Alcohol as a Preservative in Skin Care

Written by: | July 22, 2016 | 77 responses

Alcohol has received a lot of bad press when it comes to skincare, personal care & cosmetics. So why on earth would Essential Wholesale & Labs use it as a preservative in our premium quality Organically Preserved Bases? Well, I can tell you that it is with extreme fondness that we use this. Not only is it an efficacious, nontoxic and natural preservative, but it also enhances the delivery of phytochemicals in the herbs and flowers extracted using the alcohol.

Essential uses domestically produced, food grade, certified organic grain alcohol (Ethanol), natural essential oils, and pure plant extracts to maintain the life of time-challenged products. All of our Organically Preserved Bases are stabilized with these wholesome natural ingredients. Bacteria, yeasts, and molds do not grow in an ethanol concentration of approximately 15-20% or greater. Alcohol also serves as a natural emulsifier, preservative, and carrier, helping ingredients in their delivery. Alcohol, derived from the fermentation of starch, sugar, and other carbohydrates, can also be used to extract and preserve botanicals, not just finished bases. And, unlike the isopropyl alcohol in your first aid kit, ethanol alcohol is not drying to the skin when it is part of a moisturizing base.

Using Certified Organic Alcohol

Certified organic alcohol, also known as ethanol (not to be confused with isopropyl, or rubbing alcohol), is said to be able to extract more phytochemicals than other substances used for extraction, such as glycerin, propylene glycol or water. With a wider spectrum of botanical phytochemicals present, the end product is richer, more opulent and yummier! Alcohol is also an effective emulsifier and carrier, helping ingredients penetrate the skin. Objections to alcohol in skin care products usually cite the tendency of alcohol to dry the skin.

Ethanol Structure

When Essential creates products using organic alcohol we purposefully formulate them not to be drying. For example, our Paramount Facial Moisturizer is formulated with soothing organic aloe juice, organic coconut oil, calming rose water and emollient organic jojoba oil and many other ingredients your skin will love, like MSM, DMAE, and hyaluronic acid. The Paramount Moisturizer is preserved with organic alcohol extracts of rooibos leaf and pomegranate seed, but with a plentiful amount of moisturizing ingredients the last thing the Paramount Moisturizer will do is dry out your skin! My mum, who is quite sensitive to some very well-known solvent preserved products absolutely loves our entire Paramount Line.

Isn’t Alcohol Drying?

Reports about alcohol being drying or otherwise harmful to the skin are usually based on a 100% concentration of alcohol applied to the epidermis. Repeatedly applying alcohol directly to the skin over an extended period will very likely have an adverse effect on the skin. It is important to take into account the difference between applying alcohol directly to the skin and applying a product primarily made of either a combination of or have at least moisturizing oils, butters, glycerin and juices in which alcohol is only one component. For example, imagine having two shots of tequila on an empty stomach. How would you feel? Now imagine those two shots of tequila, diluted into two pint glasses of orange juice and drunk while one’s stomach is full. Diluting the tequila in juice and drinking it on a full stomach dramatically changes the intensity of the alcohol’s effect our body and will likely result in a very different experience. One might also take into consideration the difference between splashing raw alcohol in one’s face versus applying a luxurious moisturizing crème preserved with alcohol extracts to your face. Even a toner or astringent that contains a higher percentage of alcohol also contains emollients and humectants. I guarantee the effect is not the same.

Reports of the negative drying effects of alcohol do come from personal experience of health care workers. In high-demand situations, such as in most critical-care units, or at times of overcrowding or understaffing, promoting hand cleaning with an alcohol-based hand rub solution seems to be the most practical means of improving sanitation. It requires less time, acts faster, irritates hands less often, and is superior to traditional hand washing or medicated hand antiseptic agents. However, many healthcare workers complain about unacceptable skin irritation caused by alcohol-based hand rubs. In spite of the complaint, when the irritant effect of alcohol on the skin has been evaluated, most authors found low toxicity (Boyce et al., 2000; de Haan et al., 1996; Lübbe et al., 2001; Winnefeld et al., 2000). It was pointed out that the skin irritation of healthcare workers is not simply caused by alcohol antisepsis but by combined damage resulting from the alcohol antisepsis dissolving lipids in the stratum corneum, the removal of lipids from the skin surface by detergent washing, and the skin becoming over-hydrated from wearing gloves. To reduce the adverse effects of alcohol-based hand rubs, it is shown that adding emollients or humectants is efficacious (Many studies are reviewed in Boyce & Pittet, 2002).

Is Alcohol a Carcinogenic?

Some people express concern over reports that alcohol is carcinogenic, and there is certainly evidence to support this. The World Health Organization has stated “There is sufficient evidence for the carcinogenicity of alcoholic beverages in humans…Alcoholic beverages are carcinogenic to humans (Group 1).” Note, alcoholic beverages are carcinogenic. Our bodies metabolize alcohol in several stages. The first stage occurs when the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase converts the alcohol into acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde is an estimated 30 times more toxic than alcohol and the sickness associated with hangovers and alcohol poisoning are the result of the accumulation of acetaldehyde in the body.

Acetaldehyde is fairly quickly converted into acetic acid and then to carbon dioxide, but so long as an individual has a build-up of toxic acetaldehyde in their body, they will have to endure some very unpleasant sensations. Heavy drinkers chronically have excesses of acetaldehyde in their bodies and over the years the acetaldehyde will make them increasing vulnerable to cancers, especially of the gastrointestinal tract.

However, you might also read that alcohol itself is NOT a carcinogen but under certain conditions is a co-carcinogen and/or tumor promoter. Read those “certain conditions” and you will note it has nothing to do with alcohol in skincare that is laden with other ingredients that are high antioxidants. Yes, it is true that alcohol is absorbed by the skin and that acetaldehyde is produced by the oxidation of alcohol absorbed through the skin. But let’s keep a sense of scale. Imagine how much alcohol you would have to apply to your skin to become intoxicated. Imagine how much alcohol you would have to apply to your skin to develop an addiction to alcohol. Now imagine how much alcohol you would have to apply to your skin for your body to produce enough acetaldehyde to put you at risk for cancer. It is probably obvious to everyone that you could never absorb enough alcohol through your skin to become intoxicated. You could never absorb enough alcohol through your skin to become an alcoholic. And you could never absorb enough alcohol through your skin to produce enough acetaldehyde to make you vulnerable to alcohol-related cancers. Topical use of alcohol cannot be compared to the internal use of alcohol.

Preserving Skin Care Products with Alcohol

Skin care products must be preserved. Preservatives help prevent microbial growth in our products. Contaminated products aren’t pretty, and they’re dangerous. There are countless reports of unpreserved lotions causing contact dermatitis, rashes, and worse. If you make a product with water, you need a preservative. Preservative options, even parabens, have contraindications in products such as not being able to work with different types of ingredients, whether they’re ionic, cationic, fatty alcohols, fatty acids or their pH range is too tight, just to name a few. In this day and age of people wanting all-natural preservation systems but not wanting parabens and in this day and age of people wanting to be claiming ‘preservative free’ ethanol seems to be the most logical option. Whatever bad press organic alcohol may have received, we still feel it is the safest and most effective natural preservative for our choicest bases.


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