Why Is There Alcohol in Skincare?

Fatty alcohols just want to be understood.  A number of people, upon reading the label on a skincare product will see stearyl alcohol and exclaim “Oh no, I can’t use anything with alcohol.” Or “Why is there alcohol in my skincare…I thought natural products would be better?  Alcohol is bad for you, it burns!”

Firstly, let me preface by saying that while I prefer “natural” based skincare and products for a number of reasons, a natural product does not automatically guarantee that type of product will be safer or gentler if you have extremely sensitized or troubled skin or if it contains an ingredient to which you are allergic. Know your ingredient sensitivities and triggers and do your homework accordingly if you have sensitive skin, because no matter how seemingly harmless an ingredient, you can find someone who is allergic to it.

Secondly, do not use natural based products expecting that they are hypoallergenic, and don’t use products that are marketed as being hypoallergenic because as I have already covered, there is no such thing as a (hypoallergenic) product that guarantees that no one will ever or has ever had an allergic reaction to it.

Ok!  That said, I advocate heavily that you read labels and understand what you are reading.  Merely inferring what an ingredient might be because of the name is how fatty alcohols get a bad rap!  Scientific/chemical names are related to the organic chemical structure of the ingredient which could translate to any number of different uses.  I suggest picking up a copy of A Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients by Ruth Winter, M.S. or downloading apps like Think Dirty or Skin Deep to help you identify ingredients.


Fatty alcohols are not harmful for even sensitive or dry skin types, as they are not related to other alcohols such as denatured alcohol which can cause a strong stinging sensation or dry skin out as it breaks down the natural barrier.  The fatty alcohols include panthenol, cetyl, oleyl, stearyl, capric, myristyl, and lauryl alcohol and are used as emollients and thickeners in skin-care products. Most fatty alcohols are not irritating and, in fact, can be beneficial for dry skin.

Fatty alcohols have more than one benefit when added in a skincare product :

  • They act as a lubricant and emollient giving skin a soft smooth appearance.
  • Fatty alcohols act as a chemical go-between to keep the emulsion (combination of opposing ingredients oil and water) stable by not letting it separate into oil and water; fatty alcohols also act as a thickening agent for lotions, creams, and conditioners.
  • When added to a conditioner, cetyl alcohol helps it cling better to hair shaft, hence making it a better smoothing agent.
  • A combination of cetyl alcohol with other emollients provides relief from skin dryness and improvement in skin texture.
  • Wax in cetyl alcohol carrier can help relieve allergic contact dermatitis induced by common irritants like SLS (sodium lauryl sulfate) in shampoos and body washes.

Before you freak out because there is alcohol in your skincare or makeup, take a minute and look up the each ingredient to see what its purpose is before you pass up a product based on a misconception!