Monday, March 15, 2010

E-mail question: Using alcohol as a preservative

I've had quite a few e-mails and comments asking will 20% alcohol preserve a lotion recipe? I've seen people stating they use somewhere between 15% and 60% alcohol to preserve oil in water lotions. (The FDA considers products with 62% as being anti-bacterial, according to this post.)

My personal opinion - I don't think I would want to use a product with 20% alcohol as the preservative. I want to use products I know contain proven preservatives, and my skin couldn't handle that much alcohol in a leave in product. Alcohol is incredibly astringent, so adding it to a moisturizing lotion would leave me a lot less moisturized than I expect! Alcohol is also a known irritant - if you have sensitive skin, a lotion containing alcohol could sting!

If you're selling lotions, please note that in a lot of places, you need a permit to sell a product containing alcohol. And please get it tested. Get your lotion tested at 1 month, 2 months, 6 months, and one year before you even consider selling it.

So many products are labelled "alcohol-free", I wonder why moving to using alcohol as a preservative is considered more "natural"?

If you're using alcohol as an effective preservative - one you've tested - let us know about it by posting a comment here! What percentage are you using, and in what kind of product?


p said...

Hi Susan, Thanks for making my question into a post, and sorry for taking two months to write back! I really have no idea why you've been getting lots of questions about this topic - mine was totally independent - I had no idea other people were interested in the idea! I'm really interested in figuring out what can be done naturally (but I understand that the answer is not "everything!!").

I know of a few major companies in the natural/organic sector that appear to use ethyl alcohol to preserve their lotions. Dr Bronner ( and Weleda come to mind. Another company, Lavera, talks about their use of alcohol here, suggesting that they use alcohol at 10-20% as a preservative:

I've also checked out regulatory guidelines... Here's what the FDA says ( "Cosmetics need not be sterile, however, they must not be contaminated with microorganisms which may be pathogenic, and the density of non-pathogenic microorganisms should be low. In addition, cosmetics should remain in this condition when used by consumers. Some cosmetics, i.e., those containing more than about 10% ethanol, propylene glycol, glycerol, etc., and cosmetics in self-pressurized containers, are self-preserving and are not likely to become contaminated with microorganisms." I realize this isn't exactly the green light, but 10%? So low! And in one of their lotion tutorials (, Snowdrift Farms mentions omitting the Cosmocil preservative and replacing 15% of the water with perfumers' alcohol (i.e. denatured ethanol) to preserve - the resulting lotion passed their Chek-it tests, fwiw.

So people are definitely doing it... maybe everyone is living dangerously selling contaminated product, I don't know! I guess my understanding has been that if a product is 60% ethanol or higher, it will be antibacterial, i.e. you can use it to sterilize, but a much lower percentage is sufficient to protect a product from contamination. This makes some intuitive sense to me - Everclear (95%) should sterilize my countertop, but Kahlua (25% abv), or even vodka (40%), won't go bad in my liquor cabinet. But common sense and chemistry don't always go hand and hand, which is why I asked you. I'd love to know if you had any further thoughts on the issue! I'd also love to know, is 15% alcohol really astringent? Can you point me to a reference?

Thank you again for your truly amazing blog!


p said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Thanks for the very thoughtful comment with all those great links.

Although we've been using alcohol to preserve things for centuries, I'm still leery about using it in lotions. For one, it can be astringent and, second, we aren't truly sure of its shelf life. I understand Snowdrift Farms used their kit to check it after 28 days - I'd like to see it checked at 6 months and even a year to ensure it remains uncontaminated. The oils and butters they use could have as long as a two year shelf life, if preserved properly, so it's a valid to think someone could keep and use it for that long.

As for other companies, some of them are living dangerously - we've heard tales of health food store type lotions going bad in a really short period of time - and some of them have figured it out. I think it depends upon the ingredients the company uses in the lotion and the amount of alcohol.

You know, after thinking about this all again, a lotion with alcohol actually might feel kinda nice for a cooling lotion - a foot lotion, perhaps, or a summer time fun lotion - because it will evaporate from your skin. I wonder what it would be like with menthol or some kind of lovely humectants in a summer spray?

Here are a few posts to textbooks on the astringency of alcohol...
Cosmetic and Toiletry Formulations where alcohol is used as the astringent in a facial moisturizer.

This book notes that various types of "denatured alcohol are used in astringents..." (Hit either previous or next to see the other reference about alcohol).

From a Consumer's Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients - "Since it is a fat solvent, alcohol can dry the hair or skin when used in excess".(Although one wonders what the excess level might be?)

The Handbook of Cosmetic Skin Care has a few notations about alcohol on this page.

And the Handbook on Herbal Products - result 2 if it doesn't link directly - notes the usage of alcohol as an astringent in toners and after shave.

Thanks again for the thoughtful and thought provoking comment! I think I'll have to try alcohol in my next lotion - although I'd be more comfortable including a preservative.

Cori said...

I really like Amala's purifying moisturizer, and just saw its 2nd ingredient is Alcohol! I did a little research on their website and under their FAQ they have

"Why do Amala treatments contain alcohol?

Alcohol is a crucial element in our formulas because it helps keep our 100% natural essential oils and extracts stable. We use organic alcohol derived from wheat, which is absolutely pure and safe for your skin. We use the lowest possible levels of alcohol that we can, while still maintaining the stability of our formulas. "

Not quite sure if thats why, or if its a preservative? Their purifying moisturizer doesn't look like it has any other preservatives

"Water (Aqua), Alcohol*, Simmondsia Chinensis (Jojoba) Seed Oil*, Prunus Amygdalus Dulcis (Sweet Almond) Oil*, Glycerin, Persea Gratissima (Avocado) Oil*, Macadamia Ternifolia Seed Oil*, Stearic Acid, Polyglyceryl-3 Stearate, Oryza Sativa (Rice) Hull Powder, Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, Titanium Dioxide, Nymphaea Coerulea Flower Extract, Nymphaea Coerulea Flower Water, Algae Extract, Centella Asiatica Extract*, Camellia Sinensis Leaf Extract*, Tocopherol, Natural Fragrance (Parfum), Lavandula Angustifolia (Lavender) Oil*, Citrus Aurantium Dulcis (Orange) Peel Oil, Butyrospermum Parkii (Shea Butter)*, Xanthan Gum, Rosa Moschata Seed Oil*, Plantago Lanceolata Leaf Extract*, Salix Alba (Willow) Bark Extract*, Hippophea Rhamnoides Oil*, Oryza Sativa (Rice) Germ Oil*, Zingiber Officinale (Ginger) Extract*, Simmondsia Chinensis (Jojoba) Seed Oil, Citral, Limonene, Linalool *Ingredient produced by organic farming"

solquartocrescente said...

I have been tryint to use other preservatives without success: most of them cause allergy on my skin. I have tried parabens, sodium benzoate, phgenoxyethanol and potassium sorbate, all cause my face skin to become red. I haven't tried cosmoquil. The ones that do not cause me any allergy are benzyl alcohol, grapefruit seed extract (but this is not effective) and benzoin tincture (also very weak preservative).

If I do a same lotion replacing the preservative with organic alcohol then I have no allergy. I use 12%. There is also no drying because I included very fat oils on the lotion. I will now use a kit to detect if molds or bacteria are still absent after a few months.

But from my understanding, when you don't use extreme hygiene conditions, alcohol might require a min 15% or even 20% to be effective; with good hygiene and airless tubes maybe 10% is enough. Or maybe it could be combined with a natural preservative liek NataPres.

Toni said...

Hi Susan

I recently came across your blog and I want to tell you, you have a wealth of information here that is extremely helpful when making lotion and body creams.

Regarding grain alcohol as a preservative, I have a question I wonder if you could answer. When grain alcohol is used as a herb extract, say green tea or any other herb, does all of the alcohol extract become a part of the green tea solution? Also, does the alcohol that is used as a preservative evaporate in the jar or bottle of lotion?

The reason I am asking is, while I understand you do not favor grain alcohol as a preservative, I personally do not see any problem with it from my experiences and research. There are pros and cons in every preservative, so I would say I guess it depends upon your body's chemistry and skin type, and of course the type of oils being used in your lotions.

I have been making lotions and creams for myself using alcohol as a preservative, and have not noticed any of the bad reviews as drying and stripping the skin of natural oils that some say regarding alcohol preservation. Alcohol evaporates quickly once appplied on the skin, and actually helps absorb the lotion, according to the research I have read. So my question is if it evaporates on the skin quickly, does it evaporate in a closed lotion container? Thanks!


Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Hi Tori. It won't evaporate in a closed container because the container is closed, so nothing should escape from it. If you have an extract that uses alcohol in it, the alcohol should remain in the ingredient when you add it to the lotion. If you have a bottle of herb tincture that contains 1% green tea and 99% alcohol, you are adding that alcohol to your product when you add the tincture.

I'm not sure if I answered your question...

If you want to use alcohol as a preservative, use alcohol. I don't personally trust it, but you are welcome to do so. In the end, it doesn't really matter what I think: I'm offering my opinion, and I'm only one person in a sea of competing opinions. If you can find reliable information from trustworthy sources and you enjoy the skin feel, then use alcohol as a preservative.

I hope this didn't sound sarcastic - it certainly wasn't intended that way!

Toni said...

Hi Susan:

Thanks, I appreciate your remarks. Pure grain alcohol is the best solvent, according to research, to extract from. Unlike denatured ethonal which has many toxic chemicals in it to make it usable for cosmetic purposes and relieve the tax burden for pharmeceutical companies, natural pure grain ethonal does not. The myth of drying and stripping the skin is just that. A myth. However, the toxic denatured alcohol will do all of this, and more.

In some cases, pure grain alcohol combined with H20 is recommended, as well as glycerin, depending upon the herb and what it's being used for.

In any event, the 99% figure you give as being added to my product doesn't portray a true picture at all and is very misleading. For instance, out of that 99% alcohol solvent being used to extract, a very small percentage of the extract is used in any lotion.


Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Hi Toni. Please re-read what I wrote as I think you misinterpreted what I wrote. Could you please provide links to studies showing that alcohol is not drying to skin. I have provided my links above. (This is an evidence based blog, so I ask for evidence to support positions. As I have posted my evidence, I think it fair that you do the same.) As to a previous post, words like "misleading" are the kind of language I find aggressive. I can only repeat what I said in another comment - I don't think my blog meshes with your philosophy. I am always eager to learn different view points, but I require evidence, not conspiracy theories, not "everyone knows", and not "it's common sense" view points. I don't think it is fair to hold me to a standard to which you haven't adhered - please provide me with good, reliable studies that back your statements. I am always eager to learn more!

Toni said...

Hi Susan:

I will be delighted to provide links for you... I agree, it is only fair and right. But they probably won't be from sources you favor. Just give me some time to gather them. In fact, just yesterday I read on the web (from a natural chemist) that natural grain ethonal is not drying to the skin. I consider him an unbias, reliable expert in his field. I will go back and try and find the link for you.

"conspiracy theories?"....hmmmm

If I misunderstood you, please show me what I misunderstood. I thought I took what yu wrote at face value.


Toni said...

So as not to overwhelm yu with an abundance of information, here are just three links out of multitudes of research that debunk
the alcohol drying skin theory. The first is a one page article and is an excellent research article, with an excerpt, but I recommend you read the full page because it is loaded with info.

All sources have very impressive credentials in the scientific community whom I would trust when it comes to what I put on my skin and what I give and sell and tell to others.


Information presented by Dr. Lauma Valeine, dermatologist, Beauty Clinic “4th Dimension” of Health Centre 4.

In natural cosmetics, plant alcohol is the most optimal and beneficial substance for the skin. Especially for stabilizing the cosmetic preparations left on the skin, alcohol has the smallest side effect ratio. Compared to organic acids, their salts and benzyl alcohol, plant alcohol has the lowest potential to cause irritation. Natural alcohol has been continuously used and tested in medicine in various preparations and there is a significant proven track record of its usage and impact in skin care. Adding alcohol to a skin care preparation in small amounts below 15% usually does not cause any adverse side effects like skin dehydration or irritation which can however be observed if alcohol is applied to the skin in higher concentrations, above 30–40%. Preparations with small amount of plant alcohol are suitable for dry and sensitive skin. Products with a higher amount of alcohol will be suitable for regular, combined and oily skin, since they work as disinfectants and regulate functioning of sebaceous glands.
Acute Toxicity Data. Journal of the American College of Toxicology, Part B. Vol. 15 JAMA, Journal of the American Medical Association. Vol. 244, Pg. 660, 1980 Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics. Vol. 84, Pg. 358, 1945 Raw Material Data Handbook, Vol.1: Organic Solvents, 1974. Vol. 1, Pg. 6, 1974 BIOFAX Industrial Bio-Test Laboratories, Inc., Data Sheets. Vol. 28-4/1973 American Industrial Hygiene Association Journal. Vol. 23, Pg. 95, 1962 Butylparaben. Final Review of Toxicological Literature. Research Triangle Park, North Carolina , 2004 Syndel Laboratories Ltd, Data Sheets, 2008


About the writer (chemist) Melissa Christenson

From Gulf MD
Myth No. 8: Alcohol-free is better.
Hardly. When people see 'alcohol' on a label, they usually think of isopropyl, or rubbing alcohol which imparts a cooling, drying sensation to the skin. This however couldn't be further from the truth. From a biochemical viewpoint alcohol just means that there's a molecular compound with an OH at the end of it. What's at the other end could completely alter its behavior in products. For example, cetyl, benzyl or oleyl alcohol are all so-called fatty alcohols, which act as emollients. These decrease water loss from the skin and soften it.


sena8 said...

When using an alcoholic tincture (eg propolis) as a preservative for an Oil in Water cream. During which phase (degrees celsius) do you add it?

Steven J DeCesare Jr said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steven J DeCesare Jr said...

I am no chemist, but I am no stranger to scientific literature, I've been involved with science activities since I was a child.

I second what Toni has pointed out about ethanol. These links, as well as many other credited sources will show you similar evidence that pure grain alcohol is not drying to the skin in typical usage rates you will find in Cosmetics(below 15%-20%).In fact ethanol can be an excellent addition to your product if you would like your ingredients to penetrating further (penetrating inhancer), as well as evaporate faster, creating longer lasting effects of your other ingredients.

Interestingly I believe, as well as many chemist and biologist, that ethanol applied topically does not cause ROS like Paula Begoun states. If you read her reviews, she is not a fan of ethanol, and I believe her opinion is wrong, which is very rare!

I didn't provide any links, mainly due to most of this information is in the links above, but I highly encourage you to research these topics. I learned a lot of valuable information along the way :-)

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Hi Anonymous. Please put a name on your comment or I will have to delete it. Are you looking for more information than I provided in the post above because I think I answered your question there?

Jannie Nikolai Alquero said...

Hi Susan, can methanol and isopropyl alcohol be used as preservatives?
I was Anonymous, yes indeed I think I need a bot more of information. For my research again :)

Deanna said...

I really appreciate the dialog in blogs such as this. I think the term "alcohol" is slung around in the industry and is often never clarified what *kind* of alcohol. There very much is a difference between isopropyl (petroleum) alcohol and ethyl (plant) alcohol. One only need to spray each arm with the 2 kinds to see the difference in feel and skin reaction. I think all the industry info regarding alcohol as drying refers to the isopropyl, which is quite common in skin care (toners for example - and is quite harsh as I can attest to from my teenage years!). I cannot verify because it is based on personal experience, but I think when ethyl alcohol is used in fatty formulations such as lotion - any possible drying or negative effects are offset by the. I personally use Dr. Bronner's lotion for shaving - as I break out easily and have not found it to be drying or irritating at all. But that's just me.

I am getting ready to start using ethyl alcohol as a preservative in a couple aloe and also distilled water formulations, so I really appreciate all the info. Thanks for this blog!

Deanna said...

offset by the "fats." oops!