Ingredients in your hair products have a direct impact on your hair.
If you ask a reliable source for ingredients to avoid in hair products, you’ll find alcohol among the first few ingredients.
But are all alcohols bad for your hair?
In this post, I’ll talk about a specific type of alcohol (benzyl alcohol) commonly found in hair products and how it affects the hair.
Let’s see, is benzyl alcohol bad for hair?
We’ll start by seeing why hair products contain benzyl alcohol.
- What Does Benzyl Alcohol Do to Your Hair?
- Is Benzyl Alcohol Bad for Hair?
- Which Alcohols are Bad for Your Hair?
- Which Alcohols are Good For Hair?
- Frequently Asked Questions
- The Takeaway
What Does Benzyl Alcohol Do to Your Hair?
Benzyl alcohol is a nonvolatile, aromatic alcohol commonly used in hair products like hair dyes and shampoos.
Here’s what it does in hair products.
- Allows Product Penetration
When present in hair dyes, benzyl alcohol increases how well the dye penetrates your hair.
In an experiment, hair samples were collected and dipped into benzyl alcohol and other solutions.
The researchers noticed that the pieces in benzyl alcohol got thicker, and this caused a “penetration-enhancing effect.”
By swelling up the layers of the hair cuticle, benzyl alcohol altered the hair structure and increased how well the hair dye worked on the hair.
In simple terms, benzyl alcohol is used in hair dyes to help the product “enter” your hair well enough.
- Preserves Hair Product
Benzyl alcohol is also used as a preservative in hair products.
It has antibacterial properties, so benzyl alcohol prevents the growth of microorganisms within the hair product.
That preserves the product, helping it to last long enough.
- Treats Lice
Apart from being used as an ingredient in hair products, benzyl alcohol is itself an effective product for treating hair and scalp lice.
When it saturates the hair thoroughly, benzyl alcohol kills off present lice gradually.
But after using it for seven days, you may need an added treatment to cure head lice completely.
Is Benzyl Alcohol Bad for Hair?
The Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel says that benzyl alcohol is safe in present practices of use.
So it’s OK if your hair product contains benzyl alcohol; it won’t harm your hair.
But there are safety limits.
If a hair product contains more than the required benzyl alcohol, it can have harmful effects.
Some people may also be sensitive to benzyl alcohol, and it could harm their hair if they use a product containing it.
Possible side effects of benzyl alcohol are:
- Pronounced itching
- Scalp irritation
- Scalp flaking
- Scalp redness
As long as you do not have a sensitive scalp, benzyl alcohol is not an ingredient you should be worried about when you find it on your product’s label.
If unsure whether you’ll react to benzyl alcohol, you should do a small patch test before using the product.
Apply a little product to your elbow and wait for about 30 minutes.
If your skin does not act up, it’s safe to use.
But there are some alcohols that you should avoid altogether in hair products. Which ones? Let’s see!
Which Alcohols are Bad for Your Hair?
When peeps say alcohols are bad for hair, it’s no lie but a generalization. Some alcohols really are bad for your hair.
Here’s a list of the bad alcohol:
- Specially Denatured (SD) alcohol
The alcohols above have one thing in common; they are short-chain alcohols.
Short Chain Alcohols
Short-chain alcohols are a class of alcohols made up of small carbon chains.
They are highly soluble and evaporate quickly.
Because of that, short-chain alcohols suck in present moisture and oils on your hair and then dry out very quickly.
They remove moisture and natural oils from your hair, leaving it dry, weak, and brittle.
Short-chain alcohols are appropriately used in hand sanitizers and antiseptics to prevent the growth of microorganisms and as preservatives.
The way hand sanitizers dry out the hands a few minutes after you use, short-chain alcohols have a similar effect on the hair — dries out the hair.
Short-chain alcohols are the bad guys; you should always check your hair product ingredient list and avoid products that contain them.
Short-chain alcohols are used in these products:
- Hair sprays
- Styling gel
- Hair dyes
This type of alcohol is also known as aminomethyl propanol.
It adjusts or balances the pH of hair products.
Ethanol hastens drying effects in hair products.
You’ll find ethanol in products that hold hairstyles, like gels and hairsprays.
Isopropyl is also used to produce drying effects in hair products.
Like other short-chain alcohols, it quickly gets into hair follicles.
Isopropyl is commonly used in conditioners and hair sprays.
Specially denatured alcohols (SD) are alcohols that include different additives such that they lose their natural properties and can no longer be used for consumption.
SD alcohol also dries out the hair and can damage any protective barrier on the hair shaft.
Which Alcohols are Good For Hair?
While some alcohols damage the hair, some are actually helpful for your hair. Here’s a list:
- Lauryl alcohol
- Cetyl alcohol
- Cetearyl alcohol
- Stearyl alcohol
These alcohols also have one thing in common; they are fatty alcohols.
Fatty (Long-chain) Alcohol
Fatty alcohols are quite the opposite of short-chain alcohols.
They have a large molecular weight and contain longer carbon chains.
Unlike short-chain alcohols, fatty alcohols are made from natural oils and fats from vegetables or animals.
Long-chain alcohols have moisturizing properties, so they help soften the hair.
They are majorly used in hair conditioners to make hair smooth after conditioning.
You’re safe if you check your hair product label and find any of these alcohols.
Lauryl alcohol can also be written as “dodecanol” on your hair product.
It is a fatty alcohol that works as a binder and emollient in hair conditioners.
It keeps other ingredients together so that the conditioner appears as a smooth paste.
Cetyl alcohol works to stabilize the formula in hair conditioners. It also hydrates the hair.
Stearyl is a fatty alcohol obtained from vegetables.
It is safe for hair and does not make the hair dry.
Cetearyl alcohol is formed by mixing cetyl and stearyl alcohol.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows products that contain Cetearyl (and other fatty alcohols) to be labeled as “alcohol-free.”
That’s because these alcohols do not cause the drying effect caused by short-chain alcohols.
Frequently Asked Questions
Just before you go, here are other things you should know about benzyl alcohol and other alcohols in hair products.
Is Benzyl Alcohol in a Conditioner Bad?
Benzyl alcohol is generally safe for use in conditioners.
When used in small amounts, it is not harmful.
However, people with sensitive scalps may experience the side effects of benzyl alcohol.
If you have a sensitive scalp or are prone to allergies, you should do a patch test before using a conditioner that contains benzyl alcohol to be sure that it is safe for you.
Why is Benzyl Alcohol in Shampoo?
Benzyl alcohol is added to shampoos majorly as a preservative.
Benzyl alcohol helps to prevent the growth of bacteria or fungi within the shampoo so that it can last long.
Since benzyl is a non-volatile alcohol, it will not dry out the hair.
How Much Of Benzyl Alcohol is Safe?
The safe limit for benzyl alcohol depends on the product and its intended use.
For shampoos, the safe limit is 5% or less. For hair dyes, the safe limit is 10% or less.
Is Benzyl Alcohol Cancerous?
No, research confirms that benzyl alcohol does not cause cancer.
Is Benzyl Alcohol Natural?
Benzyl alcohol can be found naturally in plants.
However, it can also be prepared artificially in laboratories.
What Are The Negative Effects of Benzyl Alcohol?
For people who have a sensitive scalp, benzyl alcohol can cause effects like itching, redness, and flakiness.
That especially happens when you use benzyl alcohol for scalp lice treatment or when your hair product contains an overdose.
Benzyl alcohol has potential side effects but is not bad for hair.
Certified bodies like the CIR say that it is safe for hair.
So if you find benzyl alcohol on your product’s ingredient list, you do not have to worry.
The real bad guys are propanol, ethanol, and other short-chain alcohols — they leave the hair dry and brittle over time.
Long-chain alcohols like lauryl and cetyl are “good alcohols” that leaves the hair soft and moisturized.