Medically reviewed by Minimalist Health Specialist -  Written by Mahek Chawla (Dietitian & Nutritionist)  on 13th Oct 2020

Alcohol-free toners - Why you should go for one

Alcohol-free toners

With the buzz in the beauty industry, you would be pretty familiar with CTM's current trend, cleansing, toning, and moisturizing. However, all three steps are essential when it comes to the authentic necessary skincare ritual. The second step, i.e., toning, has been recently added. Earlier it wasn't considered a must-do step, but with pragmatic trials, research, and the growing cosmetic industry, there is a new must-have now and then.

Today, we are here to clear the fizz created in your knowledge pool due to the alcohol present in your bottle ( mind it, your toner bottle :p ), if any. Seldom do we flip our toner bottles to see what it consists of because toners are way less harmful than any other skincare product. This fact might turn the tables for you, post-reading this piece of information.  

 What is alcohol? 

Alcohol is chemically any carbon compound that contains oxygen bonded to a hydrogen atom to form a hydroxyl group. This family of functional groups has wide usage in things ranging from medicines to beverages.  

What are the different types of alcohol used in toners? 

Typically there are three subtypes of alcohol that are predominantly used in most cosmetic products.

1. Simple alcohols: 

The alcohols derived from carbs or sugar like those obtained from malt beverages, grains, etc. are simple alcohols. Ethanol, methanol, denatured alcohol, isopropyl alcohol are a few examples. These are often termed as the bad alcohols, for they have properties that tend to irritate, damage, and dry your skin when present in excess amounts.  

2. Aromatic alcohols: 

Imagine the effect of two bad things. What exactly is how aromatic alcohols act on your skin. Benzyl alcohol is a compound present in some natural substances like essential oils. It can extract plant compounds and give the fragrance that makes organic skincare products so aromatic. It is also the most widely used preservative for organic products because of its compatibility.

When used in low concentration and the correct manner, they are not harmful. Some boards have also approved them of drugs and contaminants for its use as a preservative, but it is always recommended to do a patch test if you spot benzyl alcohol in any product.  

3. Fatty alcohols

Just like doctors suggest a little amount of alcohol taken in moderation can do more good than any harm, fatty alcohols present in toners have more pros than cons. They are derived from fatty acid-containing substances. Alcohol anyway is an excellent solvent for oils and fats, making fatty alcohol the right alcohol choice in specific proportions.

Cetearyl, cetyl, lauryl, et al. are types of fatty alcohol present in many toners. The toners' primary function is discussed ahead, but the presence of these alcohols makes your toner more moisturizing than drying.

They are also called emollients and are seldom considered as alcohol because they form an emulsion of fat and alcohol, which helps them retain moisture and provide softness when applied on the skin.

Now that we have helped you classify and know your ingredient list, we hope you'll be able to differentiate between what is right and what is wrong.  

What does alcohol do in your toner?

First things first, usually, the presence of ethanol or simple alcohols and aromatic alcohols are considered harmful for your skin. If fatty alcohols are present in your toner or any product post 5th ingredient in the list, it is okay.  

So, what is ethanol?

Drying agent 

It is believed that toners are for oily, acne-prone skin, which isn't true because it all finally comes down to the type of skin and the type of alcohol present.

Ethanol or simple alcohols are highly drying agents, making oily skin feel instantly dry and tight, which might feel good temporarily, but this short term relief leads to long term damage.  

A good cleanser 

Ethanol dissolves oily and fatty substances like dirt and sebum present in the pore lining. It also dissolves makeup or many oil-based products. This property helps ethanol be an excellent cleanser to rip off oil, but with higher concentration, it also sucks excess fat from the stratum corneum making the skin very dry and itchy.  


Alcohol is also considered a commendable disinfectant. So antiseptic ointments and acne based prescription ointments contain alcohol in some amount. But the type and concentration of alcohol matters. Hand sanitizers used clinically have more than 60% ethanol, making them effective against germs and pathogenic bacteria.  


When ethanol is added to facial serums, it makes the pore-lining more active and allows more active ingredients to seep in. But this can be harmful as alcohol is also absorbed into the epidermis, which causes a disintegrated cell membrane.  

Improves application 

Due to its volatile nature, ethanol usually evaporates much before it is absorbed completely. It makes the product applicability easy and gives a matt and clean look. But with this temporary satisfaction of clean and even skin texture comes long term side effects of alcohol. 


As an excellent solvent, alcohol helps extract many plant compounds, essential fats, and vitamins from their sources, making the product more concentrated in the active ingredients.  

Now that you know what role it plays in a toner, let's understand why an alcohol-free toner is a safer bet. 


A study based on alcohol's effect on isolated cells showed that it released specific inflammatory markers, causing redness and swelling. Although there is a limit/lack of research on how topical application of alcohol affects the skin, there has been enough research on how high concentration of ethanol can penetrate the skin and increase the blood alcohol levels, thus causing inflammation.  


Like alcohol consumption can be distressing for the body, ethanol present in higher concentrations in topical applications can cause blood toxicity. Metabolism of alcohol is not favorable by the body, thus making the cells of the body dysfunctional.  

Oil production

Alcohol dries the skin, and a feedback mechanism of skin produces more oil to compensate for the dryness; this creates a greasy layer on the skin after temporary dryness. 

Skin dehydration 

Some studies have also reported dryness of hands-on excess use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers. Though the arms and hands' skin is thick enough to absorb a minimal amount of ethanol, it showed visible dryness. Similarly, facial skin can show adverse effects as the skin is thin and sensitive.

Skin barrier disruption

Though there are contradictory studies about this disadvantage, some studies show the cell membrane's lipid bilayer, i.e., the cell membrane is disrupted due to defect in the skin cell shedding and due to defect in lipid production.

Another study suggests there is a negligible disruption of the cell membrane. The skin is the protective barrier who's composition needs to be maintained to act as a protective barrier.   

Benefits of using an alcohol-free toner : 

  • Alcohol-free toners can help dry and combination skin, making the skin hydrated and moistened.
  • It helps to balance the pH. The acid mantle works optimally at a pH range of 4.5 to 5.5, which can be attained with alcohol-free toners.  
  • It does not make the skin hypersensitive or dry or itchy, thus suitable for all skin types.  
  • The minerals present in tap water can cause dryness or leave a whitish layer removed by cleansing the face again with an alcohol-free toner.
  • Certain ingredients in the toner can also shrink the skin's pore size, making you feel fresh and rejuvenated.  

The Verdict  

Controversial substances like alcohol can create havoc not only on your skin but also in your selection process. The type of skin, type of alcohol, and the concentration all matters when choosing a toner.  


It is safe to use an alcohol-free toner for all skin types, but if you opt for alcohol-based products to better read product labels and look out for fatty alcohol or the concentration of alcohol present.  

For dry, sensitive, and combination, alcohol-free skin toners are best.

For oily and acne-prone skin, there are other alternatives to look for instead of ethanol but if you are still opting for the benefits of alcohol, look out for fatty alcohols. But alcohol-free toners are better at targeting acne without over-drying.

Thus, a toner can serve you with more benefits if chosen appropriately. Some of the ingredients to look for in a toner are green tea, rose water, witch hazel, etc.  

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