Alcohols in Cosmetics - Bad Evil or Good Helper?

We know it from the beverage industry, of course, but it is also often used in cosmetics: alcohol. Above all, the advertising slogan “alcohol free” can be found again and again on cosmetic packaging, which has led to the widespread opinion that “alcohol is bad for the skin”.

In general, articles on ingredients are a difficult topic. We don't want to make anything bad, we just want to educate and shed some light on the darkness.

We find it important to show both the advantages and disadvantages. And to explain which substances are recommended in our opinion and which we avoid. Everyone should get their own picture and in the end decide for themselves what to look out for and what is right for their own skin.

Many people may be familiar with the saying “the dose makes the poison” and this hits the nail on the head with alcohol. But this is not only true for alcohol. In general, it actually applies to most of the ingredients, including those classified as “good” or “recommendable”. Because even an overdose of actually great ingredients, such as natural oils or the like, can simply be too much for the skin. Care should always be tailored to individual needs and formulated in a balanced way.

Therefore we would like to go into more detail here:

  • What is alcohol chemically
  • What is alcohol used for in cosmetics and especially at PureBee
  • What alcohols to watch out for
  • What alcohols do to the skin
  • Which alcohols are even good for the skin
  • And which alcohols we use at PureBee


Alcohol is not just the widely known ethanol that we find in our beer or wine. In general, all substances that have a hydroxyl group can be assigned to the alcohol group. This means that a group consisting of an oxygen (O) and a hydrogen atom (H) is attached to a carbon chain that is more or less long. A “-OH” group. That's why alcohols can be mixed well with water.


Alcohols in cosmetics can have several functions. The ability to mix well, as just mentioned, is one of the first areas of application. Alcohol is a great solvent and therefore essential for us at PureBee. Propolis, which we use in almost all of our products, is neither water nor oil soluble. We therefore have to dissolve it in alcohol in order to be able to process it in our products. You can therefore remember: “No propolis without alcohol!”. Often alcohols are also used for preservation. With PureBee, the preservation effect plays a subordinate role, as we only use it as a solvent for the propolis in low concentrations in our products. But since there are different alcohols, it is of course also clear: Not all alcohol is created equal. Because you can't lump all alcohols together and say in a lump sum: “All alcohols are bad!”.

That's why we take a closer look at various representatives of the alcohol group and give you some INCIs by which you can recognize them on the packaging.


These alcohols are generally of the kind that can dry out. We consciously say can because it always depends on concentration. Since the compatibility of our products is very important to us at PureBee, you will not find these alcohols in our products. Some would say "Ethanol / Alcohol" should be added to this list. We also use this in our propolis extraction products. However, we have deliberately excluded it from the list because we do not want to call it “bad”. In our products it is in a very low concentration and is also compensated for by other ingredients. It does not dry out the skin, at least in our PureBee products, and it is actually a recommendable natural product of plant origin. In any case, we have had very good and many years of experience with ethanol in connection with propolis.  

The alcohols on the list are mostly short-chain alcohols. The shorter the chain, the more liquid and water-soluble the alcohol.

You can often find them in

  • Disinfectants
  • Preservatives (from approx. 10% alcohol content)
  • Solvents (carriers for odorous substances, e.g. from medicinal plants)
  • detergents

Isopropanol / isopropyl is often found in disinfectants and preservatives. Often in concentrations of 50-70%. Of course, these concentrations in the disinfectants are also necessary to offer reliable protection against bacteria and viruses, but in the long run they are far too much for our skin. It is generally said that it becomes critical for our skin from a concentration of 20%. The same goes for the ethanol we use - the amount makes the poison!

Because short-chain alcohols are such good solvents, they do just that on the skin. They loosen the protective barrier and the skin becomes permeable.

This tactic is often used in some alcohol-containing facial tonics in order to make the skin more receptive to subsequent care. This may work, but this barrier does not close again and usually remains fragile. Uninvited guests such as bacteria and germs can then enter unhindered and worsen the skin.


This cycle can lead to even more problems, especially with blemished skin. If you clean your oily and impure skin with the wrong alcohol-based cleaning agent, you will have a pleasant effect on the skin for a short time, but the skin will continue to deteriorate after a short time. Due to the high alcohol concentration, which dries out the skin, the fatty film is removed first. However, the skin barrier is attacked and can no longer protect itself in the long term and more pimples and inflammation occur. In addition, the skin counteracts extreme dehydration and produces even more sebum.


In addition to the drying alcohols just mentioned, there are also “good” alcohols, the so-called fatty alcohols. These alcohols do not dry out, they even donate moisture. Therefore you have to know the INCIs very well: just because it says “Alcohol” does not mean that it is drying or irritating.

The fatty alcohols from our list have longer carbon chains and are therefore also firmer in consistency. They have an amphiphilic effect in cosmetics, so they are both fat and water-loving. They are therefore often used as emulsifiers in creams or lotions in which you combine the water and fat phases. Most of them are made from vegetable or animal oils and fats, although some on the list are also synthetic. You won't find them in PureBee products, but of course they should be on the list for the sake of completeness.

Due to their chemical properties, they have a completely different function in cosmetics than the short-chain alcohols. They mostly serve as:

  • Cream bases
  • Emulsifiers in water-oil mixtures
  • Moisturizer
  • Nonionic and anionic surfactants
  • Texture enhancer

In addition to the fatty alcohols, there are also the sugar alcohols, which can also be counted among the "good" ones. You have probably heard of glycerin or maybe sorbitol. These two moisturizers bind water, both in the product and in the skin, and attract the surrounding moisture!

Glycerin is also very well tolerated in cosmetic products, as it is an endogenous substance. But here, too, concentration plays a major role: from around 30% it can also have a drying effect. Because too much of the good is too much!

It is therefore important that you make sure that you either avoid them completely with the drying alcohols or that they are at least very far back in the list of ingredients. If the product is boldly declared as “alcohol-free”, this only means that it does not contain any short-chain alcohols, but it may still contain fatty or sugar alcohols. Therefore the term is not entirely correct from a chemical point of view.


Many alcohols can be easily recognized by the ending “-ol” or the addition “-alcohol”. Their number is almost infinite and a complete list can therefore hardly be given in a clear blog post. Hopefully we have given you a good clue with the most common alcohols in the two lists.


As already mentioned, all of our products with propolis also contain ethanol. However, this does not have a drying effect in our formulations and in the low concentration. However, we generally avoid the drying alcohols from our list, as it is important to us that our products are particularly well tolerated. In order to be able to use these as preservatives, one would have to choose the concentrations so high that it would not be very good for the skin. We are currently planning to expand our product range and will certainly use fatty alcohols and, in particular, the sugar alcohol glycerine as moisture retainer. You can stay tuned!

As we have shown you here, it is primarily about knowing your way around. Not all alcohol is created equal and the dose makes the poison. Ingredients should always be questioned.

I hope we were able to give you a small overview of the world of alcohols and what is important when choosing your cosmetic products. If you have any further questions on this or any other topic, please write to us at

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