If you’ve read enough skincare advice and you have dry skin, you’ve read it a thousand times — avoid products with alcohol. So you do, skimming ingredient lists and putting items back on the shelf if you see the word “alcohol,” continuing your search for what is good for dry skin. One problem with this approach: Not all alcohols dry out your skin, and some can even help.
Chemically speaking, any molecule with an oxygen-hydrogen bond at the end of its chain is an alcohol. But within that group are classes of alcohols. Ethanol is the alcohol we drink; methanol shows up in antifreeze. Derivatives of these and other alcohols are drying — in fact, that’s part of why they’re there, as they help products dry more quickly. Avoiding these is best for dry skin. These alcohols go by a number of names; SD alcohol or just “alcohol” is what you’re likeliest to see on a label. Our director of research and development at Silk Therapeutics recommends Googling the specific alcohol you see listed on a label (along with the word “skin”) to see whether it’s drying.
Fatty alcohols, on the other hand, are good for dry skin. These have the same oxygen-hydrogen bond at the end of the molecule, but the rest of its composition has nothing to do with drying alcohols. Waxy and oily, and often derived from natural fats like coconut oil, their most common use in skincare products is as a co-emulsifier, giving structure to a formula. Fatty alcohols can also have a humectant effect when used in skincare products, drawing moisture into your skin instead of drying it out. Cetyl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol, and stearyl alcohol are the fatty alcohols you’re likeliest to see on ingredient labels. Our Body Enrich uses cetyl alcohol as an emulsifier, and Hydra-Rich — our most intensely hydrating moisturizer — uses cetearyl alcohol as an emollient.
Ingredients derived from petrochemicals should also be avoided when evaluating what is good for dry skin. Common culprits include mineral oil, paraffin wax, and petroleum jelly. While these ingredients aren’t necessarily bad for your skin, they’re bad for the planet and don’t serve any therapeutic purpose. They sit on your skin without penetrating the top layer, and they might feel like they’re helping because they have the effect of smoothing out your skin’s surface. In truth, though, they’re not doing anything. Worse, because these ingredients act as a barrier, they can block the active ingredients in a product from reaching your epidermis.
Instead of mineral oils, look for products with naturally derived oils. We use natural oils in all of our products that are best for dry skin: Purely Radiant contains sunflower seed and rose hip oils; Body Enrich has coconut and sunflower oils; Hydra-Rich uses jojoba oil. No petrochemicals, no useless oils, no drying alcohols — just pure silk protein and ingredients that deliver.