Alcohol wipes-could they be making your skin worse?

rosie taylor

Treating acne with alcohol wipes. Can it do more harm than good? Rosie Taylor finds out.

If you suffer from blemishes or more severe acne you may well have already tried alcohol-based products to sort out the problem.

Face wipes or pads containing alcohol have become an increasingly popular treatment for acne-plagued skin.

Because alcohol cuts through make-up and strips away excess oil, it leaves skin feeling matt and oil-free. But in reality it may be having the opposite effect, triggering oil production and actually making your acne worse.

Aesthetic nurse practitioner Shirley Nichol, an expert on acne treatment, describes alcohol wipes as her “pet hate”. She explains that the alcohol in the wipes does actually does the opposite of what you want it to do – it increases the production of sebum – the oil in the skin – as well as damaging the epidermis, the skin’s protective layer.

“What I see when I look at the skin of people who use wipes, they tend to have a thin and irritated epidermis,” she says. “To treat acne you need to correct the pH of the skin, reduce sebum production and reduce bacteria on the surface of the skin.”



“Alcohol feels like it is cleansing because it leaves skin feeling matt but it is very drying, which actually stimulates sebum production.”

Dr Rupert Critchley, of VIVAskinclinics, agrees. He says: “Alcohol strips the acid-mantle layer, affecting the barrier function of the skin which protects against infection.

“It temporarily gives skin a feeling of smoothness and cleanliness, however, it adversely causes the skin to over-produce oils which has a dehydrating effect.”

Prematurely ageing

He goes further though adding that can also make you look older, faster.

“This can sensitise the skin if used in the long-term and could also hasten the onset of features of ageing such as fine lines and wrinkles.”

Shirley, who is clincal director at the Clinica Medica clinic in Glasgow, says many ‘cleansing’ alcohol-based wipes on the market do not actually clean skin properly and leave dirt and bacteria behind.

“Alcohol wipes are not a quick fix because they don’t really wash the skin,” she adds. “You’re wiping across the skin but you are not really taking away all the dirt. Wiping also pulls at the delicate skin which can damage it.

“Harsh chemicals like alcohol are just going to promote the flare up of existing acne.”


Dr Rupert says alcohol wipes can have their uses – but not for acne.

He says they are safe to use for sterilising the skin before any cosmetic treatments such as those requiring injections or minor surgery, although he still offers an alternative to patients as some people are hypersensitive to them.

Research published in the British Journal of Anaesthesia in 2002 found around one in 50 patients are hypersensitive to alcohol, rising to one in 20 in people with eczema.


So what are the alternatives for face cleansing?

The NHS does not recommend people with acne use alcohol on their skin and instead advocates avoiding irritation by washing with a mild cleanser and not squeezing spots.

Shirley says professional help may be needed but the key to treating acne is the cleansing products and technique you use. She not a fan of scrubs either but swears by using a mild cleansing foam, washed away with water. Water should only be gently splashed onto the face and the skin then patted dry.

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“People think skin needs to be scrubbed at but this will irritate it,” she explains. “Actually you want to wash the face carefully. When people have acne, the skin is troubled and it needs to be cared for. I notice with my acne patients if I change the products I get quite a quick response.”


Replacing alcohol wipes with a product that contains a mild alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) such as mandelic acid or lactic acid can also help with acne as it helps remove the tops layers of the skin that are being blocked by dead cells and helps clean out the infected follicles.

And unlike the alcohol wipes the AHA products help improve the skin barrier rather than harming it. But don’t expect results over night as it may take a few weeks to see a difference.

And if you are worried about your acne, seek professional advice as there are a number of treatments that are available to help clear it up.

Kurokawa, I., et al., (2009), New developments in our understanding of acne pathogenesis and treatment. Experimental Dermatology, 18: 821–832.

Kwaka, S., Briefb, E., et al., (2012), Ethanol perturbs lipid organization in models of stratum corneum membranes: An investigation combining differential scanning calorimetry, infrared and 2H NMR spectroscopy. Biochimica et Biophysica Acta (BBA) – Biomembranes, Vol 1818, Issue 5: 1410-1419.

NHS Choices: Acne Treatment Options

Pittaway A, Ford S “Allergy to chlorhexidine-coated central venous catheters revisited.” British Journal of Anaesthesia 88 (2002): 304-5

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