Along with dryness and irritation, most people also associate alcohol with redness and think of isopropyl, or rubbing, alcohol. Some people even avoid using skin and hair products with any alcohols, thinking that they will end up drying out the skin and hair. However, contrary to popular belief, not all alcohols are drying or irritating. Alcohols are used in skin and hair products for several reasons, including acting as stabilizers and emulsifiers or as a delivery system for hair products to be released from the packaging (e.g. with an aerosol hairspray). Here is a breakdown of the most commonly used alcohols for both skin and hair products:
- Cetyl, cetearyl, cetostearyl, cetyl 40 alcohol – usually derived from coconut oil, these are called fatty alcohols and have a long molecular chain. These act as hydrators and emulsifiers to create a creamy consistency for facial and body moisturizers, and shampoos and conditioners.
- C12-15 alcohol.
- Stearyl alcohol – acts as a moisturizing agent.
- Lanolin – derived from the sebaceous (oil) glands from sheep and acts as an emollient.
- SD alcohol 40 – a high concentration of ethyl alcohol that is denatured and therefore unfit for human consumption. Used in hair products such as styling gels to provide even distribution and quick drying upon contact, and to leave little to no residue and provide maximum hold. This is the most commonly used alcohol in hair products and can cause the hair cuticle to become rough, due to the quick evaporation of water. Therefore, this is the alcohol that some people avoid using in hair care products.
- Lauryl, cetyl, myristyl, stearyl, cetearyl and behenyl alcohol – all fatty alcohols used to give hair products a smooth, creamy feeling and to help seal the hair shaft and smooth down the cuticle.
The belief that alcohols will overdry the skin comes from the use of low molecular weight, or short chain, alcohols, the ones that will dry out the skin and hair since they evaporate very quickly. Low molecular weight alcohols include:
- SD alcohol and SD alcohol 40.
- Isopropyl alcohol.
- Benzyl alcohol.
- Ethanol – found in some hairsprays.
- Ethyl alcohol.
- Denatured alcohol (alcohol denat).
If these ingredients are found at the top of the list of ingredients for a product, it is safe to say that they will be too drying. But dermatologists and skin and hair experts emphasize that if they are found toward the bottom or last of the list, they were probably used as a degreasing agent and to help with the formation of a product.
The main concern of alcohol, especially with skin care, is when it is consumed – while people are aware of the health effects, drinking excessive amounts can cause a flushed appearance and dilation and eventual rupture of blood vessels. Excessive alcohol intake will also decrease the absorption of vitamin A (important for the anti-aging process) and cause increased toxicity of vitamins A and B carotene.
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