Derm DMs: Should You Avoid Alcohol in Skincare?

December 21, 2021
Sarah Ferguson
By: Sarah Ferguson | by L'Oréal
Derm DMs: Should You Avoid Alcohol in Skincare?

If you have dry or sensitive skin, there’s a good chance you’ve been told to stay away from products formulated with alcohol. And not like the alcohol you drink (although that can also be detrimental to your skin), but the alcohol that’s added to skincare products and generally used  as solvents or to improve the texture of a formula. This type of alcohol may be drying and sensitizing to skin, but according to some of our experts, it’s not as much of a skin villain as you might think. Keep reading to learn how alcohol could affect skin, and why some may want to avoid it, according to the pros. 

Why Is Alcohol Used in Skincare?

There are two categories of alcohol commonly used in skincare: low molecular weight alcohol (like ethanol and denatured alcohol) and high molecular weight alcohol (like glycerin and cetyl alcohol). Each serves a different purpose and can have different effects on skin. 

“Low molecular weight alcohols are solvents that help things that don’t dissolve in water,” says Dr. Ranella Hirsch, a board-certified dermatologist based in Boston. These alcohols are also antimicrobial agents.

High molecular weight alcohols are also known as fatty alcohols and are naturally-derived. “They can be used as emollients or thickeners,” says Dr. Hirsch. The alcohols can help smooth skin and give your product a less watery texture. 

What Are the Potential Negative Effects of Alcohol in Skincare? 

Ethanol, denatured alcohol and other low molecular varieties can be drying and irritating on skin. In comparison, fatty alcohols can have the opposite effect. Because of their emollient properties, Krupa Koestline, a cosmetic chemist and founder of KKT Consultants,  says that they can be beneficial for dry skin. In high concentrations, however, “they can yield breakouts and congestion,” says Dr. Hirsch. 

Who Should Avoid Alcohol in Skincare?


Dr. Hirsch says that it really comes down to the formula, i.e. the concentration of the alcohol used and what other ingredients are included. “You can have an irritating ingredient, but when placed into a full formula, the ingredient can become less irritating,” she explains. When in doubt, consult with a dermatologist or patch test a product before applying it all over the face or body. 


Design: Hannah Packer

Read More:

How to Soothe Irritation After Waxing — And Prevent It From Happening Again

What Is a Retinol Sandwich? A Dermatologist Weighs In

5 Toner Myths You Shouldn’t Believe, According to Skin Experts


Read more

Back to top