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Alcohol in Cosmetics: A Bad Ingredient?

What do retinol, vitamin E and glycerin have in common? First: From a chemical point of view, all three substances are alcohols. And secondly, when these three are on the INCI list, we think of skincare superheroes rather than skin-irritating villains. So isn't alcohol in cosmetics as bad as its reputation? And what do we actually mean when we say that our cosmetics are alcohol-free? Clearly there is an urgent need for clarification. In this article you will read what alcohol in skin care is really all about.

Alcohol in cosmetics: Woman cleans face with alcohol-containing facial toner

Photos by Ron Lach from Pexels

Alcohol in cosmetics: what does it mean?

Alcohol in cosmetics can have many faces. And if the only thing that comes to mind when it comes to the connection between alcohol and skin is disinfectants, then you already know one of them: certain alcohols have a germicidal and preservative effect - which makes them a popular ingredient for some cosmetic manufacturers. But first things first.

  • In chemistry, the term “alcohols” refers to molecules that have at least one hydroxy group.
  • A hydroxy group is a compound of one hydrogen and one oxygen atom.

Alcohols are a whole group of substances with one thing in common: there is a hydroxy group in their chemical structure.

In the form of glycerin and vitamin E, they are really good for our skin. Other alcohols such as ethyl alcohol or ethanol, on the other hand, can have a drying and irritating effect - at FIVE, such mischief-makers are not included in the pot.

How alcohols work in skin care products and what they do to your skin depends on their molecular weight, i.e. their structure. And it's quite different. That sounds complicated, but it's actually quite simple. We'll show you how you can recognize good and bad alcohols in cosmetic products.

Which alcohol in cosmetics is “bad”?

Let's start with the villains. Alcohols with a low molecular weight usually fulfill two functions in product formulations: as a preservative they ensure shelf life and as a solvent they combine the ingredients to create pleasantly light textures.

However, such alcohols are more of a nightmare for our skin: they have a drying effect, can damage the skin barrier 1 and promote the formation of free radicals.

You can find these bad alcohols on the INCI list under the names : Alcohol, Alcohol denat., Ethanol, Ethyl Alcohol, SD Alcohol, Propyl Alcohol, Propanol, Benzyl Alcohol, Isopropanol, Isopropyl Alcohol, Phenethyl Alcohol and Methanol.

☝️You are what we mean when we say that FIVE cosmetics are alcohol-free .

This is what “bad” alcohol does to your skin!

Bad alcohols like ethanol unbalance our skin barrier because they have a fat-dissolving effect. What initially sounds like an advantage (don't we all dream of a matt complexion?) is fatal for the protective barrier lipids of our top layer of skin. Because they also simply dissolve out such alcohols 2 .

The result – without the barrier lipids, our protective wall becomes more permeable. This is ultimately the reason for the following effect of alcohol in cosmetics : it increases the skin's absorption capacity and ensures that active ingredients reach deeper layers of the skin more quickly 3 .

However, we pay a high price for these properties of alcohol as an ingredient in skin care . The skin barrier no longer functions as it should, irritation and irritation are promoted and the skin dries out in the long term as water loss across the skin surface increases 2 .

Can it actually get any worse? Unfortunately yes. In a study in which alcohol was applied to skin cells in the laboratory 4 , increased cell death was demonstrated. Alcohol also makes us look pretty old (in the truest sense of the word!) - there are numerous studies on the general connection between oxidative stress, alcohol and the cell-damaging effects of free radicals 5 .

So why is alcohol even used in cosmetics?

A good question, because: For us, not a single argument is powerful enough to convincingly justify the use of bad alcohol in cosmetics . But why do some cosmetic manufacturers use such alcohols in their formulations?

  • They preserve and have an antibacterial effect . If used in sufficient concentration, alcohol effectively prevents the growth of germs in cosmetics and makes them last longer. We think: Why use alcohol when you can do without it? That's why we rely on detox skin care - we use natural ferments and preservative oils as preservatives in our products. You can read more about this in this article: Natural preservatives: It can also be done without alcohol .
  • They give products an airy, light texture . Because alcohols ensure good distribution of the active ingredients in the respective formulation, cosmetics containing alcohol often feel particularly light and weightless on the skin. In the short term, we are happy about the soothing, matt finish. But appearances are deceptive: Over time, our skin barrier becomes damaged and our skin dries out.
  • They promote the penetration of skin care ingredients into the deep layers of the skin . We already had that briefly above: The fat-dissolving properties of alcohol break down the important barrier lipids and in this way make the skin barrier more permeable. This means that active ingredients penetrate the skin better, but over time our barrier function becomes unbalanced.
  • They make certain herbal active ingredients available . Alcohols such as ethanol can dissolve non-water-soluble active ingredients from plants. Some natural cosmetics manufacturers use alcohol in cosmetics for exactly this reason: They take advantage of this property in order to be able to use such active ingredients in their product formulations.

What is alcohol denat.?

This abbreviation stands for “ alcohol denatured ”. It is one of the bad alcohols from the previous section and, like them, is used as a preservative and solvent - with the well-known side effects. But there is a special feature: unlike pure drinking alcohol, denatured alcohol is not taxed, so it can be produced cost-effectively.

And it works like this: Through the process of denaturation or denaturation, pure ethanol is changed so that it denates as alcohol. is no longer drinkable afterwards. In this way, alcohol tax no longer has to be paid. Great for the manufacturer, not so great for our skin – the denaturants used can lead to allergic reactions.

What is Benzyl Alcohol?

Benzyl alcohol is contained as a natural component in many essential flower oils. They include jasmine and ylang-ylang. Because it is a potential allergen, it must be declared - so it belongs on the INCI list. Like the alcohols mentioned above, it can extend the shelf life of cosmetics. Benzyl alcohol is therefore added to some products and used for preservation.

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Is there also good alcohol in cosmetics?

Yes – good always wins in the end. And among these good alcohols there are even a few old friends that we love for their phenomenal care effect.

  • From a chemical point of view , cell-regenerating retinol and antioxidant vitamin E are monohydric alcohols because they have a hydroxy group in their molecular structure. You wouldn't have thought that? The two skin flatterers are actually quite open about their origins: the ending -ol in retinol and tocopherol (that is the scientific name of vitamin E) indicates that they belong to the alcohol group.
  • Moisturizing glycerin is a sugar alcohol (like birch sugar aka xylitol). That's why you can sometimes find it on the INCI list under the name glycerol . Glycerin is an important component of the skin's own natural moisturizing factors (NMFs) and helps the skin to retain moisture better. Because glycerin also keeps water loss across the skin's surface in check, it's a fantastic ingredient for a plump, internally plumped complexion.
  • Chemically speaking , panthenol or D-panthenol, which promotes wound healing, is also an alcohol. You can find the popular ingredient in baby creams and ointments that are intended to support wound healing. In addition to its regenerating effect, it is best known as a gentle moisturizer.
  • Fatty alcohols such as cetyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol and cetearyl alcohol are characterized by a high molecular weight. They give creams a rich, smooth and luxurious consistency. By preventing the fat and water phases of cosmetics from separating, they ensure a homogeneous, smooth texture in the finished product. However, there is a disadvantage: When used in conjunction with certain emulsifiers, their use can lead to dryness in dehydrated skin.

Conclusion: When it comes to alcohol in cosmetics, it's all about the right skincare cocktail!

So it really is true – alcohol in skin care is better than its reputation. At least when we refer to the huge group of substances called alcohols. Because alcohol in cosmetics also includes such beauty stars as glycerin, vitamin E and panthenol - after all, we don't want to do without their phenomenal care effects!

However, when it comes to bad alcohols such as alcohol denat., ethanol etc., we at FIVE Skincare practice abstinence. With our philosophy, we ultimately stand for minimalism and pure skin detox : We do not use alcohol in any of our products and instead rely on effective natural alternatives such as preservative oils and natural, vegan ferments.

Would you like to pamper yourself with gentle, feel-good skincare? Discover our vegan skin care with a maximum of 5 precious ingredients now in the FIVE Shop !

All love,


  1. Saraogi P, Kaushik V, Chogale R, Chavan S, Gode V, Mhaskar S. Virgin coconut oil as prophylactic therapy against alcohol damage on skin in COVID times. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2021 Aug;20(8):2396-2408. doi: 10.1111/jocd.14258. Epub 2021 Jun 18. PMID: 34121304; PMCID: PMC8447131.
  2. Lachenmeier DW. Safety evaluation of topical applications of ethanol on the skin and inside the oral cavity. J Occup Med Toxicol. 2008 Nov 13;3:26. doi: 10.1186/1745-6673-3-26. PMID: 19014531; PMCID: PMC2596158.
  3. D. Bommannan, Russell O. Potts, Richard H. Guy, Examination of the effect of ethanol on human stratum corneum in vivo using infrared spectroscopy, Journal of Controlled Release, Volume 16, Issue 3, 1991, Pages 299-304
  4. Manuela G Neuman, Julia A Haber, Izabella M Malkiewicz, Ross G Cameron, Gady G Katz, Neil H Shear, Ethanol signals for apoptosis in cultured skin cells, Alcohol, Volume 26, Issue 3, 2002, Pages 179-190
  5. Wu D, Cederbaum AI. Alcohol, oxidative stress, and free radical damage. Alcohol Res Health. 2003;27(4):277-84. PMID: 15540798; PMCID: PMC6668865.

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