Are All Alcohols in Hair Products Bad?


There are many ingredients that damage hair by drying out strands, like silicones and petrochemicals. And, yes, alcohol is another. But this isn’t as cut and dry as your latest trim and blowout because not all alcohols are created equally. Learn which alcohols you want to avoid in hair care products and those that don’t do as much damage to your strands.

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You’ve probably seen articles and social media posts telling you to steer clear of alcohols in hair care. Then you go to the beauty store and tons of products (including some of your favorites that you thought were safe) contain alcohol. 

What’s the deal?

As is the case with many types of cosmetic ingredients, there are some alcohols that damage your hair, and those that are more gentle and even offer some benefits. So, no. Not all alcohols in hair products are bad.

When it comes to cosmetic ingredients and deciphering which are best to use on your hair, it’s worth it to take some time and learn more. No, we aren’t recommending you read all the scientific studies you can get your hands on where alcohols in hair care are concerned. Unless you want to, of course. Below we break down the good and bad when it comes to alcohol in hair products.

Good Alcohols vs Bad Alcohols

What do we mean when we say “bad alcohols”? Basically, in terms of hair care, these types of alcohols dry out hair. Why would a product manufacturer add a drying type of alcohol to a product? With certain products, manufacturers add alcohols for their drying effect. Think those dry shampoos and hair volumizers that make hair feel cleaner and fuller by drying out strands.

As for “good alcohols”, those are fatty alcohols. Fatty alcohols are derived from oils and don’t dry strands like the drying alcohols mentioned above. They have emollient properties and are also used to emulsify products, keeping oils and waters from separating in products like shampoos and conditioners. 

When shopping for hair care, it helps to know what to look for and how to identify good alcohols from bad alcohols. Below is our list to I.D.-ing the good from the bad.

Good Alcohols vs Bad Alcohols: How to I.D. On Product Labels

Let’s start from the top with the alcohols you do want to find in your hair care:

Cetearyl alcohol—A mixture of cetyl alcohol and stearyl alcohol, two fatty acids found in plants and animals, often derived from coconut oil. Is cetearyl alcohol bad for hair? This alcohol is an emollient, which creates a moisturizing layer on top of hair strands so hair doesn’t become dried out. Cetyl and stearyl alcohols on their own are also good alcohol options in hair products.

Products like Nounou conditioner, Oway Moisturizing Hair Mask, and Innersense Hydrating Hair Masque, which delivery maximum moisture to extremely dry, damaged hair contain cetearyl alcohol to deliver a protective layer and improve hair porosity and moisture retention.

Products with Cetearyl Alcohol

Reverie Milk Anti frizz

This all-in-one styling cream is a lightweight formula that protects and moisturizes, leaving hair soft, silky, and shiny without weighing it down.

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Oway Silk’n Glow Hair Mask

Treats your hair by deeply nourishing the hair fiber while polishing the superficial surface (aka outside layer) of the hair shaft.

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Innersense Scalp Scrub

Crafted to gently remove impurities, apple fruit restores hydration to the scalp while celery seed extract and peppermint oil stimulates blood flow.

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Behenyl alcohol—Another fatty acid alcohol which can be derived from plants, like corn, behenyl alcohol acts as a thickening agent and emulsifier (to keep oil and water from separating) in hair care products, like Davines Melu Conditioner. It can also keep hair from becoming dry.

Lauryl alcohol—Derived from coconut or palm kernel oils, lauryl alcohol is another fatty alcohol. It acts as an emollient, maintaining moisture in the hair, and can also be used as a cleansing agent making it the good go-to alcohol for shampoos.

Products with Lauryl Alcohol

Oway Silk’n Glow Hair bath

Nourishes the hair fiber while polishing the external surface of the hair to turn dull, frizzy, porous hair into pure silk.

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Davines Renewing Shampoo

Anti-aging Shampoo rich in spinach extract, it delivers antioxidants to improve the overall health and wellbeing of the hair and scalp.

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Oway Frequent Use Conditioner

A nourishing conditioner for those that shampoo every day stripping natural oils from hair.

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Benzyl Alcohol - an organic alcohol found in many fruits and teas. Popular in hair products, benzyl alcohol is used as a preservative, product stabilizer, or fragrance ingredient. It is considered safe in hair products and shouldn’t affect the texture of hair.

Now for those alcohols you want to avoid in your hair products:

Ethyl alcohol—Also seen on ingredient listings as “ethanol”, ethyl alcohol can be naturally produced using grain, corn or sugarcane. Sugarcane is considered the more earth-friendly type of ethanol as an acre of sugarcane-based ethanol produces about twice as much ethanol as its corn-based counterpart. This is the alcohol in alcoholic drinks and some cosmetic products. Manufacturers will use it because it makes liquids dry faster or to preserve ingredients and prevent them from spoiling. You can find it in scalp treatment based products to assist in fast drying; however, when used in hair products, ethanol can strip your hair of it’s natural oils causing dryness.

Denatured alcohol—This alcohol often shows up on ingredient listings as “alcohol denat” and is alcohol products adulterated with toxic additivies (e.g. methanol, benzene, pyridine, castor oil, gasoline, isopropyl alcohol, and acetone) that render it unsuitable for human consumption. It is used as a lower-cost solvent in many products. Due to it’s fast drying nature it can be found in everything from hairsprays to astringents. The addition of denatured alcohol in hair care can dry the skin and hair.

Isopropyl alcohol—Isopropyl, also known as rubbing alcohol, is unfortunately found in many hair products. It is used as an antiseptic or solvent to remove oils. This strong chemical compound can not only be sensitizing to the skin and lead to respiratory system issues but it is extremely drying to the hair leaving it frizzy and prone to breakage.

It’s important to note that for cosmetic labeling, the term “alcohol” used by itself, refers to ethyl alcohol. Cosmetic producgtsk including those labeled “alcohol free” may contain other alcohols, such as cetyl, stearyl, cetearyl, or lanolin alcohol as well as ethanol that has been “denatured.”

Read your labels.

Hair Products With Good Alcohols

Now that you know the truth about alcohols in hair care, you can see there’s no need to go alcohol free. We love products that use gentle ingredients that infuse hair with moisture, shine, and body. Here are some of our faves that include alcohols from the good list.

Innersense Hydrating Hair Mask

This rich treatment mask includes cetearyl alcohol to keep strands hydrated and ward off moisture loss. Use on dry, damaged locks to restore the appearance of glossy, healthy hair.

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Davines Nourishing Hair Building Pak

Use this beauty to lend a sense of nourishment and strength to dry, weak, or damaged hair. Both cetyl and cetearyl alcohols make an appearance in this hair mask to boost moisture levels.

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Oway Purifying Hair Bath Shampoo for Dry Scalps

Purifying shampoos can be harsh and drying on hair and scalp. This one is made with lauryl alcohol to be gentle and keep hair and scalp moisturized.

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Naturally Drenched Rebalance Pre-Conditioner Treatment

Rebuilds your hair's health and balance, restoring its pH so it can be ready for maximum softness and shine.

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Innersense Sweet Spirit Leave In Conditioner

A lightweight leave in moisturizer made with cetearyl alcohol to detangle and hydrate hair. Super gentle and smells divine.

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Briogeo Don't Despair Repair Super Moisture Conditioner

A protein-free formula that strengthens damaged hair and prevents future breakage. Enriched with avocado oil, coconut oil, and jojoba oil

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