Alcohol Free?

Many personal care products today are marketed using the claim “alcohol-free”. This can be an important claim for people who wish to avoid the drying effects alcohol has on the skin but also, more importantly, for Muslims seeking halal products in which alcohol is not permitted.

Many alcohol-free products would appear to non-scientists to actually contain alcohols, as close examination of the ingredient list may reveal compounds such as phenoxyethanol, cetyl alcohol, benzyl alcohol or many other variations. Strictly speaking, the products are “ethanol-free”. The old term for ethanol was ethyl alcohol – hence the use of the word “alcohol”.

These products are still “alcohol-free”. The reason for the apparent confusion is the difference between the terms used by scientists and those used by the general public. To the layman, beer, wines and spirits, etc. contain alcohol; to the scientist, they contain ethanol. To the layman, alcohol is a single substance, but scientifically speaking the term describes a whole group of substances with differing properties.

Simple alcohols, like ethanol, are defined as having a general chemical formula of CnH2n+1OH, where n equals any number from 1 upwards. If n=1, the compound is CH3OH – methanol, or methyl alcohol. In the case of “alcohol” (ethanol), n=2 and the formula is C2H5OH. Methanol is not permitted in cosmetics, and most other alcohols used in personal care are more complex in structure than ethanol and do not conform to the same general formula. They also have very different properties:

Ethanol has the chemical structure –

Benzyl alcohol has the following structure –

Cetyl alcohol has the following structure –

Phenoxyethanol has the following structure –

Although phenoxyethanol looks and sounds like an alcohol, it is actually a glycol ether, and has different properties to alcohols.

In summary, the layman’s “alcohol” means “ethanol”, and products that are “alcohol-free” are actually “ethanol-free”. In cosmetics, ethanol must be listed on the label as “alcohol”, or “alcohol denat.” and any other “alcohols” are different and may be used in alcohol-free products. Other alcohols are not intoxicants and may be used in halal products.

All references to halal are based on consultation with a cosmetic chemist who works as a consultant for a leading halal accreditation authority.

  • Anonymous

    this was really informative…thanks…

  • Tmsig

    please let understand if i got it right-alcohol that is been used in cosmetics is a kind of alcohol that is allowed for use in cosmetics?and if it is writen alchol free it means that there is no kind of cosmetic “alcohol” in the product?

    • Dene Godfrey

      Sorry, Tmsig, that’s not quite right! There are many different alcohols permitted for use in cosmetics, including those I mentioned in the article, but also many others besides. “Alcohol free” should be taken to mean “no ethanol”, but does not mean that there are no other alcohols present. There is no such thing as a “cosmetic alcohol” as such. The article was orginally written to counter the confusion over “alcohol free” claims being made when the ingredient list included names of other alcohols (ie, other than ethanol). I hope this is now clear.

  • Perry R

    Nice post. Pretty much any chemical that contains an R-OH group is classified as an alcohol. That says nothing about how the compound will behave when put on skin or hair.

  • Beth Learn

    I never thought about alcohol free being important to muslims, or maybe even mormons?

  • Sarah

    Sorry to revive an old post–well, now I’m confused. I always thought alcohol free meant free of isopropyl alcohol! What does SD alcohol mean?

    • Sarah

      Oh, okay, looks like SD alcohol is denatured, so that would refer to ethanol.

  • Miss_r25

    I was wondering if alcohol denat. listed as a third ingredient in a foundation is a really bad thing? 

  • Mehul

    Hi Dene, Can I make Apparel Spray Perfumes using “Iso-Propyl Alcohol” and claim the perfumes to be “Non-Alcoholic” ? 

    I will Not be using Ethyl Alcohol in them. 

    If yes, then what will be the scientific backing to doing so? Do we have any such writeup / chemical register which we can refer to? which can support using Iso-Propyl Alcohol in  apparel products and still mention “Non-Alcoholc”. Please advise. Many Thanks!

    • Dene Godfrey

      Hi Mehul,

      Personally, I would not recommend the use of ANY “free from” claims, but if you feel this is absolutely neccesary, I would recommend “does not contain ethanol”, as the “alcoholic” term is too vague and applies equally to ethanol, isopropyl alcohol and any other alcohol.

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