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medicinal alcohol

Alcohol in cosmetics- is it safe?

Reviewed by Marta July 28, 2013 22 Comments

Most of us tend to assume that "alcohol" in cosmetics does not translate to happy hour. On the contrary, we might expect dry, irritated skin if we use a cosmetic product with alcohol. A few weeks ago, our anti-alcohol prejudice got a bit of a jolt when we spotted alcohol in Amala's products. How could this be, given Amala's wholesome, organic brand positioning? I have also noticed alcohol high up the ingredients list of another natural brand, Weleda.

Amala told us that they haven't figured out a way of excluding alcohol from their formulations and that they use a gentle form derived from wheat. In fact, there are "good" alcohols and "bad" ones. So which group does wheat derived alcohol fall into?

In benign form alcohols are glycols used as humectants that help deliver ingredients into skin. When fats and oils (see fatty acid) are chemically reduced, they become a group of less-dense alcohols called fatty alcohols that can have emollient properties or can become detergent cleansing agents.

The nasty ones have low molecular weights. These include ethanol, denatured alcohol, ethyl alcohol, methanol, benzyl alcohol, isopropyl alcohol, and sd alcohol, which not only can be extremely drying and irritating to skin, but may be cytotoxic.

Ethanol is made from fermented sugars of corn, wheat or sugar cane and is widely used in all kinds of products with direct exposure to the human skin (e.g. medicinal products like hand disinfectants in occupational settings, cosmetics like hairsprays or mouthwashes, pharmaceutical preparations, and many household products). I am guessing that Amala's "alcohol from wheat" is an ethanol.

I found a study that set out to test whether ethanol, of the kind used in cosmetics, caused apoptosis in human skin cells. It concluded that ethanol was toxic to cells in both a dose- and time-dependent manner and increased the percentage of cells undergoing apoptosis. The conclusion was that "even at low concentrations, ethanol may induce apoptosis in skin cells".

On the other hand, the evidence about the safety of topical applications of alcohol in the scientific literature seems to be contradictory, specifically  about whether there is a link to cancer. A German report in 2008 (interestingly Weleda and Amala are both German companies) said "so far there is a lack of evidence to associate topical ethanol use with an increased risk of skin cancer".

However, topically applied ethanol acts as a skin penetration enhancer and may facilitate the transdermal absorption of xenobiotics (e.g. carcinogenic contaminants in cosmetic formulations).  The same 2008 study also noted that ethanol use is associated with skin irritation or contact dermatitis, especially in humans with an aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH) deficiency.

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As to other alcohols that you might come across, it can get a bit confusing. Denatured ethyl alcohol may appear in the ingredient listing under several different names. You may see the abbreviation SD Alcohol (which stands for "specially denatured alcohol"), followed by a number or a number-letter combination that indicates how the alcohol was denatured, according to the formulary of the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF). Among the specially denatured alcohols acceptable for use in various cosmetics are SD Alcohol 23-A, SD Alcohol 40, and SD Alcohol 40-B.

The term "Alcohol Denat." was introduced in Europe as a generic term for denatured alcohol in the interest of harmonizing ingredient names internationally. It frequently appears on products that are marketed both in the U.S. and abroad. You also may see a dual declaration, such as "SD Alcohol-40 (Alcohol Denat.).

As for the good guys (with a few caveats) there is cetyl, stearyl, cetearyl. These are known as fatty alcohols, and their effects on the skin are quite different from those of ethyl alcohol.

Cetyl Alcohol

Extracted from coconut oil, it is an emollient that is included in skin care products to stabilize the formulations or to alter their consistencies, or to increase their foaming capacity. It is often included in baby lotions, hand creams, foundation, lipsticks, shampoos, mascara, deodorants, nail polish removers etc. Although generally regarded as a low hazard, there are some studies that have demonstrated that it is an irritant.

Stearyl Alcohol

Stearyl alcohol is also derived from coconut oil. Because it is an emollient as well as an emulsifier, it can be substituted for cetyl alcohol to firm skin care formulations. It is mostly found in creams, lubricants, depilatories and conditioners.

Cetearyl Alcohol

Cetearyl alcohol is an emulsifying wax that is used to soften thick formulas like skin ointments. Derived from natural oils and fats, it is very efficient in stabilizing skin care formulationsbecause it imparts an emollient feel to the skin. It can be used in water-in-oil emulsions, oil-in-water emulsions and anhydrous formulations. Cetearyl alcohol is widely used in cleansers, permanent hair color, face creams, eye make-up and sunblocks.

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  • July 26, 2016

    by Eric

    Regarding Weleda, it's interesting that Walmart warns that their "Skin Food" product contains chemicals known to cause cancer:

    http://www.walmart.com/ip/Weleda-0326900-Skin-Food-1-fl-oz/28936907

    California's Proposition 65 Warning: May This item contains chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm. Reference by California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) at: www.oehha.ca.gov/prop65/prop65_list/Newlist.html.

    They do not cite the specific ingredients that prop 65 claims causes cancer for the product (perhaps they should). What's ironic is that just a few paragraphs above the cancer warning it states:

    Weleda Skin Food-the natural choice for everyday care of the face and body, especially for dry or rough skin.

    I looked on the prop 65 chemical list and can't find any in that list for the Weleda Skin Food.

    Ingredients (from Amazon site): Water (aqua), lanolin, peanut (Arachis hypogaea) oil, sweet almond (Prunus dulcis) oil, alcohol, beeswax (Cera flava), glyceryl linoleate, fragrance (parfum - natural essential oils), hydrolyzed beeswax, pansy (Viola tricolor) extract, matricaria (Chamomilla recutita) extract, calendula (Calendula officinalis) extract and cholesterol.

    Also interesting (and seems to be by design), you must click the "read more" in the description to see the warning and the warning is the only thing you can't see in the description without clicking!

    What's going on with these prop 65 warnings? Very confusing to the consumer.

  • November 30, 2015

    by Denise

    For as many articles and "scientific experiments" that prove alcohol is safe, there are articles and "scientific experiments" that disprove alcohol's (in several forms) safety. Scientific experiments are able to be jaded. No one can dispute that. The only true information, outcome, or communication, is the reactions that billions of people's skin has, which can be directly traced back to alcohol, by medical/allergy testing. Temperatures do play a big part, but it doesn't matter when the aggravating ingredient (alcohol) is present as one of the main ingredients in products that are used everyday. The scientific experiments, more than likely, are not conducted over a long enough period of time to gain the true outcome of alcohol's effect on our skin. Usually by the time a person's skin responds to alcohol negatively (except of course when there is a prominent allergy), the person has been using products with alcohol in them for years or decades... Body chemistry, age, ethnicity, geographical climate, and other factors come into play. No matter what the determining factors are, the result is the same; skin irritation, breakdown, and other skin/hair issues that would not exist without the common denominator alcohol. That is my situation, and I have come in contact with a lot of people who have the same experience with alcohol in any form. What was the remedy (for me)? Stop using the products that contain alcohol (while replacing them with 100% natural, plant based products (with no additives or preservatives), and the itching, skin irritation and rashes, hair loss and scalp issues complete stopped.

  • October 15, 2015

    by jeff

    internet scientists. It has been proven that alcohol is not toxic to cells. I wish these fear mongering articles would disappear

  • June 29, 2015

    by Dona

    I am surprised that no one seems to see that the flash point of ethyl alcohol (ethanol) is 16 degrees Celsius. The skin temperature is about 37 degrees Celsius. How long do you suppose the alcohol stays on the skin? We made some tests and in some seconds the alcohol evaporates (wheat alcohol 96 degrees). I think it is too early to have some biological effect on skin cells.
    All the studies you mentioned in the article were made on cultured cells, that is in a closed environment. It's normal that it is cytotoxic to cultured cells, as it is a biocide. But as it evaporated very quickly from the skin it has no effect on skin. It is toxic indeed under a patch (in this situation it permeates the skin and it could be absorbed into the bloodstream. Otherwise it is a very good and safe preservative for natural cosmetics.

  • June 29, 2015

    by Dona

    I am surprised that no one seems to see that the flash point of ethyl alcohol (ethanol) is 16 degrees Celsius. The skin temperature is about 37 degrees Celsius. How long do you suppose the alcohol stays on the skin? We made some tests and in some seconds the alcohol evaporates (wheat alcohol 96 degrees). I think it is too early to have some biological effect on skin cells.
    All the studies you mentioned in the article were made on cultured cells, that is in a closed environment. It's normal that it is cytotoxic to cultured cells, as it is a biocide. But as it evaporated very quickly from the skin it has no effect on skin. It is toxic indeed under a patch (in this situation it permeates the skin and it could be absorbed into the bloodstream. Otherwise it is a very good and safe preservative for natural cosmetics.

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