Alcohol in skincare: isopropyl alcohol

What is isopropyl alcohol?

Isopropyl alcohol is also known as rubbing alcohol, which is used in skin care and cosmetic products to improve the application and absorption of the other ingredients in your product.

Alcohols in skin care have gotten a bad rap, largely due to the relationship between alcohol-containing toners and dryness. While astringent toners, which contain high concentrations of alcohol, can dry out on the skin, alcohols like isopropyl alcohol can actually benefit the skin. They also don’t harm your skin, as many online rumors would lead you to believe.

Isopropyl alcohol is different from ethanol, which is the alcohol you’d find in that glass of wine after work. They differ in their chemical structure. These differences mean that isopropyl alcohol is more suitable for skin care because it evaporates easily from the skin. This evaporation means it often doesn’t come in contact with the skin long enough to cause damage or irritation.

the breakdown

Isopropyl alcohol

the good: Helps more easily absorb other ingredients in your skin care routine. It also helps make your product easier to use.

not that good: Isopropyl alcohol can dry or sensitize when formulated in high concentrations or in combination with other drying or sensitizing ingredients.

For whom is that? All skin types except those identified as having an allergy.

Synergetic ingredients: Works well with most ingredients

Keep an eye on: Not all alcohol is created equal in the skin care world. Keep an eye out for all of the other types of alcohol that you can find in your skin care regimen.

What are the benefits and concerns of using isopropyl alcohol?

The use of isopropyl alcohol in skin care products has the advantage that other skin care ingredients are dissolved and can be evenly distributed throughout the formulation. The other benefit of including isopropyl alcohol in skin care formulations is that it improves both the absorption of the product and the spread of the product on the skin. By improving the absorption and spreadability, the other main ingredients of the product are evenly distributed and more likely to penetrate the skin for their benefits.

One of the other main benefits of isopropyl alcohol is that it kills bacteria. Because of this, it is widely used in hand sanitizers. This, along with the fact that isopropyl alcohol evaporates easily, makes it a great ingredient in both skin care products and hand sanitizers.

The concern that usually arises when talking about alcohols in skin care is that they can dry out on the skin. This is usually only a problem if the product is formulated with other drying or astringent ingredients. However, if you have sensitive skin, or skin with a broken barrier, a temporary sting may occur if the skin is open or severely dry. In this case, it may be best to avoid products containing alcohol until your skin has healed.

The other concern that has been circulating lately is that alcohols in skin care products can disrupt the skin’s natural barrier. The skin’s natural barrier consists of the top layer of skin cells, oils, ceramides, proteins and cholesterol. The skin barrier protects the skin from allergens, bacteria and water loss. When the skin’s barrier is broken it can increase irritation and sensitivity. However, the claim that alcohols could disrupt the skin barrier does not seem to hold true. This can only be the case if the skin barrier has already been destroyed. In this case, alcohols can increase the resulting sensitivity.

Is Isopropyl Alcohol Safe?

Isopropyl alcohol is currently considered safe in skin care, hand sanitizer, and skin care products. The Expert Panel on Cosmetic Ingredient Review, a group responsible for evaluating the safety and effectiveness of skin care and cosmetic ingredients, has reviewed isopropyl alcohol. In their review, the panel of experts found that isopropyl alcohol is safe when used in accordance with current guidelines and for currently approved uses.

References:
Heldreth, B. et al. 2012. ‘Final Report of the Panel of Experts on Cosmetic Ingredient Review for the Safety Assessment of Methyl Acetate’, International Journal of Toxicology.

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