Is alcohol in skincare really that bad? • K-Beauty Ingredient Spotlight

Remember back in high school when we got our first pimples and headed straight to the store to buy our first bottle of Clearasil? A couple years later I opted for the Clinique toner which almost burned your nose off if you got a whiff of the smell when you opened the bottle. I thought I was doing it all right and that the burning sensation was just a part of sending my pimples to hell. Truth is, instead of clearing my skin, I was drying it out to the point that my skin would always hurt without even touching it. At first, drying out the pimples seemed to help. But since my skin was so intensely dry, it wouldn’t heal anymore making some pimples seem like they were permanent residents on my face. Sounds painful? Sounds familiar? I think we’ve all been at this stage. But there’s still hope if you are back on the right track now. Reading this blog is a good start if you are ready to make a change.

Alcohol in skincare is the devil

After my traumatic teen-skincare-routine, I thought that all types of alcohol were the devil and threw everything out of my cabinets with this now forbidden word on it. Reading magazines I heard that celebrities were doing the same, so I felt like I was on the right track again. Because of its bad reputation, alcohol in skincare is really misunderstood. Little did I know about them when I was a teen. There are many different types of alcohols and many different reasons for alcohol to be in your cosmetics. Some actually make the product even more effective. So before permanently swearing off all alcohol and emptying your drawers, learn to differentiate between good and bad.

What is alcohol?

So what are we looking for? It’s easier reading a label and picking out the ‘bad ones’ so I’d rather have you remember these instead of the good ones. But first, let’s get to the basics. What is really an alcohol? It can be pretty vague honestly since it basically refers to any molecule containing a Hydroxyl group. Without getting all ‘sciency’ it’s basically oxygen and hydrogen bonded together which means there are an infinite amount of alcohols out there. If you like to get more into the science, I recommend checking out Biology Dictionary. So let’s check out some of the actual bad boys to avoid.

Ethanol/ Ethyl alcohol 👎

When we check labels and we see the term alcohol used alone it refers to Ethanol. This term is so specific, that products which mention ‘alcohol-free’ can have tons of different alcohols, just no Ethanol. Ethanol itself isn’t harmful, it’s the drying effect that leads to skin problems. Ethanol is found most often in astringent toners and pore tightening products. It sucks up oil and helps other ingredients like Vitamin C penetrate the skin better. It’s best avoided by those with dry, sensitive and or acne-prone skin.

Denatured /  Denat/ SD Alcohol 👎

Alcohol Denat or denatured alcohol is used in skin care product as an anti-foaming agent, a solvent, an astringent or to help other ingredients penetrate better into the skin. Just like Ethanol Denatured alcohol can be drying and irritating on the skin. It is best to avoid the product if it’s if Alcohol Denat or Ethanol is in the first 5 ingredients of the ingredient list. Especially if you have dry or sensitive skin.

Good alcohols

There are also different alcohols out there which aren’t harmful to the skin. Cetyl, Cetearyl, Stearyl and Lauryl Alcohol are also called ‘fatty alcohols’ and can act as an emulsifier, improve texture and spreadability and add moisture. These fatty types shouldn’t be feared as they are not very likely to cause dryness or irritation. Let’s talk about some of them a little more in-depth:

Cetyl and Cetearyl Alcohol 👍

These fatty alcohols are naturally derived from coconuts and are not harmful to the skin. They are great moisturizers and help to improve spreadability and texture in products. Cetyl and Cetearyl Alcohol can soften both skin and hair and are therefore found in a wide variety of cosmetics from shampoos to moisturizers.

Bottom line

Sometimes a (small) amount of alcohol is necessary for other (active) ingredients to be there. So there’s no rule of thumb which alcohol is bad or good. In general, you should just listen to your skin and it’s needs. So there might be some alcohol in your favorite moisturizer, but it might barely matter.

(harmful) alcohol-free Korean beauty products we love:

💦 Klairs Supple Preparation (unscented) Toner

Both the original version and the unscented version of this toner are free of any alcohol making it a staple of many in their routine.

💦 Pyunkang Yul Butter Cream

This all over moisturizer is formulated with Cetearyl Alcohol which provides moisture and makes it glide on the skin like actual butter…

💦 Etude House Soon Jung pH 6.5 Whip Cleanser
The whole Soon Jung line is free from any harmful ingredients making it great for sensitive skin. Picking one product out of the entire line was therefore very difficult.

💦 Benton Aloe Propolis Soothing Gel

With a whopping 80% of aloe leaf juice and 10% propolis extract Benton just left no more room for any bad stuff

Do you use any Korean skincare products with alcohol inside them? Or are you completely against any type of alcohol just like makeup queen Jeffree Star? Let us know in the comments below!

Lot’s of love,



4 thoughts on “Is alcohol in skincare really that bad? • K-Beauty Ingredient Spotlight

    • says:

      Hi Lewis, not sure if you actually read the article but there are actually many different types of alcohol found in skincare, some of them are not harmful to the skin at all.

  1. Anonymous says:

    Very helpful article. I am always afraid of alchol term whenever I checked ingredients of product. But Thank You for this information.

  2. Anonymous says:

    So good to read some common sense on alcohol for a change – not all alcohol is equal! Hopefully more people are starting to realise that seeing ‘alcohol’ as a skincare ingredient is not always a bad thing. I’ve heard of so many people dismissing perfectly good products just because they contain alcohol without actually realising what kind it is or why it is there.

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