Alcohol. The boozey facts.
Skin that feels dry and depleted after toner, moisturizer, or a face wash is confusing—like you've just fallen for false advertising. The goal with skincare is never to feel worse over time, so what gives? Chances are the culprit is alcohol, but not just any alcohol—volatile alcohols that actually damage the skin's barrier, which is all too common in popular products. This is why it’s important to know what is in your skin care products! Fatty alcohol, which is derived from coconut or palm oil, is sometimes used to thicken a formulation and can be nourishing for the skin. Ethanol is a well-known topical penetration enhancer, which means it can be used to increase the transdermal delivery of certain ingredients into the skin. These come by way of names like cetyl (product thickener), stearyl (an emollient to trap moisture in skin), cetearyl alcohol (an emulsifier), and propylene glycol (a humectant to attract water into the dermis).
Now for the bad: evaporative solvent alcohols like SD alcohol 40, denatured alcohol, ethanol, and isopropyl alcohol (also known as simple alcohols) all have a dehydrating effect to the skin and are often used in toners and gel moisturizers. So why do brands use simple alcohol in their skincare products? They give a tight, cooling, and "refreshing sensation" that oily skinned gals might find reassuring, despite the fact that they're stripping away the skin's natural oils and damaging the skin barrier. They also act as a vehicle to help dissolve ingredients that aren't water soluble, as well as drive ingredients deeper into the skin. The large-scale impact largely outweighs any short-term benefit (or perceived benefit), though. In the long run, they can enlarge pores and increase greasiness, so avoid products containing any type of alcohol if you have an oily skin type or acne-prone skin. Ethanol in toners can also be quite drying for sensitive skin types, so watch out for that, too. The higher the alcohol is on the ingredients list, the higher the concentration and the stronger it will be on the skin.