When we scan the list of ingredients in a prospective new toner or moisturizer—which we should always do!—we’ve learned to avoid alcohol at all costs. Not only is it drying to the skin on a surface level, but the bacteria-destroying, antiseptic components that make it a popular ingredient in the first place work only because they tear through the skin’s barrier, which is necessary for protecting the healthy nutrients your skin needs. Bottom line: Alcohol is destructive, both to your skin and your Saturday night.
“Alcohol is a generic term usually referring to ethanol,” says Dr. Jessica Weiser of New York Dermatology Group. “It’s a very short chain molecule and can be very drying and harsh to skin, and it also dries natural oils from the skin’s surface.” Not good, even for oily skin, because sapping your skin of its natural oils forces it to produce even more oil. That’s the opposite of what you want.
But there’s a little more to getting your skin care right than just giving any formula with the word alcohol in the mix a hard pass. Enter fatty alcohols. Cetyl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol, and stearyl alcohol, among others, are nonirritating and totally harmless. Because they’re actually derived from fats and oils, they can be really helpful for keeping dry skin hydrated. “[Fatty alcohols] are used as thickening agents and emollients in many skin care products,” Dr. Weiser explains, so they’re nothing to be afraid of.
Keep an eye out for these terms, and don’t confuse them with their nastier alcohol-based counterparts—simple alcohol, ethyl alcohol, ethanol, denatured alcohol, and isopropyl are your danger words. Avoid them like the plague.