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Is Alcohol Really Bad For Your Hair?

Have you added alcohol to your black list of bad ingredients? Have you also ditched products that you loved after reading the ingredient list and saw that it contained alcohol? Did you know that all alcohols are not created equal and there are some good alcohols?

There has been an uproar about cosmetic products using 'bad' ingredients in their formulas during the rise of the clean beauty movement around 2015 to 2016. This unfortunately lead to all alcohols being blacklisted. The main concern is that alcohol is drying to the hair, and we know that dry hair can lead to damage and breakage. Since natural hair is known for being prone to dryness, it made sense to avoid using hair products containing alcohol.

We often associate the word alcohol with either alcoholic beverages or isopropyl alcohol, which is why it is important to be able to differentiate between the two main categories of alcohol. Once you have this knowledge, you will be better able to assess if a product will be drying to your hair or not.

The Different Categories of Alcohol

There are two types of alcohol, one of which is the drying ethanol based alcohol and the other is fatty alcohols.

Ethanol based alcohol is a type of astringent alcohol that is also found in alcoholic drinks and some hair products. They are used:

  • To help liquids dry faster e.g. hairspray/hair gel

  • As a preservative

  • In cosmetics they are denatured to prevent consumption

This drying effect is the reason why it is not recommended to overuse hair gels or hairsprays on your hair. These products aren't recommended for daily use as styling aids and should be used sparingly.

Here are some of the names to look out for on product ingredient lists:

  • SD (Specially Denatured) alcohol

  • alcohol

  • ethanol

  • denatured alcohol

  • alcohol denatured

  • isopropyl alcohol

  • methanol

  • benzyl alcohol

Fatty alcohols are derived from plants and animals and have a variety of beneficial uses such as:

  • Non-ionic surfactants/co-surfactants (mild non-ionic surfactants are sometimes used in shampoos, to help remove oil and grease from the hair)

  • In cosmetic formulations as emulsifiers to keep oil and water together

  • Emollients which keep hair and skin soft and hydrated by forming a oily layer on the skin/hair to trap moisture and hydration.

  • Forming a protective layer on hair and skin preventing water loss from the outer layer of skin/hair.

  • Thickeners to increase foaming ability of products.

  • Give products a creamier consistency.

  • Effective ingredient for soothing and healing dry skin

  • Stabilize foams

It is not uncommon to find one or more of these ingredients in a variety of your hair care and styling products.

Here are some of the names to look out for on product ingredient lists:

  • (C16-C18) alkyl alcohol

  • alcohols, C1618

  • C16-18 alcohols

  • cetostearyl alcohol

  • cetyl/stearyl alcohol

  • 1-octadecanol, mixed with 1-hexadecanol

  • lanolin

  • oleyl alcohol

  • lauryl alcohol

It is very important to be aware of the products that we put in and on our body. However, we still need to do our due diligence to ensure that we're not making decisions based on misinformation. Hopefully you haven't unwittingly written off any products that contained any of the beneficial alcohols and you are no longer afraid of using products with fatty alcohols.

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