Maybe you spend time reading the label on your hair care products. Maybe you don’t. Either way, you’ve probably seen at least one “Alcohol Free” call-out on hair and skin care product labels. But here’s the question: Is alcohol bad for your hair? Sometimes the answer is yes. Sometimes it’s no. It completely depends on the type of alcohol (there’s a difference between cetearyl alcohol and alcohol denat).
Seem complicated? It doesn’t have to be. Today we’re going to explain it all with the help of Dr. Joe Cincotta. He’s the Chief Chemist at Color Wow, and has created hundreds (not one, not two, hundreds) of iconic award-winning hair care product formulas. He’s known for breaking boundaries and creating brand new technologies in the hair care market.
From lab to label, he’s the go-to guy when it comes to ingredient intel.
According to Dr. Joe, “People are confused about alcohol because it’s pretty much a generic term. Most ingredient lists contain several different types of alcohols with different names."
But fear not, by the end of this blog-post we’ll break it all down.
ALCOHOL AND HAIR: IS ALCOHOL BAD FOR HAIR?
According to the internet - yes. 9 out of 10 times, research you do on the effects of alcohol on your hair will tell you “Alcohol is drying.”
But that's only partially true.
So basically, the opposite of what the internet has been telling you.
Dr. Joe explains, “You may be surprised to know some alcohols are, in fact, very beneficial to your hair because they have great hydrating, moisturizing and smoothing properties.”
“The complex, molecular structure of different alcohols involves different carbon chains attached to the alcohol group. All you really need to know is that there are two major types of alcohols in skin and hair care products: short chain alcohols and long chain fatty alcohols.”
WHAT'S THE DEAL WITH SHORT CHAIN ALCOHOLS (LIKE SD ALCOHOL 40 AKA ALCOHOL DENAT)?
This is the bad alcohol for your hair - and the one the internet (and Dr. Joe) will warn you about.
This alcohol has a low molecular weight (only contains 2 carbons) and evaporates quickly. So it’s typically used in styling products to help formulas dry faster. The problem? “This alcohol also wicks moisture from the hair and scalp. So while the styling agents attach faster and work better (like many heavy duty hair sprays) your hair is literally getting sucked dry.”
So, if you’re in the habit of regularly using products that contain high percentages of this alcohol, your hair is on the fast-track to destination damage: dry, dehydrated, rough, brittle, frizzy hair... with breakage in its future.
This drying alcohol is even more dangerous if you have hair that tends to be naturally dehydrated (curly girls, anyone with chemical color-treated hair… we’re talking to YOU).
It’s not fun. Luckily, we asked Dr. Joe for a list of alcohol ingredients to avoid. Check them out below.
BAD ALCOHOLS IN HAIR PRODUCTS
SD Alcohol, SD Alcohol 40, SD Alcohol 40 B, SD Alcohol 38B, SD Alcohol 39B, SD Alcohol 40-2, Denatured Alcohol, Alcohol Denat, Ethanol, Ethyl Alcohol, Propanol, Propyl Alcohol, Isopropyl Alcohol
Unfortunately, some styling products, like aerosol-based products i.e., hair sprays can’t be made without using some of these types of alcohols. When hair is dry and has been styled, you don’t want a hair spray that is too wet because it will interfere with your style. Alcohols dry quickly. Most hard or firm hold styling resins won’t dissolve in water so alcohol is necessary.
Most quick-acting blow-drying lotions also contain the wrong type of alcohol but Dr. Joe was able to formulate one without any alcohol at all and it’s our absolute fave - Color Wow’s Speed Dry. Not only does it not contain alcohol but it also cuts blow dry styling time by 30%!
ALCOHOLS AND HAIR: CAN ALCOHOLS BE GOOD FOR YOUR STRANDS? IS CETEARYL ALCOHOL GOOD FOR HAIR?!
Many hair products have alcohol-named ingredients that are non-drying--in fact they are just the opposite! Meet the long chain fatty alcohols.
Long chain fatty alcohols come from plants and oils. Chemists and formulators typically use them as thickeners and emulsifiers (aka ingredients that keep oil and water in formulas mixed together so it doesn’t separate). But these ingredients also have other great benefits for your hair!
One of the most common long chain fatty alcohols is cetearyl alcohol. People are constantly asking: is cetearyl alcohol bad for your hair? Is cetearyl alcohol good for hair? It’s a long chain fatty alcohol so it’s good for your hair.
Don’t get it mixed up with drying alcohols. Long chain fatty alcohols, like cetearyl alcohol, have smoothing and moisturizing properties. They add “slip and glide” for easier detangling and comb-through. Plus, they help keep your hair hydrated, stronger, softer.
They’re basically a triple-win and you want to see them in your products, especially if you have fried hair that’s prone to frizz.
Here’s a list of beneficial ingredients to look for from Dr. Joe.
GOOD ALCOHOLS IN HAIR PRODUCTS
Cetearyl Alcohol, Cetyl Alcohol, Stearyl Alcohol, Lauryl Alcohol, Myristyl Alcohol, Behenyl Alcohol, Oleyl Alcohol, C12-16 Alcohol