Updated: Jan 18, 2019
For many years cosmetic manufacturers have marketed certain cosmetic products that do not contain ethyl alcohol (also known as ethanol, or grain alcohol) as "alcohol free." However, "alcohols" are a large and diverse family of chemicals, with different names and a variety of effects on the skin. This can lead to some confusion among consumers when they check the ingredient listings on cosmetic labels to determine alcohol content.
In cosmetic labelling, the term "alcohol," used by itself, refers to ethyl alcohol. Cosmetic products, including those labelled "alcohol free," may contain other alcohols, such as cetyl, stearyl, cetearyl, or lanolin alcohol. These are known as fatty alcohols, and their effects on the skin are quite different from those of ethyl alcohol. Ethanol (Alcohol for purposes of cosmetic ingredient labeling) is also a common primary component of Alcohol Denatured and the SD Alcohols.
Ethanol is widely used in all kinds of products with direct exposure to the human skin (e.g. medicinal products like hand disinfectants in occupational settings, cosmetics like hairsprays or mouthwashes, pharmaceutical preparations, and many household products). Most people have experienced skin contact with alcoholic solutions. Besides skin cancer, alcohol abuse has been associated with the development of several skin disorders including psoriasis, discoid eczema and superficial infections.
Allergic contact dermatitis due to primary alcohols, such as ethanol, often occurs from occupational exposure among nurses, physicians, laboratory technicians and occasionally cosmetics users.
Topically applied, ethanol can act as a penetration enhancer. In another words, the addition of ethanol increases permeability of other chemicals through the skin. Alcohol can be an allergen in immediate and delayed hypersensitivity by external or internal exposure, and can produce subjective irritation, irritant contact dermatitis, and non-immunologic contact urticaria ( also known as hives ) by its pharmacological effects.
Ethanol can produce subjective irritation and irritant contact dermatitis. In children, especially through lacerated skin, ethanol can cause percutaneous (through the skin) toxicity to occur. There are scientific evidence to suggest that ethanol is a reproductive and developmental toxicant.
It is possible that allergic contact dermatitis caused by ethanol does occur more frequently than appears from the literature, but it is presumably misdiagnosed or overlooked. The facts that ethanol is widely used in topical applications and that its adverse effects were seldom reported should not be dismissed.
Until unambiguous evidence about the safety of ethanol in topical preparations exists, the necessity of its use should be critically evaluated. We should also weigh the benefit vs risks of using alcohol based products. If we have alternatives, why take the chance?
1. "Alcohol Free". FDA Website. 11/05/2017 https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/labeling/claims/ucm2005201.htm
2. Final Report of the Safety Assessment of Alcohol Denat., Including SD Alcohol 3-A, SD Alcohol 30, SD Alcohol 39, SD Alcohol 39-B, SD Alcohol 39-C, SD Alcohol 40, SD Alcohol 40-B, and SD Alcohol 40-C, and the Denaturants, Quassin, Brucine Sulfate/Brucine, and Denatonium Benzoate1. (2008). International Journal of Toxicology, 27(1_suppl), 1–43. https://doi.org/10.1080/10915810802032388
3. OPHASWONGSE & MAIBACH et al. Alcohol dermatitis: allergic contact dermatitis and contact urticaria syndrome. Contact Dermatitis 13 July 1994. 30,1-6. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/j.1600-0536.1994.tb00719.x
4. Lachenmeier DW. Safety evaluation of topical applications of ethanol on the skin and inside the oral cavity. J Occup Med Toxicol. 2008;3:26. Published 2008 Nov 13. doi:10.1186/1745-6673-3-26