Should we be avoiding alcohol in hair products?
We just want to know what’s in there. If there’s alcohol in our hair products we want to know about it!
As we all get a little bit more ingredient-savvy, we want to make sure that the products that we use are actually good for our hair. We don’t just want products that make it look good in the short-term.
The situation is made even trickier because we are now on the lookout for quite a few things..sulphates, silicones and alcohol to name a few.
Another issue to consider is that we all have our favourite products and sometimes it’s hard to check ingredients in case we see something that we don’t want to!
In the midst of all the curly girl information we are becoming more and more aware that alcohols are something to look out for.
Trying to avoid them can seem like a losing battle. Once we recognise the names of the different alcohols we find that most ingredients lists seem to be hiding at least one!
Whether we are following the Curly Girl Method which discourages alcohol in hair products, or have heard that alcohols are drying and should be avoided, we are very much on the look out for this ingredient in our curly hair products.
The usual story is that alcohol is drying and should be avoided. This is alcohol’s reputation in general, right? It is dehydrating – we’ve seen (and possibly experienced) the hangovers..of course alcohol will dry out our hair too!
Not quite.. Despite making perfect sense on the surface, this is not the case when it comes to the alcohols in our hair products.
Do we always need to avoid alcohol in our hair products?
Surprisingly, the answer is no!
It turns out that some alcohols are bad, and some aren’t. In fact, some alcohols are actively good for our hair with numerous benefits!
There are 2 different types of alcohol when it comes to hair products and they affect our hair in completely different ways.
There are good alcohols and bad alcohols. Just like there are good fats (found in nuts and avocados) and bad fats (deep fried foods).
Alcohols are a family of chemicals and they have varying properties. It is these differing properties which determine whether the alcohol is ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
Let’s Get Molecular!
It’ll be worth it.
The carbons are the key here. The difference between the 2 kinds of alcohol is the number of carbon atoms.
Short chain alcohols (‘bad’ alcohols) have fewer than 3 carbon atoms in the chain and a low molecular weight.
Long chain fatty alcohols (‘good’ alcohols) can have up to 26 carbon atoms.
The increased level of carbon in the long chain alcohols mean that they provide lubrication and are hydrating.
So, there are 2 different kinds of alcohols in hair products, how does each one affect our hair?
Why are short chain alcohols found in hair products despite their bad reputation?
Short-chain alcohols tend to be found in styling products. They evaporate quickly this means they are often used to reduce drying time. Short-chain alcohols also help other products attach to the hair as we style.
These would be benefits, but the trouble is that in reducing drying time they are actually drawing water away from your hair.
This means that they are drawing away the natural moisture too.
This causes the cuticle (the surface of the hair) to roughen, making the hair dry. Curly hair is prone to dryness by nature so this is the last thing we need! What curly hair needs more than anything is moisture.
Using these alcohols can lead to frizz, dry and brittle hair…no thanks!
As a general rule, the firmer the hold of the product, the more likely it is to contain short-chain alcohols.
Hairspray is a good example.
Hairspray is used right at the end of the styling process once the hair is styled and dry. You wouldn’t want to add in any moisture at this point, you want it to dry and set quickly so short-chain alcohols help set and dry quickly..at a cost!
Long-chain alcohols actually have smoothing and moisturising properties!
They can aid in detangling as they are ‘slippery’, making detangling easier. Who knew?!
They are usually derived from natural sources. The higher levels of carbon mean that these alcohols provide lubrication.
They are often added to hair products as thickeners or emulsifiers – they stop oil and liquids from separating within products.
Bit of extra time on this one. Cetearyl alcohol is one of the more common ‘good alcohols’ that we might come across, so it is a great one to look out for!
At room temperature, it is a white, waxy substance which is composed of two other alcohols – cetyl alcohol and stearyl alcohol (both long-chain alcohols themselves). Because Cetearyl alcohol is a combination of 2 other long-chain alcohols it has a whopping 34 carbon atoms! These allow it to trap water and keep moisture in your hair.
Cetearyl alcohol is likely to be found in shampoo, conditioner, hair mousse, anti-frizz hair cream and hair dye.
Chances are that cetearyl alcohol may just be the hidden ingredient which is making your hair feel moisturised and soft in your favourite product.
Note: Cetyl alcohol’ name is derived from ‘cetus’ the Latin for ‘whale’ because it was originally found in sperm whales by French chemist Michel Chreveul in 1817. Now the cetyl alcohol that we use in products is usually derived from coconuts or palmitic acid – palm oil. *
Examples of hair products which contain cetearyl alcohol
(This isn’t fully comprehensive and I haven’t tried every one of these but the following products all contain the good long chain fatty alcohol cetearyl alcohol)
– As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. I receive a commission if you buy any of the products below through the links provided. It doesn’t affect the price you pay and helps to run this website. Thank you x
Olaplex No. 4 Bond Maintenance Shampoo – repairs broken bonds within damaged hair to strengthen hair
Bouclème Curl Cleanser – non foaming lightweight cleanser for curly hair
Olaplex No. 5 Bond Maintenance Conditioner – damage repair conditioner to make hair more manageable
Olaplex No. 3 Hair Perfector – Strengthens and repairs hair on a molecular level
Kevin Murphy Hydrate.Me.Rinse – nourishing vitamin C boosting conditioner
Cantu Shea Butter Leave In Conditioning Repair Cream – restorative conditioning treatment to increase softness and manageability
Philip Kingsley Elasticizer Intensive Treatment – super intensive moisturising treatment increasing softness, elasticity and strength
Bouclème Curl Conditioner – lightweight ultra hydrating conditioner to strengthen and protect
Bouclème Intensive Moisture Treatment – intensive strengthening product for curly hair
OUAI Curl Conditioner – lightweight conditioner which smoothes and hydrates each hair
Kevin Murphy Killer.Curls – anti frizz curl creme
Bumble and Bumble Pre-Style/Re Style Primer – detangle, define and refresh curls
Umberto Giannini More Than Moisture Vegan Twirling And Styling Definition Cream – curl definition cream with moisture
Miss Jessie’s Multicultural Curls – soft, lightweight styling for curls
When checking ingredients it is worth noting that cetearyl alcohol alone has different names that it may be listed under:
1-octadecanol mixed with 1-hexadecanol
(C16-18) alkyl alcohol
What if the label says ‘alcohol free’?
Due to the negative reputation of alcohols in hair and cosmetic products, many products will label themselves as ‘alcohol-free’ so that consumers are happier to buy them.
Cetearyl alcohol is considered nontoxic, non-mutagenic (a mutagen is a chemical agent that changes your DNA and can lead to diseases such as cancer), safe and beneficial for hair (and skin). The chemical structure of cetearyl alcohol is such that in the US the FDA (Food and Drug Administration responsible for ensuring manufacturers list full ingredients) will allow hair products which contain cetearyl alcohol to be labelled as ‘alcohol-free’. Interesting, right?
A note of caution
Although cetearyl alcohol is generally considered to be non toxic and non-irritating, it can be an allergen to people who suffer with eczema.
Below are some of the common alcohols in the 2 categories:
Bad Alcohols By Name
Short chain alcohols might be listed on ingredients as follows:
- Alcohol Denat
- Denatured Alcohol
- Ethanol Alcohol
- Ethyl Alcohol
- Propanol Alcohol
- Isopropyl Alcohol
- Isopropanol Alcohol
- SD Alcohol
- SD Alcohol 40
- SD Alcohol 40 B
- SD Alcohol 39B
- SD Alcohol 40-2
Good Alcohols By Name
Long chain fatty alcohols might be listed on ingredients as follows:
- Cetearyl Alcohol
- Cetostearyl alcohol
- Cetyl/stearyl alcohol
- 1-octadecanol mixed with 1-hexadecanol
- (C16-18) alkyl alcohol
- Alcohols C1618
- Cetyl Alcohol
- Stearyl Alcohol
- Lauryl Alcohol
- Behenyl Alcohol
- Myristyl Alcohol
- Oleyl Alcohol, C12-16 Alcohol
It is worth checking which ones are lurking in your hair products..
You really can tell the difference. I recently bought, and abandoned a new gel because it made my hair feel unpleasant.
It was fine when I applied it, but once my hair was dry and I had scrunched out the crunch (the moment of the big reveal) my hair felt really dry.
I haven’t used it since.. While I’ve been doing research here I went and checked the tube out of interest.. sure enough there it was alcohol denat! One of the drying alcohols. Over time this can lead to dry, damaged hair with little moisture.
A Tool To Help!
When we are checking the ingredients we are going to need a little help. A list is all very well but now that we are checking for so many different names ( the alcohols alone have so many!) including silicones, sulphates and parabens, it is going to get complicated!
This is an amazing free tool from Curlsbot
Find your curly hair product and the full ingredients list online and just copy and paste it in.
Their calculations will tell you whether the product contains silicones, water-soluble silicones, sulphates, alcohols, waxes, oils and ultimately whether it is curly girl approved!
This helps us make choices going forwards. If you love a product and it isn’t fully CGM approved you can decide whether it works for your hair and you want to continue using it, or whether to look for a CGM alternative.
Alcohols are a key ingredient to be aware of when it comes to choosing our curly hair products. We just need to know which ones are good and which are bad and treat them accordingly! The good alcohols provide moisturising and lubricating benefits that we can embrace! The bad alcohols will dry and ultimately dry out and damage our hair.
Now that we know what we are looking for we can understand which hair products we should be using to care for our curly hair!
* We know that anything derived from palm oil throws up problems. It is the most widely-consumed oil in the world because it is an incredibly efficient crop when you look at the ratio of oil produced to hectares of palm. As demand has increased in the last 20 years, so has the industrialisation of palm cultivation. Palm plantations have replaced large areas of tropical rainforest This has led to the destruction of ecosystems and the natural habitats of animals such as Asian elephants, Sumatran tigers and orangutans. There are other natural sources of cetearyl alcohol besides palm oil which include rapeseed oil, mustard seed oil and coconut oil.
The ingredients listed above are correct as of 23.05.20