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Alcohol in cosmetics- is it safe?

May 7, 2018 Reviewed by Marta 22 Comments

A cpommunity member recently wrote to me concerned about the presence of benzyl alcohol because she had read that it would age, even kill her skin's cells. I knew that alcohol in cosmetics didn't equate to happy hour, but cell killer? I went off to do my research and found that not all alcohols used in cosmetics are the same. In fact, there are "good" alcohols and "bad" ones.

In benign form alcohols are glycols used as humectants that help deliver ingredients into skin. When fats and oils (fatty acids) 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 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.

So what about benzyl alcohol? The concerned community member had read an article on saying "exposure to alcohol causes healthy substances in skin to literally self-destruct".  Digging a little deeper, it seems to reference a study on hospital workers using alcohol-based handwash. Specifcally, they are overusing it and the study concluded that with proper use alcohol was safer than water with detergent (source). Neverthless, irritation has been documented at 3% (source). When used as a preservative, the concentration is typically 1-5%.

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.

  • July 26, 2016

    by Eric

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

    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:

    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.

  • June 13, 2015

    by Marta

    Hi FJ, if you are interested in finding out more about an article, go to our ingredients listings. We have explained over 1,000 ingredients. Go to the "ingredients" tab in the navigation bar at the top of the page and then use the search to find what you are looking for:

  • June 13, 2015

    by F.J

    Hello. Just recently, I found an ingredient called arachydyl alcohol and dimethicone please. Do these contain alcohol that are haram please? Thanks. Bye.

  • May 14, 2015

    by Dom

    what most are forgetting and it was not mentioned in article is that Ethanol is superior as preservative against bacteria, fungus and molds. I would be more concerned if there wasn't effective preservative system in place to fight against really nasty bugs such as E. Coli. Bottom line is that all preservatives have side effects.

  • September 1, 2014

    by TK

    Can Cetearyl alcohol or any other alcohol in lip balm affect the blood alcohol reading
    in a breath test?

  • June 16, 2014

    by Muriel

    Will the alcohol in skin lotions effect a urinary test and make it postive?

  • June 5, 2014

    by Christine

    Regarding alcohol: The epidermis is always turning over. If one wants skin renewal, doesn't increased surface skin cell death accomplish that? Also, wouldn't good compounds be able to penetrate newer, softer skin---rather than the tough, old stuff?

    Alcohol acts as a disinfectant because it is to some degree a biocide. So, why does "cytotoxicity" surprise anyone? Question is, how far does the cytotoxicity go? Does it get into the blood stream and start poisoning the liver?

    I always get nervous when I see "denatured alcohol." For years, that was the term for industry alcohol that might not be pure enough for cosmetic use. What about that?

  • April 16, 2014

    by Chris

    I have been trying to find out exactly what Rye alcohol The Organic Pharmacy uses and what effect it may have on skin, as they seem to be using it as a preservative (now that we all know Grapefruit seed extract doesn't work). I'm presuming it is either Rye Whiskey (unlikely) or Rye Vodka. Do you know anything about this type of alcohol?

  • September 13, 2013

    by June

    This article is extremely informative! I have just started searching for skincare and cosmetic products which are free from all nasty ingredients and came across a few brands which have alcohol high up in the ingredients list. I have also read the bit about alcohol and free radicals on Paula's Choice website. Please can someone clarify whether even pure alcohol (as stated in Lavera products) is bad for skin? Thanks!

  • August 27, 2013

    by Jennifer

    Thanks for another great article!

    I am not a fan of Paula's Choice (reviews too biased, and I've found incorrect and confusing information in their research), but I found this on the PC website about alcohol causing free-radical damage at low levels. PC recommends not using products with any alcohol. Thoughts?

    "There is actually a significant amount of research showing alcohol causes free-radical damage in skin even at low levels. Small amounts of alcohol on skin cells in lab settings (about 3%, but keep in mind skin-care products use amounts ranging from 5% to 60% or greater) over the course of two days increased cell death by 26%. It also destroyed the substances in cells that reduce inflammation and defend against free radicals—this process actually causes more free-radical damage. If this weren't bad enough, exposure to alcohol causes skin cells to self-destruct! The research also showed that these destructive, aging effects on skin cells increased the longer exposure to alcohol occurred two days of exposure was dramatically more harmful than one day and that's at only a 3% concentration (Sources: Journal of Investigative Dermatology, August 2009, pages 20–24; "Skin Care—From the Inside Out and Outside In," Tufts Daily, April 1, 2002; Alcohol, Volume 26, Issue 3, April 2002, pages 179–190; eMedicine Journal, May 8, 2002, volume 3, number 5,; Critical Reviews in Clinical Laboratory Sciences, April 2001, pages 109–166; Cutis, February 2001, pages 25–27; Contact Dermatitis, January 1996, pages 12–16; and"

  • July 1, 2013

    by Mel

    If an ingredient list puts "alcohol", what type is it?

  • April 29, 2013

    by Mary Ellen

    oops! Forgot to say "thanks for a great article"!!!

  • April 29, 2013

    by Mary Ellen

    Keep in mind that the corn derivatives are almost certainly GMO. In the USA, almost 90% of the industrial corn is GMO. The are NOT using organic corn to make body care products. If they were paying a premium price for organic corn, it would be a marketing pitch all over the label. So, when you spray or rub anything into your skin, you might as well be eating it. If you have any concern about eating GMOs (which you SHOULD), then I suggest you DON'T rub them onto your body!

    p.s. Be careful of "greenwashing"... products that sound earth and human friendly but might actually have less than desirable ingredients. I just looked at the clear "earth friendly" glass cleaner I have and found that, after water, the main ingredient is corn-derived ethanol. This is most certainly GMO. Bummer! Even with food... a brand (or an entire store like Whole Foods) can contain GMOs while promoting themselves as "natural"... Whole Foods DOES have fantastic organic selections (and they claim their 365 brand is non-GMO) BUT they sell tons of other brands (and "Whole Foods" labeled products) that contain GMOs. They are not going GMO-free for another 5 years (way TOO LONG)... so BUYER BEWARE!

  • March 2, 2013

    by Navaid

    I wonder why so much confusion for Grain alcohol as ingredient in cosmetics.... while 90% of world women willingly spreading most hazardous chemicals on their sweet lips, in form of Lipsticks... knowing the fact that it contains "cancerous ingredients" { FDA Approved }.
    Homeopathy being consider as most safe way of treatment close to natural, as far as I know none of Homeopathic medicine is without alcohol.

    Almost all of cough syrup contains alcohol (approved by FDA to intake).

    Now the latest blow is "Halal certification", this is another way to mint money by business tycoons through unaware general population.
    In religion Islam the word Halal n Ha-ram, used mainly for the products to intake by human.... but halal certification being issued even for Paper , Wood etc..
    its all mischievous { at-least for me }

  • January 21, 2013

    by Vida

    How about organic grape alcohol for skin and hair care products?

  • February 5, 2010

    by Jaysie

    Information like this really makes me wonder about a lot of things. Just to name a few: Do we have to become scientists to understand ingredient lists since it appears something can go by so many different names? Is there any way to know if a company is using the safest and lowest effective percentage of a questionable preservative or enhancer? How do we know if an ingredient list is even truthful? How do we know if a particular ingredient is sourced from an ethical supplier? It's all pretty mind boggling.

  • February 3, 2010

    by Val♥TIA

    This is so interesting! So let me make sure I got this right...if "topically applied ethanol acts as a skin penetration enhancer and may facilitate the transdermal absorption of xenobiotics," it seems that we'll be ok if our cosmetics don't contain a bunch of junk (that's my technical term =)and our skin isn't super sensitive???

  • January 30, 2010

    by Carrie

    Thanks for this article. I love your blog and always enjoy reading it. I work in communications at Weleda North America, so I thought I would respond to this post.

    In our formulations, we use organic grain alcohol from Italy, which is naturally derived from fermented plant sugars. We do not use Methyl or Propyl alcohol (rubbing) alcohol. Alcohol is used as a natural preservative, and is much safer than synthetic preservatives such as parabens.

    But also, just like in traditional homeopathic remedies, we use alcohol to draw out the vital life forces of the plants we use in our products. We combine our plant and mineral extracts with alcohol in what's called a tincture to draw out the vital life forces hidden in the plant. It's key to making our completely natural products effective and potent.

    I hope this helps explain why we use alcohol in our products. Please feel free to contact me with any questions, anytime.

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