Good Morning! A seemingly simple claim, but a not so simple answer. A lot of you already know that labels say "Alcohol-free" but their ingredients actually list alcohols in them, so what gives?
Well, in terms of labeling, a company is allowed to say "Alcohol-free" if it doesn't contain ethyl alcohol (i.e. SD Alcohol) in its product. (It also must not contain methyl or isopropyl alcohol either, but these latter 2 alcohols should NOT be in skincare products anyway. And if any of you spot either methyl or isopropyl alcohol in any skincare product, please email me so that I can look into it!)
An alcohol is really just a classification of an ingredient based on its chemical structure. In truth, we can't really live without alcohols in one form or another. Alcohols that are the smallest (with the fewest amount of carbon atoms, like the ones stated above) tend to be what are known as the "drying" alcohols. They evaporate quickly and tend to have a "drying" effect on the skin and can be quite harsh. These are the alcohols (and we're talking mostly SD Alcohol) that the label "Alcohol-free" is referencing.
You may find other alcohols like cetyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol, or lanolin alcohol within the ingredients of these "Alcohol-free" products and that is because these are larger and what are also known as "fatty alcohols" (this is because they are usually derived from fats or oils). They tend not to be drying and many have good benefits for the skin and can actually help draw moisture into the skin.
So, in a nutshell, when a product claims "Alcohol-free" it means it doesn't have the skin-drying SD Alcohol, while it may contain a number of other "non-drying" alcohols. So "Alcohol-free" doesn't technically mean alcohol free! It's not meant to be misleading, but it is truly a less than perfect use of terminology (incorrect actually) but its main purpose is to indicate that the product does not contain a drying alcohol.