Alcohol and organic products

Alcohol is known to dry out the skin, yet it is found in a lot of skin care products, even organic ones. That is because alcohol is one of the few preservatives that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) allows in “USDA-certified organic” products. USDA’s rules were drawn up to cover organic food, not skincare products. So if you want the USDA’s organic certification for a skincare product, you have to follow the food rules. And often, that encourages manufacturers to use alcohol as a preservative in dry skin products, even though it dries out the skin.

Alcohol as an astringent and in toners

Alcohol is a powerful astringent and is often used in facial toners because it is so effective at causing the skin to contract and the pores to shrink. Witch hazel extract, for example, commonly includes large amounts of ethyl alcohol – generally around 14% – for both its preservative and its astringent properties. But only the oiliest skin can withstand its drying effects. So we are seeing more products advertised as “alcohol-free.” However, that does not mean they have no alcohol in them.

“Alcohol-free” products

There are many different types of alcohol. The alcohol that is in toners is usually ethanol or ethyl alcohol, the same as in rubbing alcohol, and the same as in alcoholic drinks, except it is “denatured” to make it undrinkable. Variants of this type of alcohol can be labelled as ethyl alcohol, ethanol, methanol, benzyl alcohol, denatured alcohol, isopropyl alcohol (or rubbing alcohol) and SD alcohol. A manufacturer can say a product is “alcohol-free” if it does not contain any of these kinds of alcohol. Other types of alcohol, so called “fatty alcohols” – cetyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol, or lanolin alcohol – are said to be beneficial, and a product can contain them and still be called “alcohol-free.” So just because the label says “alcohol-free doesn’t mean there is no alcohol in the product.

Some people are not sure that fatty alcohols are all that benign.

Reading labels

If you see alcohol high in the list of a product’s ingredients, that means the product contains a lot of alcohol, whatever kind it might be. Personally, I have found no need for any kind of alcohol in the products I put on my skin. Fragrances often contain alcohol and other undeclared chemicals. I avoid them, too.

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