Alcohol in Hair and Skin Products: Friend or Foe?

Navigating ingredient lists for ineffective ingredients and cancerous or toxic chemicals can be challenging.  Many personal care products, specifically hair conditioners, gels, hair sprays and various skin creams, contain alcohols, however, all alcohols are not created equally (figuratively speaking).  Some alcohols can be very drying to the hair, whereas others have the opposite effect and provide a feeling of softness.

Chemically, alcohols are organic compounds that have molecules that contain one or more hydroxyl groups (neutral -OH) attached to a carbon atom.  The oxygen (O) and hydrogen (H) atoms form a covalent bond, or share electrons.  Alcohols vary in chain length, with fatty alcohols having 8-21 carbon atoms and a high molecular weight, and ‘simple’ short chain alcohols having 1-3 carbon atoms with low molecular weights.

Fatty Alcohols

Chain Length of Fatty Alcohols

Fatty alcohols are typically derived from natural feedstocks, such as coconut oil and palm kernel oil.  These oils undergo an alkali-catalyzed reaction to create a fatty acid (methyl esters), which are then separated by fractional distillation (a method of separating a mixture in ‘fractions’) and hydrogenated (Hydrogen is added).  The result of this reaction is a fatty alcohol that is commonly added to hair or skin products as emulsifiers which ensure that the waters and oils in a product do not separate, as they otherwise would not mix.  These fatty alcohols are typically one of the first 5 ingredients in a product. When used on the hair or skin they do not penetrate but make the product easier to apply and give the hair and skin a soft feeling (as they do not penetrate the hair shaft it is unlikely they are technically making hair softer).

Commonly Used Fatty Alcohols Include:

Cetyl Alcohol
Stearyl Alcohol
Cetearyl Alcohol

Short Chain Alcohols

Chain Length of Short Chain Alcohols

Short chain alcohols are what many people commonly associate with the word ‘alcohol.’  These alcohols are typically derived via hydration reactions (water is added to an alkene [double bonded hydrocarbon] or alkyne [tripled bonded hydrocarbon]), though each undergoes a specific reaction.  Specifically, Ethanol can be produced by hydrating ethylene or by fermenting sugars with yeast.  Isopropyl alcohol can be produced by hydrating propene, then undergoing distillation.  Unlike fatty alcohols, short chain alcohol production requires an acid-catalyzed reaction (hydration).  Alcohol can be denatured by adding an essential oil or various additives to make it undrinkable.  Short chain alcohols are often using in hair and skin products as an antiseptic or as a solvent (alcohols will evaporate leaving behind the product).  These alcohols are often considered to be very drying to the hair, though this may not always be the case.  Short chain alcohols are common in hair gels and hair spray though they are often found in skin creams and hair conditioners.

Commonly Used Short Chain Alcohols Include: 

Denatured Alcohol
SD Alcohol
Ethanol (Grain alcohol, Ethyl Alcohol)
Isopropyl Alcohol

Do any of your hair or skin products contain either type of alcohol? How do the products work for you?

2 thoughts on “Alcohol in Hair and Skin Products: Friend or Foe?”

  1. I tend to stay away from cosmetics with alcohol in them due to the drying affect they have on my skin. Now a days I make all my own lotions.

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