Skincare School: Alcohols and Sulfates

I’m starting a new series called Skincare School, where regular consumers like me can learn about beauty ingredients on a simple (ish) level. The science behind everything is complicated, but it doesn’t have to be! My first segment is on Alcohols and Sulfates: what are they, and what kinds should I avoid?

Is Alcohol Bad?

Not necessarily. There are bad alcohols that damage your skin, and fatty alcohols that are very beneficial for your skin. Definitely run far away from avoid any of the following:

  • alcohol
  • alcohol denat (aka denatured alcohol)
  • benzyl alcohol
  • isopropyl alcohol (aka rubbing alcohol)
  • methanol
  • SD alcohol

These ingredients are extremely drying and commonly found in toners and oil-free moisturizers. The reason why they’re still used despite their detrimental effects is because they’re cheap and easy to include in products that are marketed towards “oily” or “acne-prone” skin. In the short-term, this dehydration may seem to keep your oil at bay, but as we’re starting to realize, the long-term effects are bad and often unbalance your skin. This can cause more oil production, accelerated aging, etc.

If you have eczema, it’s even more important to avoid this stuff. Eczema comes from dehydrated skin, so these bad alcohols definitely won’t help your condition… in fact they could make it worse.

What Alcohols Are Good?

The good, or fatty alcohols, include:

  • cetearyl alcohol
  • cetyl alcohol
  • stearyl alcohol

They’re derived from natural sources like coconut or other vegetables. These ingredients are hydrating and great at strengthening your natural skin barrier to lock in moisture and fend off enviromental damage, like air pollution.

What Are Sulfates and Why Are They Bad?

A sulfate is a cleaning agent that causes foaming. In beauty, it’s found in most cheap cleansers. It’s inexpensive and responsible for that “squeaky clean” feeling we’re so satisfied with. Over time however, people have started to realize that something found in household cleaning products (yep… gross) probably shouldn’t be used on the face.

Technically, there’s no scientific study so far that directly links sulfates to skin damage. It’s not a popular topic yet (unless you hear about something being sulfate-free) because not everyone is guaranteed to be affected. But if you have sensitive skin or skin conditions like me, sulfates are a nightmare.

Keep in mind that just because a product highlights terms like “moisture”, “hydrating”, “for oily skin”, etc. doesn’t make it so. Read the label and ingredients list to be sure!

SODIUM LAURYL SULFATE (SLS) AND SODIUM LAURETH SULFATE (SLES) ARE DEVILS IN DISGUISE. They’re extremely harsh detergents that have absolutely 0 business of being in a beauty product, except for companies to cheap out on consumers. Adding SLS or SLES to a cleanser is the equivalent of adding D grade or below beef to your meal. It’s crazy how it’s still so common… just thinking about it makes me cringe.

I’ve discovered in the past few years that sulfates irritate my dermatitis or make it worse. I’m not exactly sure why yet, but it’s another reason (as if I needed any more) why I avoid them.

Be careful when a product claims to be sulfate-free. Although they may be free of SLS and SLES, they could include other ingredients that are different by only a few scientific compounds. All harmful sulfates will sound similar to each other; some long chemical name that usually ends with “sulfate” or something that sounds like it. When it doubt, Google it.

Lesson Takeaway: Know Your Skin

I definitely live by these rules and think that everyone should. The use of safer and more natural ingredients is gaining in popularity as these topics are more buzzed about. But we still have a long way to go. I may sound too paranoid and critical, but there’s a reason why the smooth-skinned Koreans stopped including harsh chemicals in their products years ago.

Some people who are blessed with normal skin can use pretty much anything without problems. Others who have sensitive skin like me have to be much more careful. The most important thing is to know your own skin and do your research.

I suggest everyone to read the labels of each product in your current routine. If you see a harmful ingredient I’ve mentioned, get rid of it. If you can’t bring yourself to toss it, at least store it away while you try something else. I promise you’ll see a difference.

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