Is alcohol in products harmful??

Dear Dr. Irwin, I'm so confused about whether topically applied alcohol (e.g. in skin products) can accelerate skin damage and aging. Paula Begoun is completely against it and cites several studies to support her view. In fact, she rated the Skinceuticals Phloretin CF Gel that you use and recommend "Poor" because of its alcohol content. In your book, which is wonderful by the way, you say to avoid products that have alcohol in the first five ingredients (page 11). But Paula isn't a dermatologist whereas you are, and I doubt you'd apply something to your face every night if it were so bad for you! Can you set the record straight how bad (or not) it is to use skin products containing alcohol? Thank you SO MUCH for being an island of enlightenment and integrity amidst an ocean of confusion and conflicts of interest.

Paula and I diverge a little on this one. Alcohols are used in skin care products mostly to emulsify the product which is to help the oil, water and other ingredients in the product to blend well. They can be drying depending on the product and they can be irritating for some people. There’s no evidence that I know of that they do anything worse.

Think of it this way. If you put straight vinegar on your skin repeatedly, would it be irritating? Probably. If you mixed it well with oil and then applied, would it still be irritating, probably not. The oil in a sense, buffers the vinegar. It’s much the same for alcohol in skin care products because most of them are oil/water or water/oil emulsions.

I would love it if the most effective products had alcohols way down on the ingredient list but some of the best skin care products do have it. For example, I and millions of women worldwide have used Renova for years with wonderful effects. It has alcohol in the top 5 but, the beneficial effects of the Renova/tretinoin far outweighs the slight drying from the alcohol. Same with the Phloretin CF  Gel – the slight drying is worth the other results of the antioxidant mix in the product.

It’s not a perfect answer but I hope it helps.   Dr. B I

Dr. Brandith Irwin, MD

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