Alcohol in Personal and Oral Care Products
The alcohol found in oral care and cosmetic products is typically ethanol (ethyl alcohol). Ethanol is formed during the fermentation process of carbohydrates like corn and is the type of alcohol consumed in alcoholic beverages. It is also the form of alcohol used as a gasoline alternative.
Because great demand exists for alcoholic beverages, the government generates revenues at both the state and federal level by taxing beverages that include alcohol.
To avoid taxation, ethanol that is not intended for ingestion is denatured so that it cannot be safely consumed. Denatured alcohol contains one or more additional ingredients that cause serious stomach irritation and even death when ingested. Isopropyl alcohol, also known as rubbing alcohol, is considered a denatured alcohol. It is a byproduct of petroleum production. Methanol, a wood-based alcohol, is sometimes used to denature ethanol. Methanol is highly toxic when ingested and is a mild skin irritant.
Both pure ethanol and denatured alcohol are used in personal care products. Organic ethanol (often listed as organic grain alcohol) is becoming more readily available. More artisans are choosing to use organic ethanol in their products that require alcohol as an ingredient.
Debate exists about the benefit and safety of personal care products that include ethanol and denatured alcohol. Before shopping for personal care products, decide if you are comfortable using products that include alcohol. Alternatively, you may wish to limit your choice of personal care products to those that are alcohol-free or that only contain specific types of alcohol. Make it a habit to read ingredient labels. If an ingredient label is not clear on the form of alcohol used, be sure to ask the artisan for clarification.
Use the below list to help guide your decision:
As an Antibacterial/Antimicrobial:
Alcohol is antibacterial/antimicrobial and is included in products intended to ward off bacteria. Such products include facial astringents, hand sanitizers, wound sprays and mouthwashes. The antibacterial action of alcohol also makes it a good preservative. Excessive use of products that contain alcohol, however, can weaken the immune system's natural ability to fight bacteria and illness.
For Oily/Acne-Prone Skin:
Alcohol can be drying to the skin. This can be beneficial to those with oily skin, but frequent use of products containing alcohol can dry out or cause sensitization in all skin types. If you have oily skin/acne and if your skin can tolerate products that contain alcohol, consider experimenting with astringents that do and do not contain alcohol.
As a Solvent:
Alcohol acts as a natural solvent that can dissolve the alcohol soluble components of herbs and other botanicals. As such, alcohol is a frequent ingredient in herbal extracts, perfumery and other fragrancing products. Pure vanilla extract, for instance, commonly includes a significant ratio of alcohol. Herbal extracts are usually consumed in very limited quantities. For those wanting to avoid intake of alcohol, extracts are available that are made with vegetable glycerin instead of alcohol. Glycerin based extracts, however, are often more expensive and have a shorter shelf life than alcohol based extracts. They are also not ideal for those that must limit their sugar intake. Check the label and ingredient list to see what fluid is used as the solvent.
In Oral Care:
Studies seem to indicate that mouthwashes and rinses that contain more than 25-30% alcohol can pose a significantly higher incidence of mouth, throat and tongue cancers. Concern also exists regarding the safety of the additives that are used to denature the alcohol. Although many commercial brands of mouth washes and rinses include alcohol, more alcohol-free alternatives are becoming available by artisans and commercial producers.
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