, the phthalate concentration in denatured alcohol was twice as high as required by the spirits tax ordinance. What the denatured alcohol in your skin care was made undrinkable with cannot be seen from the outside. The only thing that is certain is that if one of the following designations is found in the ingredients


is denatured alcohol. Here it cannot be ruled out that phthalates are contained, which can then be absorbed through the skin.

Disadvantages of the bad alcohol

In higher concentrations, bad alcohols disrupt the skin's hydrolipidic film. As a result, the skin dries out due to the alcohol, appears red and irritated, and infections and inflammations have an easy time. And alcohol has another disadvantage up its sleeve: alcohol inhibits the effect of antioxidants in the body. However, antioxidants fight free radicals, the bad guys that promote inflammation and age our skin. So there are all kinds of good reasons to make sure that your skin care routine doesn't contain any alcohol, or at least not too much of the bad stuff. But how much alcohol is actually too much?

Bad alcohol in skin care: the dose makes the poison

Studies show that a concentration of up to 10 percent ofalcohols ina skin care product is largely unproblematic, provided the product contains enough lipid-replenishing and skin-caring substances to compensate.

The exact percentage of alcohol in a product is usually not apparent, as it does not have to be stated by the manufacturers on the packaging. However, the following aspects can be used as a guide:

  • Bad alcohols should not show up in the first third of the ingredients list.
  • If bad alcohol appears in the last third of the contents, the all-clear is given. There, the proportions in the formulation are usually already in the range of less than 1 percent.
  • Due to their formulation, gels, fast-absorbing fluids and tonics are more likely to contain "too much" bad alcohol. You should also take a closer look at products with UV protection that are advertised as "non-greasy" or "fast-absorbing".
  • If a product contains ethanol of the undenatured variety (ALCOHOL, ETHANOL), you can assume that it contains quite little alcohol. This is because taxes of around 15 euros per liter are incurred for its use - this cost factor is reason enough for manufacturers to use this alcohol sparingly.

Of course, it's even better to avoid bad alcohols altogether. Fortunately, this is not difficult, because there are enough of the good kind!

Good alcohols - what can they be?

When we talk about "good alcohol" in skin care, we are referring to the types of alcohol that have skin care properties. The good alcohols differ from the bad alcohols by their chemical valence or molecular size. They are roughly divided into sugar alcohol and fatty alcohol.

Good sugar alcohols in cosmetics

Good alcohols, such as sugar alcohols, preserve and help to channel moisture and active ingredients through the skin barrier. Good alcohols are moisturizing and nourishing, even in higher concentrations. In the list of ingredients you can find this alcohol as:


Glycerin for cosmetics is now obtained exclusively from vegetable oils. The variant from petrochemical processes used in the past is no longer used here. So when "vegetable glycerin" is advertised for a skin care product, you may shrug your shoulders wearily, because you know: Nothing special.

Glycerin has great properties that are useful not only in the manufacture of skin care. Toothpaste, for example, is up to 30 percent glycerin because it keeps preparations moist and prevents them from drying out. This is due to the hydrophilic properties of glycerin.

Good fatty alcohols in cosmetics

The good alcohols also include the so-called fatty alcohols. These alcohols owe their name on the one hand to their origin, as they are obtained from the fatty acids found in plant parts. On the other hand, fatty alcohol has lipid-replenishing properties.

Used in cosmetics, these are called fatty alcohols:


Regardless of the specific type, the following applies: Fatty alcohol ensures that moisture remains in the skin and thus makes the skin supple. In addition, fatty alcohol serves as a thickener and supports the production of emulsions. The fatty alcohols mentioned here are mild and do not cause blackheads or pimples.

Something from this series enters a fatty alcohol of animal origin: the wool wax alcohol


can have a comedogenic effect, i.e. promote blackheads. And of course, due to the animal origin of the fat from which the alcohol is derived, Lanolin Alcohol is not vegan.

Does "alcohol-free" really mean without alcohol?

Cosmetic products are declared "alcohol-free" if they do not contain any of the bad, drying alcohols. Conversely, this means that cosmetics declared as "alcohol-free" may well contain alcohol, namely the good kind. This has nothing to do with cheating, but is a sensible simplification in the interest of the customer.

Which alcohols does HighDroxy use?

HighDroxy uses only good alcohols such as PENTYLENE GLYCOL and PROPANEDIOL. This, in addition to the absence of fragrance oils, is an important distinguishing feature from classic natural cosmetics, because natural cosmetics use monovalent (bad) alcohols for preservation.

Propanediol, on the other hand, belongs to the group of dihydric alcohols and is, of course, an alcohol of the good kind. Even the very good kind: Propanediol moisturizes and is also responsible for the pleasant skin feel after application. It helps dissolve the other ingredients and transport them to the skin layers after application. In addition, the propanediol we use has a welcome "side effect", because it has preservative properties.

When ethanol is used, it is exclusively in the undenatured form. The product IN:FUSE contains significantly less than 1 percent alcohol - and for good reasons: The multilamellar liposomes in IN:FUSE could not be produced at all without alcohol. They are explicitly barrier-repairing, caring and the best proof that the dose and the specific application are decisive when it comes to alcohol in cosmetics.