The short answer is: generally, no. Non-allergenic alcohols in low concentrations are fine, and frequently are good for you.
The other short answer is: you may not know what to avoid! Many ingredients named “alcohol” aren’t actually alcohols, and other ingredients not called “alcohol” are precisely that.
What Is an “Alcohol?”
If you answered a liquid that dries out the skin, you’d be more wrong than right. “Alcohol” is a categorization of a substance based on its atoms. There are many alcohols that aren’t drying, and many aren’t even liquid. Some alcohols that we don’t think of as alcohols are sperm oil, jojoba, rapeseed, mustard, and tallow. Most alcohols are waxes (and waxes aren’t drying) from plants and beeswax. Stearyl alcohol and cetyl stearyl (also called cetearyl alcohol) are both emulsifying waxes that creams need for oil- and water-based ingredients to mix. Still other alcohols are beneficial (moisturizing!) to skin, like those from coconut and palm oils.
So what is alcohol? All alcohols are derived from hydrocarbons in plants, animals, beeswax, or synthetic sources. Hydrocarbons are made up of carbon (C) and hydrogen (H) atoms. When one or more of the H atoms is/are replaced by a hydroxyl group (OH), the hydrocarbon becomes an alcohol. There are many alcohols depending on the radical attached to the OH. Most fatty alcohols in nature exist as waxes — esters with fatty acids and fatty alcohols — and are solids at room temperature. Only a few are the liquid “alcohols” we think of.
“Good” vs. “Bad” Alcohols
Generally, short-chain fatty alcohols are considered eye irritants, while long-chain alcohols are not. Ethyl alcohol is from molasses and isn’t known to cause irritations. Isopropyl alcohol is “good” in that it is not an allergen, is antiseptic and is accepted for cosmetics. Stearyl and cetearyl alcohol are waxes needed by many formulations to mix and, based on the latest publication of common allergens, are not known to irritate skin. The medical literature shows very rare reactions to these alcohols — only two, in our research, and in one of these, impurities in the cetyl alcohol were considered more likely to have caused the patient’s dermatitis.
Benzyl alcohol is widely used in cosmetics but, being related to fragrance, is an allergen. Cinnamic alcohol is a fragrance and an allergen. Lanolin, a fatty substance from sheep’s wool, is an allergen — far from being drying, lanolin is a common base in ointments. These three alcohols are accepted for use in cosmetics but not in VMV products due to their being published allergens.
Methyl alcohol (“wood alcohol”) is derived from methanol. Used for industrial and automotive purposes, it is poisonous on the skin and is not approved for cosmetic applications.
If They’re Mostly Fatty, even Moisturizing, and Often Beneficial, Why Are People Scared of Alcohol?
First, they may not be aware of what “alcohol” is.
Second, when people express concerns over alcohol they might be thinking of ethyl and isopropyl alcohol, the liquid, drying alcohols used in most hospitals and laboratories as antiseptics. But even these alcohols are accepted as safe for cosmetic purposes and do provide benefits such as killing dangerous microbes.
What’s more important is the percentage of these alcohols in a product. The higher the concentration, the more drying on the skin. Most astringents that are drying contain 85-90% alcohol (VMV Toners and Id Monolaurin Gel contain between 25% and 56%). In many countries, hand sanitizers must contain at least 70% alcohol. Because the antimicrobial action of our Kid Gloves Hand Sanitizer is primarily provided by monolaurin, we can limit its alcohol content to 38% (why it’s less drying than most). These alcohols are the most effective medium for certain product types. They are accepted for use in cosmetics, are not allergens, and their tendency to dry out the skin can easily be lessened by lower concentrations.
More nefarious concerns can be allayed as well. There is no evidence of fatty alcohols being carcinogenic, mutagenic, or causing reproductive toxicity or infertility. Fatty alcohols are effectively eliminated from the body when exposed, limiting the possibility of retention or bioaccumulation.
The next time you insist on “alcohol-free,” keep in mind that you’re probably still getting some alcohols that you don’t recognize, or could be missing out on highly beneficial, even moisturizing ingredients. Your best bet if your skin is sensitive? Ask your doctor for a patch test so you can learn exactly what you need to avoid.