Article by: Perry Romanowski

I recently received an email asking me about why a company would include alcohol (denatured) in their skin care formulas.  They were under the impression that alcohol caused skin irritation.  They are not the only ones as the folks at Paula’s Choice list alcohol as a skin irritant.  I had heard this same claim over the years but I’ve also heard the opposite, alcohol does not cause irritation. So I looked into it further. alcohol irritant

Alcohol less irritating than surfactants

In 2007, there was research published in the British Journal of Dermatology which looked at the questions “How irritant is alcohol?”  In the study they did patch testing with anywhere from 60-100% alcohol and compared it to both a positive control (SLS) and a negative control (water).

Their conclusion – Alcohol did not cause skin irritation.

Alcohol-based hand rubs cause less skin irritation than hand washing and are therefore preferred for hand hygiene from the dermatological point of view. An alcohol-based hand rub may even decrease rather than increase skin irritation after a hand wash due to a mechanical partial elimination of the detergent.

This was a small study (only 15 people) but if there was a positive result you could have much more confidence that alcohol was an irritant.

Then I found this chapter in the book Infection Control Updates entitled “Skin Irritation Caused by Alcohol Based Hand Rubs.”  This is really an excellent reference resource as it goes through the biology of skin and the causes of irritation.  But when they looked at alcohol specifically couldn’t find any support for the notion that alcohol caused skin irritation.

The Lancet even recommends using alcohol hand sanitizers.

So, based on the evidence that I could find you should have no problem including denatured alcohol in your topical skin care formulation (at least in regards to skin irritation).




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    Is isopropyl alcohol (aka rubbing alcohol) that is sold in drugstores denatured? If so, could the denaturing ingredients cause skin irritation?

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    The study noted that “skin hydration decreased significantly.” I don’t know why you are saying it is not drying.

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      Perry Romanowski

      I never said it is not drying. I reported that the research showed it was not irritating. There is a difference.

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    Hi Perry, can i replace ethanol with IPA when formulating when i am not able to get ethanol? Will there be a significant difference?

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      Perry Romanowski

      That depends on what else is in your formula. There may or may not be differences.

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    One more thing. If alcohol does not cause irritation on its own, it does dehydrate skin, no? I know that is an oversimplification. Certainly, putting 100% isopropanol on the skin dries the skin out something vicious. That’s not irritation, is it, but it isn’t something you want done to your skin.

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      Perry Romanowski

      That wasn’t what the research showed.

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    Would there be enough of a difference between the skin on the face and the skin on the back of the hand to make alcohol irritant when put on the face?

    If I remember correctly, Paula says that alcohol – is anything but ethanol used in skincare formulas? – also causes free radical damage.

    Interesting that they say it’s less irritating that surfactants. It’s not like the moisturisers we use contain SLS in any siginificant quantity.

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      Perry Romanowski

      I don’t think there would be enough of a difference.

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    I’ve tested a lot of moisturizers with alcohol even as the second ingredient in the ingredients list and many of them hydrated the skin better than many alcohol-free moisturizers. So, it all depends of the final formula.

    I know it’s totally subjective and has no scientific value, but I have extremely sensitive skin that often reacts even to products specific for sensitive skin (that “free of everything” ones) but I can use a lot of products with alcohol without any problem.

    Alcohol is an essential ingredient in formulas sold in hot and humid countries. It helps to create a more comfortable texture…

    Yes, there’s no doubt alcohol can irritate and dry out your skin, but again: it depends of the final formula.

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    For me, the question is not whether alcohol causes skin irritation, but whether it dries the skin sufficiently for the resulting lack of water to cause irritated dry skin. And I have a problem with the term “alcohol”. There’s a lot of difference between ethanol and iso-propyl.

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      Perry Romanowski

      Thanks for the comments. In the first study I referenced they tested the following alcohols – ethanol, 1-propanol, 2-propanol (synonyms: isopropyl alcohol, isopropanol). They don’t note any difference in effect.

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