Alcohol in skincare products. Is it harmful?

Hello, Dr. Irwin - I've heard that high concentrations of alcohol in skincare products can be bad for skin, but I am wondering whether layering a moisturizer or serum under such a product would help mitigate the negative effects of the alcohol? For example, I've finally found a foundation I love, with the perfect shade and finish, but it lists alcohol as the third ingredient (and also contains some irritating fragrant ingredients near the bottom of the list). Would my skin be somewhat protected from these ingredients if buffered by a layer of moisturizer underneath? I very much hope you'll find time to answer this one. Many thanks!

There has been controversy around this in the past few years. I have not seen a single paper written in the medical literature that shows that a small amount of alcohol in skincare products harms your skin. If any of you know of any, please send me the reference and I’ll read it! There are various types of alcohol in skincare products and I would never claim to be an expert on all the different types.

The main effect of alcohol:

To me it’s more a matter of common sense also. The main effect of alcohol is that’s it’s drying (dehydrating). Think about the amount you consume in alcohol when you drink it!! There may be even a few weekends you regret. 😉 If you drink too much alcohol, the remedy is hydration. The rule is at least one glass of water (and maybe include electrolytes like gatorade) for every glass of alcohol.

It’s the same with your skin. Do you want to put straight alcohol on your skin? It’s good for killing bacteria, but it would really dry your skin if you kept it up. So a tiny amount of alcohol in a skincare product that’s also coupled with protective hydration is unlikely to cause a problem. I also love your idea of buffering it underneath with a hydrating serum like the SkinCeuticals Vitamin B5 gel that is almost pure hyaluronic acid (a hydrator) or a moisturizer.

If you have a product that works for your skin and your skin looks great – isn’t irritated or dry – then let’s all vote for sanity and not worry about this issue any more!! Personally I think there are many more important issues for skin like making sure the zinc content of your daily sunscreen is high enough (8-20%) depending on your lifestyle.

Happy holidays,   Dr. I

Dr. Brandith Irwin, MD

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Hi, I’m Dr. Irwin, and I believe that consumers deserve a medically trained and unbiased skincare advocate. That’s why I write these skin care tips and guides.

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