Why Alcohol in your Hand Sanitizers is NOT the Same as Alcohol in your Toner

As a doctor and a scientist, I know that alcohol can be a lifesaving ingredient in certain scenarios, but it can do harm in others.  Alcohol use in skincare products requires some serious thought. Here’s what you need to know when it comes to alcohol in your skincare products.

For your face: 

Not all alcohols are created equal.  Alcohols fall into 2 main categories: drying alcohols, and hydrating alcohols.  When it comes to products you use on your face, you want to avoid drying alcohols, but welcome the use of hydrating alcohols.

Drying alcohols are often listed on labels as SD alcohol, denatured alcohol, ethyl alcohol or isopropyl alcohol.  These are lightweight, volatile alcohols, meaning they evaporate quickly off the surface of the skin.  The problem is, these types of alcohols do major damage to the natural lipids and fatty acids on the surface of your skin, so they damage your skin barrier.  For people with oily skin, they can give you a sensation of feeling like you’re degreasing the skin and drying out the oil, but the long term damaging effects far outweigh that temporary sensation.  In fact, over time, your skin will actually pump out more oils to compensate for the stripping and drying effects these alcohols have.  So, long story short, these types of alcohols should be avoided by people of ALL skin types when it comes to their facial skin.

Hydrating alcohols, or fatty alcohols, are actually excellent ingredients when it comes to facial skincare!  Examples include cetyl, stearyl and cetearyl alcohol.  These alcohols are emollients, meaning they keep skin hydrated and supple—yes, the exact opposite of what you might expect when you see the word “alcohol” on the label!

For your hands:

Hand sanitizers that contain 60% ethyl alcohol and  70% isopropanol are incredibly effective germ killers, meaning they can kill many disease causing bacteria and viruses within seconds.  These are the kinds of alcohols I warned you to avoid in your facial skincare, but when faced with a virus like COVID-19, the benefits currently outweigh the risks when using them in your hand sanitizers. Just be sure to only use them when you don’t have access to running soap and water, and moisturize as often as possible to restore those lipids and encourage the regrowth of healthy bacteria (your microbiome).

Dr. Whitney