Understanding Alcohols In Skincare
It's not always easy to understand the different alcohols used in skincare. You might even wonder why there would be such a drying ingredient in a product meant to moisturize? Have you ever wondered about products claiming to be "alcohol free" yet you see the word alcohol on the ingredient label? This just doesn't seem to make sense!
Well, you're right, that wouldn't make sense but with a little bit of chemistry demystified you'll learn to appreciate a good "alcohol" in a moisturizing formula. Alcohols are actually a rather large diverse group of compounds that have very different effects on the skin. Let's separate out the different types of alcohol:
Drying Alcohols Found in Skincare
The best way to enjoy ethanol is to meet your friends at a bar to partake in a few frosty libations! Yes, these intoxicating alcohols may be suitable for ingestion but are poorly suited in your favorite cream or cosmetic.
Ethanol or Ethyl alcohol - In the US this is mainly from our excess supply of corn. Ethanol is grain alcohol or the fermented starch of various grains (wheat, barley) or even sugar crops. Although this alcohol is drinkable, it is very drying on the skin and not suited for skincare products.
Ethanol used in skincare has been denatured, meaning that is has been altered in some way to make it undrinkable. You will see ethanol listed as:
- SD alcohol (SD stands for "specially denatured")
- Isopropyl alcohol
- Denatured alcohol or alcohol dent.
These ingredients may be added to skincare to produce a quick drying finish and to offer a lightweight feel. These volatile alcohols can cause irritation, dryness and even interfere with your skin's ability to heal itself. Ethyl alcohols strip the fatty acid mantel from your skin which serves as a protective barrier.
When a product claims to be "alcohol free" they are referring to ethanol. German Soap Box is alcohol free!
Alcohols For Fuel, Industrial & Pharmaceutical Use
- Methanol - similar to ethanol when ingested, methanol is metabolized by the liver. However, where ethanol converts to acetaldehyde, methanol converts to formaldehyde which is much more toxic. Formaldehyde converts to formic acid which inhibits cytochrome C oxidase in the mitochondria of cells. The toxic effect comes in the form of hypoxia, or lack of oxygen, to cells throughout your body. Ingesting as little as 10ml (less than half an ounce) can cause blindness! Methanol is most commonly used within industrial manufacturing such as plastics, paint, resins and other chemicals.
- Benzyl alcohol - as a component that is produced by many plants, benzyl alcohol is found in tea and fruits. Although low concentrations have been used as a preservative in cosmetics and IV medications, benzyl alcohol is severely toxic at high levels. It is currently used as a prescription lotion for treating head lice.
- Denatured alcohol - Same alcohol as mentioned above, denatured alcohols (also called methylated spirits) also serve a purpose within the chemical industry as a solvent.
As you can tell, these types of alcohol are not suited for skincare nor are they incorporated in any German Soap Box products.
Moisturizing Alcohols Best Suited For Skincare
Finally!! This is the category of alcohol we want! They may not get a party started but your skin will love the following alcohols:
- Cetyl alcohol
- Stearyl alcohol
- Cetearyl alcohol
These are completely different than ethanol alcohol! All three are considered fatty alcohols and the ones utilized by German Soap Box come from coconut and palm sources. In fact, the ones used by GSB aren't even liquids but instead come in the form of white, waxy pellets or flakes.
Stearyl alcohol, for instance, is made from stearic acid, one of the saturated fatty acids found in coconut oil. Other fatty acids include lauric, capric, palmitic and many more. The length of their carbon chain determine which fatty acid it is. These ingredients serve as emulsifiers, emollients and thickeners within the cosmetic industry.
Even vitamin E, a frequent ingredient in skincare, is considered an alcohol! Also known as tocopherol, the -ol ending on the word indicates that it is an alcohol. The same is true for vitamin A, or retinol.
But why are they called alcohols? Good question!
This is merely the name used in chemistry to denote a carbon chain of even numbers with the -OH group (hydroxyl group consisting of one oxygen atom connected by a covalent bond to one hydrogen atom) attaching to the terminal carbon molecule. Aren't you glad you asked? ;-)
When you think of skincare you imagine a product that is smooth, moisturizing, soft, hydrating and conditioning. Fatty alcohols can add to these qualities as well as bind them with water to create lotions, creams and other fabulous formulations!
So the next time to read an ingredient label you can feel confident that cetyl/stearyl/cetearyl alcohol are skin loving and from natural, plant-based sources. We love alcohols!