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Alcohol in hair care products: why do we use it and what are its benefits?

by wedo_act

11/01/2022

If you’ve ever looked at the ingredient list of any beauty product on your shelf, chances are high that one ingredient will pop up more than others: alcohol (or an ingredient combination with alcohol). So, due to its frequent use, many misconceptions have appeared about its role and properties.

Alcohol in general is known for its ability to draw out moisture, and because of this alcohol is often seen as damaging when it’s formulated in hair and beauty products (specifically skin care). However, not all alcohols are created equally, and there are in fact many types of alcohol that can be beneficial to maintaining healthy locks and technical stability.

What type of alcohol is commonly used in hair care products?

There are two main types of alcohol that are commonly used in hair and beauty products: short-chain alcohols, which are known for their fast drying properties, and long-chain fatty alcohols which are known for their emulsifying and care properties.

These alcohols play different roles for care and styling products. Short-chain alcohols are often used in styling products such as hairsprays and hair gels. These type of products contain Alcohol Denat.  (i.e. ethanol) to achieve their fast drying properties on hair. While applying the product on hair the alcohol evaporates immediately and mainly the polymers stay on hair and bring the hold. On the other hand, long-chain fatty alcohols, which have totally different properties and appearance are found in moisturising shampoos and conditioners. Here they add “slip and glide” effects for easier detangling, and are designed to hydrate and improve the condition of the hair with a more even cuticle.

What are the benefits of alcohol in hair care products?

Long-chain fatty alcohols are known to have several caring benefits for hair and skin. These benefits come from their molecule structure that interacts with the hair surface, resulting in a hydrated, smooth and soft hair feel. Fatty alcohols also have thickening properties, giving products a rich and creamy consistency. An example of a long-chain fatty alcohol is Cetyl alcohol, which is mostly derived from either vegetable or coconut oils and helps to seal the hair cuticle, leaving the hair feeling soft and silky1.

Our silicone free hair masksLight & Soft Hair Mask, Moisture & Shine Hair Mask, Rich & Repair Hair Mask ⁠— contain Cetyl alcohol, which contributes to the products’ conditioning and moisturising properties. Other common alcohols used in our weDo/ products include Cetearyl alcohol (a mixture of Cetyl alcohol and Stearyl alcohol) and Benzyl alcohol which function as preservatives due to their ability to protect the formula from unwanted micro-organisms. This is not related to any hair benefits but also not to any negative effects on hair or skin.

Can products containing alcohol damage or dry out your hair?

Unlike long-chain alcohols, short-chain alcohols (i.e. Isopropyl alcohol or ethanol) are known for their quick drying properties. The short structure of the molecules in the alcohol enables it to evaporate quickly which is one of the main benefits for products such as hairspray and other styling products. While ethanol can absorb water from hair, as it is hygroscopic (meaning it is attracted to water), there is no scientific evidence to suggest that hair styling products containing ethanol dry out the hair permanently or damage it. Short-chain alcohols also help to improve the safety of hair and beauty products and can prevent bacterial growth, allowing them to last longer2.

Our weDo/ products are formulated with both, long-chain and short-chain alcohols, because we believe both have important benefits that contribute to the quality of our products.

The Detangle Spray and Scalp Refresh both contain Alcohol Denat. as shown on the INCI. Alcohol Denat.  is an abbreviation for denatured alcohol, a short-chain alcohol, and is widely used in cosmetics and personal care products. We use this alcohol to solubilize ingredients, as an anti-microbial and as a refreshing agent. These two products also contain Cetyl alcohol which provides the detangling properties.

To summarise, every alcohol has a difference purpose in hair care. Some alcohols are known for their caring benefits and others for their quick drying properties. Whether a certain alcohol is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for your hair depends on a number of factors: your hair type, the purpose of the product, and the content/consistency of the alcohol in a product.

Learn more about our products that are all certified by Vegan Society and Cruelty-Free International, and discover more tips and advice for all types of hair concerns on our weBlog. Learn more about which vegan hair products you should be using with this weDo/ hair quiz. Discover the perfect hair care routine for your hair type and hair concerns.

Keep in touch with weDo/ by following us on Instagram and TikTok for advice on sustainable beauty, tips on how to use our products and overall joy.

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