Several mass market products have recently been launched that contain high levels of alcohol. We're talking about SD Alcohol, or as it is also known, Ether Alcohol, not emollient alcohols such as cetearyl and cetyl alcohol. Most people know that alcohol is drying to the skin. Some sources say that it evaporates and thus doesn't cause any drying while other sources suggest that daily use of products containing alcohol will dry out the skin. So, why then, do so many products meant to moisturize and prevent skin aging contain alcohol in such high concentration? If it isn't drying to skin why do so many products tout being alcohol-free?
I suspect one of the biggest reasons is that it helps keep products feeling greasy after application. However; drying out the skin can cause it to produce more sebum and result in breakouts to acne-prone individuals. Using products that contain alcohol is counter-intuitive, yes, you may be drying up the excess oil but you are encouraging even more oil to be produced.
Some companies use alchol as a penetration enhancer. Because it is a solvent it helps drive ingredients deeper into the the skin. However, according to Paula Begoun, "Alcohol functions as a solvent and a penetration enhancer, which means that yes, it can help retinol get into the skin more efficiently. But its volatile characteristics and biological profile are irritating and drying for skin and alcohol causes free radical damage, so essentially all you’re doing is carrying that irritation and free radical damage deeper into skin." On her website, she indicates in her ingredients dictionary that, "The alcohols to be concerned about in skin-care products are ethanol, denatured alcohol, ethyl alcohol, methanol, benzyl alcohol, isopropyl alcohol, and sd alcohol, which not only can be extremely drying and irritating to skin, but also can generate free-radical damage (Sources: “Skin Care—From the Inside Out and Outside In,” Tufts Daily, April 1, 2002; eMedicine Journal, May 8, 2002, volume 3, number 5, www.emedicine.com; Cutis, February 2001, pages 25–27; Contact Dermatitis, January 1996, pages 12–16; and http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh27-4/277-284.htm). In a product where these ingredients are at the top of the ingredient list, they will be problematic for all skin types; when they are at the bottom of an ingredient list, there most likely is not enough present to be a problem for skin.
So, is it better to avoid products that contain alcohol? I avoid using alcohol products because they dry out my skin and end up making it oily. I find that gentle cleansing using a sulfate-free cleanser and keeping my skin moisturized and protected with a silicone-free, mineral oil-free, petrolatum-free, alcohol-free moisturizer with sunscreen is the best bet for my extremely sensitive, acne prone, combo skin.