Beyond COVID-19 and hand sanitization
My moisturizer contains an ingredient called Alcohol Denat. Is this the same alcohol that is in hand sanitizers? Does this mean that my moisturizer can work against coronavirus too?
The simple and correct answer YES, it is an alcohol like that found in hand sanitizers and topical disinfectants, but NO it is probably not providing effective antiviral/antibacterial activity at the low concentration used in your cosmetic product.
The term "Alcohol Denat." was introduced in Europe as a generic term for denatured alcohol in the interest of harmonizing ingredient names internationally. It frequently appears on products that are marketed both in the U.S. and abroad. Alcohol that is referred to as “denatured” means that other ingredients have been added to the ethanol (yes the natural kind found in beer, wine, and spirits) to make it non-drinkable. Contrary to what you may read online, ethanol that is used in cosmetics is commonly denatured by adding a small amount of Bitrex®, the most bitter substance on earth. Bitrex® is harmless but is so bitter that when someone tries to drink it, the immediate reaction is to spit it out. A non-drinkable ethanol means that companies that supply your favorite moisturizers, cleansers, astringents are not subjected to a high degree of oversight from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau to make and transport them and you do not need to be 21 years old to use them.
Why are alcohols used in products? Aren’t they bad for my skin?
The use of Alcohol denat. can be highly debated online, usually by people who do not understand chemistry and many who do not realize that ingredients come in several different grades (e.g. levels of purity). Like fine wines and spirits, there is usually a direct correlation between the cost of the ingredient and the level or purity. Mechanical grade (cheap) Alcohol denat. can be found in hardware stores for use as a fuel, in wood working, and cleaning of machinery. In contrast, cosmetic and food grades can be found in some of the most beloved cosmetics and on the shelves in some of the finest restaurants where the use is compatible with food preparation. In cosmetics, generally low concentrations of highly purified Alcohol denat. can be used alone or combined with other ingredients as a cleanser, astringent/antimicrobial, antifoaming or viscosity controlling agent, or as an ingredient to enhance the penetration of other skin actives while leaving a non-sticky, cosmetically elegant finish. In moisturizers for example, Alcohol denat. is used at concentrations of 0.0008-3%, way too low to have any antiviral or antibacterial effects.
Debates online often describe cases of exaggerated exposure to an ingredient and fail to educate that every ingredient behaves differently depending on the concentration that is used. For example, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends a specific minimum contraction of ethanol (60%) and isopropyl alcohol (70%) to help combat viral pathogens like coronavirus. Concentrations lower than recommended will either not be effective or will require a very long time in contact with your skin or surface to work. Isopropyl alcohol at a level of 95% is also not more effective than 70% because it evaporates too quickly, decreasing the contact time with surfaces to be cleaned.