Type of Ingredient: An anti-foaming agent, astringent, antimicrobial agent, and a solvent. Also known as ethanol or denatured alcohol.
Main Uses and Benefits: It is used as a solvent in cleaners and as a fuel additive. Ethyl alcohol is also used in the production of chemicals, pharmaceuticals, perfumes, and cosmetics. As a skincare ingredient, ethyl alcohol is used to make face creams feel lighter, help other ingredients penetrate your skin, and as a preservative.
Find It In: Aside from face creams, ethyl alcohol is also used in many consumer products, such as household cleaners, paints and inks, pharmaceutical products, and personal care products, such as mouthwash, hairspray, hand sanitizers, perfume, and aftershave.
How Often Can You Use It: Safe to use daily, although it may cause dryness and skin irritation to some.
What Is Ethyl Alcohol?
Ethyl alcohol (also called ethanol or denatured alcohol) is the same chemical compound found in alcoholic beverages such as liquor, wine, beer, etc. The difference is that it contains a denaturant to make it taste bad.
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 Skincare 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. In body lotions, it acts as a preservative and helps ensure ingredients do not separate. In hairsprays, it helps the product adhere to the hair. And because ethyl alcohol is effective in killing microorganisms like bacteria, fungi, and viruses, it is a common ingredient in many hand sanitizers.
Ethyl Alcohol as an Effective Astringent
But among the many functions of ethyl alcohol, its most notable use in skincare is as an astringent. An astringent is a substance that causes biological tissue to contract or draw together. When applied to skin, astringents work on keratin, a type of protein found in the skin.
Keratin holds 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."
Is Ethyl Alcohol Safe for Skin?
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.