(Organic) Alcohol in Skin Care = Controversy (Part 1)

Update: Alcohol in skin care – Part 2 is the latest article on this subject. The link will be at the bottom of the page as well.

The use of alcohol in skin care products is such a controversial subject.

  • You have the regular cosmetic companies, who use alcohol together with synthetics and petroleum derived ingredients.
  • Then you have the regular cosmetic companies who are heavily opposed to the use of alcohol, but liberally incorporate a whole bunch of other highly doubtful substances in their skin care. Neither of those two groups are of much interest to me, regardless of how much alcohol they use, because their products contain way too much other undesirable ingredients.
  • On the natural and organic side of the cosmetic spectrum, you have the companies who use a plant-derived (organic) alcohol in many of their creams and lotions.
  • And finally, the companies who use only natural organic ingredients, but reject alcohol. Even the bio-organic kind, because it’s still alcohol and therfore drying and aging to the skin.

Trying to determine which stance to take can be difficult, because different sides have interesting arguments to bring to the table.

Examples of organic skin care lines using alcohol are: Lavera, Weleda and Dr Hauschka. Organic ethanol made from sugar cane is used in the moisturizers by Miessence. Annmarie Gianni on the other hand, has a line of alcohol-free organic skin care products.

Organic Skin Care lines without alcohol – check ’em out here: Annmarie Gianni organic skin carePai
The ones with alcohol: LaveraWeledaDr Hauschka on Amazon, or on LoveLula (free international shipping) and Miessence

ID-10050172Skin care world seems to be governed by two (more or less) defined opinions. (And that’s not including those companies that seem not to care about how much crappy stuff they mix into their concoctions, as long as it sells.)

No matter how much I research this topic, experts seem to position themselves in one of the following opposing camps. I’ve attempted to define each side with a brief summary. The “alcohol-elevator-pitch”. Sounds like a party, right?!

The Alcohol in Skin Care Madness

Camp 1. “There are many different kinds of alcohol. A natural alcohol is not the same as a synthetic alcohol. The natural (organic) plant-derived alcohol in skin care products will not dry out your skin. As part of a carefully formulated product, it actually helps the skin to absorb the beneficial botanical properties and also acts as part of a natural preservation system in many natural organic skin care products, making obsolete (additional) synthetic preservatives.”

Camp 2. “The way alcohol works as a penetration enhancer, is through stripping the skin of its protective layer. This is not a good thing, because you want to keep this barrier healthy and intact. Alcohol in skin care products is never a good thing, period. Alcohol causes free radical damage to skin cells, body cells, all cells basically.”

Scientific data is great knowledge to have. If scientific data illustrates the harmful effects of alcohol, it is hard to contradict that. What I do find peculiar however, is that the skin care brands which voice their opinion on the skin damaging properties of these alcohols, do use plenty of other ingredients that can be labeled ‘doubtful’ in the least, ‘toxic’ at worst.

To look at an example: The skin care brand Paula’s Choice expresses itself fervently against the use of ethanol (a certain kind of alcohol). Paula’s Choice products are full of petroleum-derived, synthetic ingredients, and contain phenoxyethanol as a preservative. Doesn’t that sound a bit strange?

Some scientific research has been conducted on the effects of petroleum/petrolatum/mineral oil and the results aren’t really good.

Plant-based versus Synthetic Ingredients

Contemplating the idea’s of some so called regular skin care companies (the ones who don’t care about using ingredients close to nature, but do firmly reject alcohol) – the following stood out to me. It’s a fairly easy position to be in. When using synthetic ingredients in general, you can do without alcohol. No need for it to conserve the product, since synthetic preservatives are doing that job. This probably un-complicates their stance on alcohol in skin care. Obviously it doesn’t mean their skin care products are natural, or healthy. The synthetic origin of the preservatives and other ingredients in these products is a competely different topic, but the position of the brands is clearly simplified by their choice for other (perhaps worse) chemicals.

One of the favorite arguments of (less natural) skin care brands in favor of their use of synthetic ingredients, is that these are stable and dependable, whereas botanical extracts are hard to stabilize and difficult to preserve. Synthetics, in their opinion, are definitely the better choice for skin care, providing stable and more reliable ingredients than certain plants. They also like to point out that many plant extracts have not been properly tested. Sometimes tea tree essential oil or lavender essential oil are portrayed as downright harmful.


I guess some companies would prefer everything in nature to be totally weak and useless. That way the synthetics they create in their labs would be the only substances with ‘power’. Jackpot. Unfortunately for them, natural essential oils do have tremendous power. So yes, they need to be used with care and knowledge. It doesn’t mean they’re downright dangerous, because they haven’t been tested. Humans have tested them for thousands of years. Plants can’t be patented – could that be part of the ‘problem’, or does that make me a big cynic?

ID-10067687Ancient Knowledge versus Lab Testing

Especially the part about proper testing I find laughable. Humans’ relationship with botanicals goes back as far as the dawn of time and synthetics have been used in cosmetics for what… 60, 70 years?

Who is to say what the long term effects are of rubbing synthetics on the body? Are we going to ignore a possible link between the explosion of various sorts of cancer in our population and the stuff we started applying on our skin (as well as ingesting) in this most recent chapter of our evolution as a species?

Alive versus Stable

On synthetics being totally stable and more dependable than plant extracts, here’s another thought. Why are they unchanging? If a substance has been artificially created and manipulated in a lab, isn’t subject to any change or growth, it sounds like that substance is pretty ‘dead’ to me. Our bodies are very much alive indeed. From a holistic perspective, on a vibrational level, wouldn’t the choice for skin care ingredients that are alive as well be a much better one? They may be less stable, but how stable do you want your skin care to be, when your skin is a living, breathing organism? (Obviously, you don’t want your lotion to be so alive that it starts growing stuff, let’s not exaggerate!)

I can’t help but seeing a certain trend.

  • Many natural, organic skin care brands favor a certain freshness of their products over extended longevity. Where preservation is needed they may use plant-derived alcohol, because using a synthetic preservative doesn’t fit their all-natural ethics. They are also concerned with sustainability and health in general. The skin’s, the body’s and the environment’s.
  • The skin care brands that don’t care about natural or organic ingredients are often playing the ‘modern research’ and ‘latest technology’ card. They make skin care, that’s what they do: products meant to noticeable improve the look of our skin, and preferably fast. The emphasis is on result. Not on health. Not on balance. Not on any kind of ‘bigger picture’.

Update: The second point here was recently illustrated by a testimonial I read, from a lady working for a skin care company. The company strongly encouraged employees to use the brand’s products. This lady wasn’t really into using a new serum the company launched, because it contained alcohol. She asked around within the company, because she’d heard alcohol not being so good for the skin. The answer she got was that women don’t care about a skin care product being good for them, they just want something that works. (And then she seemed a bit concerned about getting fired, if she would refuse to use the given serum.)

Natural Alcohol versus The OthersID-100129506

The skin care brands happily using synthetics present us with ‘research’ and evidence pleading against more than 2 or 3 percent of alcohol in skin care. However, they seem more than comfortable using many synthetic ingredients linked to health concerns in their products. This makes me wonder how ‘neutral’ their point of view is.

Brand X accuses alcohol of cell damage. Their products are built up of synthetic chemicals and preservatives. Their sunscreen products are loaded with toxic chemicals. That doesn’t look quite right to me. If your primary concern is skin health, then why use so many other questionable ingredients? If your primary goal is profit, you’ll want your products to make skin appear beautiful. Petroleum-derived ingredients, mineral oil and silicones make that happen, but only in appearance. They form a layer over the skin, causing both smoothness and suffocation. When the use of natural, organic ingredients isn’t your concern, nothing stands in the way of using synthetic preservatives. With harsh and toxic synthetic preservatives in your products, there’s no need for alcohol. So let’s go shooting at the natural, organic skin care brands that do, I guess…? Since it’s the only thing you have on your competition – might as well focus the attack on it.


It makes most sense to me to stick with organic ingredients over synthetic ingredients, even when it comes to plant-derived alcohol. I’ve had good experiences with Dr Hauschka, Weleda and Miessence skin care (all are using a natural, organic alcohol in their formulations). That said, I’m not entirely convinced that alcohol is harmless and will definitely keep reading new scientific research on the subject. Keeping an open mind is never a bad thing.

Is alcohol in skin care is okay or not? I’m still undecided. Fortunately, one of the organic skin care lines I enjoy most just so happens to be alcohol free. Annmarie Gianni’s natural organic skin care products are they heavenly smelling and there’s something available for every skin type. (This article couldn’t end without at least one good tip for a natural, organic skin care brand without alcohol, right?)

Continue to: Alcohol in skin care – Part 2

What do you think? I’d love to hear from you!

Leave a Reply