Alcohol as a Preservative in Skin Care

Written by: | July 22, 2016 | 81 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 solubilizer, 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), in our experience, tends 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 solubilizer 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 the skin 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).

What About Alcohol’s Effects on the Skin? Is it like Drinking it?

Topical use of alcohol cannot be compared to the internal use of alcohol. After regular application of ethanol on the skin (e.g. in the form of hand disinfectants) relatively low but measurable blood concentrations of ethanol and its metabolite acetaldehyde may occur, which are, however, below acute toxic levels. Only in children, especially through lacerated skin, can percutaneous toxicity occur. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2596158/) This article also states that more safety studies are needed to determine the safety of the ethanol as a penetration enhancer in formulations.

In general, we are very comfortable using alcohol, and ethanol specifically, on the skin and are not worried about toxicity. We can’t fully explore the science behind this due to FDA regulations, but skin absorption of alcohol in such small levels as is found in skin care is not concerning to us. We certainly use our products on ourselves and prefer ethanol over some other methods of preservation.

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.


  1. Boyce, J., Kelliher, S., & Vallande, N. (2000). Skin Irritation and Dryness Associated With Two Hand-Hygiene Regimens: Soap-and-Water Hand Washing Versus Hand Antisepsis With an Alcoholic Hand Gel. Infection Control & Hospital Epidemiology, 21(7), 442-448. doi:10.1086/501785
  2. de Haan P, Meester HHM, Bruynzeel DP. Irritancy of Alcohol. In: van der Valk PGM, Maibach HI, editors, The irritant contact
    dermatitis syndrome. New York: CRC- Press, 1996: 65
  3. Lübbe, J., Ruffieux, C., Van Melle, G. and Perrenoud, D. (2001), Irritancy of the skin disinfectant n‐propanol. Contact Dermatitis, 45: 226-231. doi:10.1034/j.1600-0536.2001.450407.x
  4. Winnefeld, M., Richard, M., Drancourt, M. and Grob, J. (2000), Skin tolerance and effectiveness of two hand decontamination procedures in everyday hospital use. British Journal of Dermatology, 143: 546-550. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2133.2000.03708.x
  5. Boyce, J., & Pittet, D. (2002). Guideline for Hand Hygiene in Health-Care Settings: Recommendations of the Healthcare Infection Control Practices Advisory Committee and the HICPAC/SHEA/APIC/IDSA Hand Hygiene Task Force. Infection Control & Hospital Epidemiology, 23(S12), S3-S40. doi:10.1086/503164

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