“Alcohol” is an extremely common ingredient, which you can find in all kinds of personal care products. Some people try to avoid it, while others don’t mind its presence in the ingredients list.
But avoiding it or not, it’s important to know the different types of alcohol, and their purpose as ingredients in personal care products.
In this article, you will guide you through the different types of alcohols and their uses in skincare, as well as every-day products!
Table of Contents
- What type of alcohol is used in cosmetics?
- What products contain isopropyl alcohol?
- What products contain denatured alcohol?
- What products contain benzyl alcohol?
- What products contain fatty alcohols?
- Are alcohol free cosmetics actually alcohol free?
What type of alcohol is used in cosmetics?
Alcohol is a very well-known organic compound, which can be both in liquid and solid form. That being said, there are four main types of alcohols used in skincare: isopropyl, ethyl, aromatic alcohols, and fatty alcohols.
It is also called rubbing alcohol and is mostly used as a disinfectant (prevents bacterial, and fungus growth inside the product packaging) . It evaporates quickly, and stimulates the effective penetration of other skincare ingredients into the skin layers. Keep in mind that isopropyl is only suitable for external (topical use) as can be very irritating and poisonous to the internal body organs. Besides, when used in high concentrations it may draw moisture from the skin and cause excessive dryness and irritation (especially in people with dry or sensitive skin). 
It is also called grain alcohol, or ethylene. And yes, that is the type of alcohol that we use for margaritas! It is produced from grains/plants, and it is transparent, flammable, and volatile. Ethyl is used as solvent in cosmetics in the form of Denaturated alcohol, which is unsuitable for drinking (in the ingredient list it is often mentioned as Alcohol Denat or SD Alcohol). Like isopropyl, ethyl and Alcohol Denat are mainly used for disinfection of personal care products, as they kill and limit the growth of bacteria and microorganisms inside the product. They also support proper absorption of skincare products, but can also dry the skin and cause flaking, peeling, and irritation (when used in high concentration). 
Isopropyl, ethyl, and alcohol denat give lightweight texture to cosmetic products, making them feel less greasy and with more matte finish.
They can be both naturally derived (from essential oils) or artificially created. They are mainly used as preservatives and as the name suggests- fragrance component in cosmetic products. The two most popular types of aromatic alcohols include benzyl alcohol and phenethyl alcohol. Aromatic alcohols can cause strong allergy symptoms and irritation because of their drying effect and deep penetration. People with sensitive skin, as well as those tho are allergic to essential oils may experience significant irritation after using products with high concentrations of aromatic alcohols. 
They are derived from natural fats and oils and enable water and oil to work together. They do not act as the other mentioned alcohols (meaning, they are not used as preservatives), but are used as emollients, making the skincare products feel richer, with waxier texture, and more moisturizing. Fatty alcohols can also act as humectants and draw moisture into the skin, as well as soothe the lipid barrier of the skin and improve the water retention mechanism. This way, those ingredients can be beneficial to people with dry and dehydrated skin. In the ingredients list, fatty alcohols can be listed as: cetyl, cetearyl, stearyl, oleyl, behenyl, caprylyl/caprylate, decyl, isostearyl, lauryl, myristyl alcohol, and others. 
Keep in mind that while fatty alcohols are tolerated well by many individuals, people suffering from chronic, persistent, or long term eczema, dermatitis, or skin damage may suffer from irritation when exposed to high concentrations of those ingredients. 
What products contain isopropyl alcohol?
- It is widely used in both cosmetic and cleaning industry. You can also find it as an ingredient in hand sanitizers, antiseptic products, and wet wipes.
- It is used in medical products, such as creams for treating muscular pain, open cuts and wounds, preventing infections.
- In the cosmetic industry, you can find it in all types of creams, shampoos, conditioners, deodorants, perfumes, body oils, soaps, facial cleansers, masks, etc.
What products contain denatured alcohol?
- You can find it in creams, shampoos, conditioners, masks, cleansers, hair sprays, toners, shower gels, etc.
What products contain benzyl alcohol?
- You can find them in many cosmetic products, including makeup, creams, moisturizers, lotions, shampoos, conditioners, body wash, etc.
What products contain fatty alcohols?
- Their primary use is in the cosmetic industry as emollients and thickeners. You can find them in all types of products, creams, shampoos, conditioners, deodorants, perfumes, body oils, soaps, facial cleansers, masks, etc.
- Fatty alcohols are also used in the cleaning industry, for production of detergents, surfactants, cleaning products.
- You can find them in the food industry, as they add flavor and texture to certain foods.
Are alcohol free cosmetics actually alcohol free?
FDA warns that skincare and personal care products, which are marketed as “alcohol-free” may actually contain alcohol.  According to the source, this is due to the fact that products can be legally indicated to be alcohol-free if they don’t contain ethyl. However, those cosmetics may contain fatty alcohols, isopropyl, denatured alcohol, as well as fragrance (which makes them not entirely alcohol-free).
That being said, if you try to avoid using alcohols in skincare and cosmetics, it’s a good idea to always check the ingredients list instead of blindly trusting the front label.