Type of Ingredient: A solvent and astringent, also known as ethanol.
Main Benefits: It is used as a solvent in cleaners and as a fuel additive. Ethyl alcohol is used in the production of chemicals, pharmaceuticals, perfumes, and cosmetics.
Who Should Use It: In general it is an ingredient in many consumer products, such as cleaners, sprays, inks, mouthwash, perfume and aftershave, and human and veterinary medicines.
Ideal For These Concerns: Used to make creams feel lighter, help other ingredients to penetrate your skin, and as a preservative.
How Often Can You Use It: Safe to use daily although can cause dryness and skin irritation.
What is ethyl alcohol?
Ethyl alcohol is ethanol (also called denatured alcohol) that contains a denaturant to make it taste bad. This is done because ethanol is the alcohol found in alcoholic beverages such as liquor, wine, beer, etc. In the United States, alcoholic beverages are heavily taxed. According to Cosmetics Info, to avoid paying beverage taxes on alcohol that is not meant to be consumed (i.e. for use in cosmetic and personal care products), the alcohol must be denatured per specific formulations given by the U.S. Government’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). The process adds a small amount of a denaturant to the alcohol to make it taste bad, thus creating alcohol that is not suitable for drinking but is otherwise similar for other purposes.
Due to the diversity of industrial uses for denatured alcohol, hundreds of additives and denaturing methods have been used. Common denaturants in cosmetics and personal care products include denatonium benzoate, t-butyl alcohol, diethyl phthalate, and methyl alcohol. The process of denaturing alcohol does not chemically alter the ethanol molecule.
Ethyl alcohol shows up on ingredient labels as Alcohol Denat., SD Alcohol 3-A, SD Alcohol 30, SD Alcohol 39, SD Alcohol 39-B, SD Alcohol 39-C, SD Alcohol 40, SD Alcohol 40-B, SD Alcohol 40-C or just plain alcohol.
The Benefits of ethyl alcohol
“Alcohol is a chemistry term, it just means that a molecule has a hydroxyl group at one end,” explains John Zampella, M.D., assistant professor in the Ronald O. Perelman Department of dermatology at NYU Langone Health. Ethyl alcohol is a common ingredient in many cosmetics and beauty products. It acts as an astringent to help clean skin, in lotions as a preservative and to help ensure those lotion ingredients do not separate, and in hairsprays to help the spray adhere to the hair.
Because ethyl alcohol is effective in killing microorganisms like bacteria, fungi, and viruses, it is a common ingredient in many hand sanitizers. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the use of hand sanitizers in situations where soap and water are not available.
Ethyl alcohol has a variety of functions in cosmetics and personal care products, including as an anti-foaming agent, astringent, antimicrobial agent, and a solvent. One of the primary functions of ethyl alcohol is as an astringent. An astringent is a substance that causes biological tissue to contract or draw together. After topical application, astringents work on the protein keratin found in the skin. Keratins function to hold skin cells together to form a barrier. The bonds between keratins are affected by temperature and pH, forming only when the skin is slightly acidic or cool. If the bonds break, the keratin molecules will separate, causing the outer layer of skin to swell. Astringents cool the skin and cause the bonds to reform. It is this process that produces the temporary toning effect associated with astringents. That’s why lower-molecular-weight alcohols are so useful in achieving that effect, Melissa Piliang, M.D., a dermatologist at Cleveland Clinic, explains. “[Ingredients] like isopropyl alcohol, alcohol denat. or SD alcohol, methanol, [and] ethyl alcohol…make a product feel lighter on the skin and dry quickly,” she says. “They feel nice—especially if you have oily skin.”
According to skincare expert and biochemist Cathy Beaupain cautions, "I recommend caution using ethyl alcohol as stripping your skin of oils can stimulate the sebaceous glands to produce more oil, causing the skin to appear more oily and shiny than it was before. For those who suffer from acne, it is better to get to the root cause of acne rather than simply addressing the symptoms."
The Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel (CIR) concluded that the safety of ingredients containing ethyl alcohol should be predicated on the safety of the denaturants. The safety of the alcohol denaturants denatonium benzoate, t-butyl alcohol, diethyl phthalate, and ethyl alcohol were reviewed by the CIR Expert Panel in 2008 and found to be safe.
According to the CDC, “Diethyl phthalate is not known to cause cancer in humans or animals. Unlike other phthalates such as di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate, diethyl phthalate does not appear to affect the ability of male animals to father babies (see ATSDR toxicological profile for di[2-ethylhexyl] phthalate for more information on this chemical)
Astringent products, their role on the skin, 2015, Int J Toxicol. 2008 27 Suppl 1:1-43, FutureDerm, “The Most Misunderstood Skincare Ingredient: Alcohol”, 2007.