What is Denatured Alcohol and Why Is It In My Skincare?

Most of y’all are probably familiar with plain old ethanol, one of the oldest recreational drugs on the planet. Archeological evidence from 9,000-year-old Chinese pottery suggests that it was even used by Neolithic humans. In beverages, it is produced when Saccharomyces cerevisiae and other species of yeast metabolize sugar in a process called fermentation. Glucose and sucrose are broken down into ethanol and carbon dioxide (Glucose: C6H12O6 → 2 CH3CH2OH + 2 CO2; Sucrose: C12H22O11 + H2O → 4 CH3CH2OH + 4 CO2). Industrially, it is usually formed by hydrating ethene (CH3CH2 + H2O → CH3CH2OH).

Ethanol has a few properties that can make it a helpful ingredient in skincare. Alcohol is relatively hygroscopic, meaning it attracts water molecules. It is also less polar than water, meaning it is less likely to stick together. As a result, it is volatile, evaporating more quickly. (That’s one of the reasons you swirl your wine before you take a sip, as well– as the alcohol evaporates, it brings out the bouquet of the wine!) This has two important consequences– the first is that the oily skinned among us get to feel like we have dry faces (that’s why astringent products are usually a big mess of alcohol), and the second is that other skincare ingredients penetrate the skin more effectively. As a result, you find it commonly in products such as acne medication.

Do you know who has such shitty skin they are trying to drown themselves in acne medication? 13-year-olds. Do you know who should not be given a big ol’ jar of ethanol? 13-year-olds. Denatured alcohol is just alcohol that has shit added to it to make it disgusting. People were worried that teenagers would end up drinking their toner or whatever and they’d end up drunk, poisoned, or both. In cosmetics, you’ll usually find denatonium.

Denatonium is an aversive agent. Right now, it is the most bitter compound that we have discovered, recognized by eight different bitter taste receptors. Its name is used to indicate its purpose: denatorium is used to denature alcohol. There are two common forms of denatorium: denatonium benzoate and as denatonium saccharide. In addition to denatured alcohol, they’re added to products ranging from antifreeze to rat poison, since it discourages people from chowing down on lethal or dangerous substances.

Alcohol that has been denatured isn’t subject to the same sorts of sales restrictions and taxation laws as traditional ethanol.

It’s definitely worth noting that there are also a few reasons why denatured alcohol might not be the most attractive option for skincare products aimed at acne-prone skin. In some individuals, alcohol can increase the irritation caused by the acne medication itself. There is some in vitro evidence that alcohol might trigger apoptosis (cell death). And, of course, there is the reality of homeostasis: if you rely on alcohol to dry out your skin, you’ll end up producing more oil to compensate. In light of this, I would consider alcohol to be an undesirable ingredient in a lot of skincare, particularly in products that go directly on your face. (Conversely, it might be a benefit in products that go on top of a shitload of other products, since it will dry up all the extra crap, rather than drying up your skin.)
As a result, people will occasionally suggest alternatives that maintain the hygroscopy and volatility of ethanol, such as ethoxydiglycol. There are also a number of products that are simply formulated without additional drying ingredients. For any kindred skin spirits out there: the Stridex Alcohol-Free Pads have been working okay for me! If you are getting a fair bit of irritation and your skincare products have a lot of alcohol in them, you might want to consider trying alcohol-free alternatives to see how your skin reacts.



1. The Stridex pads have been working for me as well and I have cut out all the prodcts with alcohol from my skincare and makeup routine (hard to part with my skindinavia finishing spray) and have found that my skin is looking wonderful lately. 🙂 It went from being very oily to feeling healthy and normal.

2. Glad you’ve found something that works well for you!

3. great post!