Over the years, I’ve come across a lot of misinformation and misconceptions about cosmetics that unfortunately are perpetuated across the internet and media. So, here I offer a Zaega “Beauty Myth-buster” article, aimed at delivering the truth from a real cosmetic chemist. At the heart of this myth is a misunderstanding of the term “alcohol”. So, before going any further, let me explain the mainly two different types of alcohols commonly used in cosmetics, as each one exhibits very different properties.
Regular old alcohol: Ethyl Alcohol. One of the most common alcohols used in cosmetics is Ethyl alcohol, also referred to as Ethanol (or simply Alcohol on some cosmetic ingredient listings). It’s the regular old alcohol we are all most familiar with –found in beer and wine, as well as in our hairsprays, gels and facial toners. Yes, really –it’s the exact same thing. But, to remove the tax burden imposed on alcohol intended for ingestion, and also to ensure that people (especially kids) aren’t drinking hairspray, the ethanol used in cosmetic formulations is typically denatured, which creates a bitter taste. Denatured alcohol appears in a cosmetic ingredient listing either as SD Alcohol or Alcohol Denat.
Ethanol is typically derived from sugars, mostly from corn. It is a liquid at room temperature, and has a lot of other cool properties that only chemists like me would care about. But, one important characteristic you should understand is that it is very “volatile”. Simply put, it evaporates rapidly –much more rapidly than water. Its volatility is one reason why ethanol is used in a lot of hair styling products, such as hairsprays. The fast-drying activity of alcohol allows the fixative to be sprayed onto the surface of hair without “wetting” the hair –which, of course, would ruin the style.
Fancy alcohols. The second, "fancier" type of alcohol commonly used in cosmetics is a fatty alcohol, such as cetyl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol, stearyl or behenyl alcohol. These alcohols are typically derived from coconut or palm and are solids at room temperature, therefore must be melted for use in cosmetic formulations. Personal care products such as conditioners and hand, body or face lotions typically use fatty alcohols to thicken a formulation, emulsify oils into water or condition the skin and hair.
Confused yet? It’s easy to see why “alcohols” are confusing to the average cosmetic label reader. People misinterpret ingredients that have alcohol in their name to be the volatile alcohol that we’re most familiar with (ethanol). But, as mentioned above, fancier fatty alcohols, such as cetyl alcohol are not drying; instead, they are actually conditioning to hair and skin.
So what about ethanol? Should we be afraid that this ingredient present in cosmetics will dry out our hair and skin?
Think of it this way, in the case of hairsprays, the alcohol (ethanol) used is the vehicle to deposit the fixative on hair. The amount of ethanol sprayed onto hair is minimal and will not cause a drying or damaging effect with typical usage. In skin care preparations, ethanol may be used as a solvent and sometimes to assist in preservation. In such formulations, the percentage of ethanol would be less than 10%. The only product type which would exceed this concentration level would be alcohol hand sanitizers, which may contain 60% or more ethanol in order to effectively kill bacteria.
Fear not: Beauty Myth #1 has been busted! Properly formulated cosmetics use both ethanol and fatty alcohols to produce effective and beautiful products, and will not dry out or damage hair or skin with typical usage.
*Note to the organic and natural beauty lovers, like me: Ethanol is available certified organic and is commonly used in certified organic cosmetic products. Also, fatty alcohols, as minimally processed chemicals derived from sustainable plants, are allowable in natural personal care standards.