Why Does My Alcohol-Free Product List Alcohol As An Ingredient?

When shopping for personal care products like antibacterial soap or hand sanitizer, many customers look for brands that don’t contain skin-drying alcohol. So what happens when you pick up an item that’s clearly marked “alcohol-free,” but upon closer inspection, the ingredients list includes at least one “alcohol” component? 

That was the case for Consumerist reader Wayne when he recently purchased a package of Wet Ones Sensitive Skin Hand Wipes.

image2The packaging for the wipes states they are “fragrance and alcohol free,” but when Wayne turned over the pack, he noticed “cetearyl alcohol” was listed as an ingredient.

So what exactly is cetearyl alcohol and how can it be in an alcohol-free product?

For starters, not all alcohol is created equally. There are essentially two types of alcohol used in skincare and cosmetic products: ethanol or ethyl alcohol and fatty alcohols, like cetearyl alcohol.

For example, while our minds probably jump to skin-drying or infection-preventing liquid when we see alcohol associated with skincare products, that often isn’t the case. And that can be puzzling to all of us non-scientists out there.

Personal Care Products Council Chief Scientist Dr. Beth Lange tells Consumerist that the difference between alcohols in skincare products is important, but that doesn’t make it any less confusing for ingredient list readers.

In cosmetic and skincare product labeling, the term “alcohol” alone refers to ethyl alcohol — also known as ethanol, or grain alcohol. Ethyl alcohol is the kind that can indeed dry out the skin, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

“It’s confusing for consumers as many alcohol-free products would appear to nonscientists as including on the ingredient list names that include alcohol, but are not ethyl alcohol,” she says. “These products are still ‘alcohol-free’ and these other alcohols are not intoxicants and may be used. To most consumers, alcohol is a single substance, but scientifically speaking the term describes a whole group of substances with many different properties.”

When it comes to skincare items and cosmetics marketed as “alcohol-free,” the FDA’s labeling guidelines allow for several other types of alcohol to still be used in the product.

“Cosmetic products, including those labeled ‘alcohol-free,’ may contain other alcohols, such as cetyl, stearyl, cetearyl, or lanolin alcohol,” the FDA guidelines state. “These are known as fatty alcohols, and their effects on the skin are quite different from those of ethyl alcohol.”

In fact, fatty alcohols like cetearyl can actually lock in moisture when used on the skin. We reached out to Wet Ones, and the company that owns the product, Edgehill. We’ll update this post when we hear back.

Bottom line: When it comes to labeling, companies are allowed to say their product is “alcohol-free” as long as it doesn’t contain ethyl alcohol.

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