The Truth About Alcohol Free Hairspray

Eunice Lucero | 15 September 2018
the truth about alcohol free hairspray

Spoiler: Unlike the drink, there’s no risk of going overboard.

Mindfulness about what goes into our bodies as well as what goes on them is a pretty awesome thing. But what happens when we fall prey to simple ploys of brilliant marketing and great PR, especially in hair products? Just like there are hot and trendy ingredients (avocado, coconut oil, Argan oil), there are also those on the opposite end of the consumer perception spectrum (alcohol, sulfates) that have been, as some would say, unfairly demonized for years. The concept of alcohol free hairspray in particular is a buzzword circling the industry for its purported non-drying benefits. But is alcohol really as detrimental as the public has condemned it to be? (*Resists cracking dad joke about happy hour*) Or is this just another example of alternative facts?

To help shed some light on this well-contested issue, we had a good chat about the pros and cons with Unilever’s head R&D expert Leon van Gorkom. Scroll on for the lowdown on alcohol free hairspray and whether or not it is something we should delete from our must-haves, or if it’s something to look out for on our next drugstore run:

Myth vs. Fact: Alcohol Free Hairspray

alcohol free hairspray vs anhydrous hairsprays
Water-based hairsprays have bigger particles and leave hair feeling wetter and clumpier. Aerosols and fine mist alcohol sprays, on the other hand, dry quicker and feel better on hair. Photo credit: Faraz Essani Photography

Hi Leon! Okay, first things first: Is there such a thing as alcohol free hairspray?

“Yes, we do have one alcohol free hairspray in Unilever and it’s in the Suave Kids lineup; we went alcohol-free there. It’s a pump, not an aerosol. All our other hairsprays do have alcohol, because the alcohol is used as a solvent to keep the styling polymers soluble.”

Can you expound on that? What exactly goes into a hairspray, or how does it work?

“This is how a hairspray works: You have styling polymers that have to be solubilized in a liquid. We use alcohol, and then we use a propellant. [Once you] press a button the propellant will jet out the alcohol solution with the polymers in very fine droplets—that’s what you want—then the alcohol evaporates very quickly. The smaller the particles (we’re talking microns here), the quicker it dries. We call those anhydrous hairsprays, meaning no-water-containing hairsprays, and they’re very efficient; they dry very quickly.”

Interesting. What kinds of hold do anhydrous hairsprays offer?

“You can have low hold, medium hold, high hold and extra high hold. They dry very quickly; they have a very fine mist and they feel good [on hair].”

Okay, now for the million-dollar question: What’s the big deal with alcohol free hairspray? What’s the difference between an alcohol free hairspray and a regular alcohol hairspray, if there is one?

“Alcohol free hairspray feels wet and dries slower. The reason being is that if you replace the alcohol with water [as a solvent], you have to use different kinds of polymers to keep it solubilized, and so you’re limited in what you can use. The biggest problem is that you get bigger droplets and that it dries slow, so it feels wetter, it feels clumpier and it tends to feel more crusty.”

alcohol free hairspray
Alcohol-based hairsprays are actually safe and non-drying, contrary to popular belief.

Hmm. Not very appealing. And as for the effects of alcohol, does it actually dry out your hair?

“No. The alcohol evaporates so quickly that there’s nothing that’s going to happen to your hair.”

So let’s repeat that: There’s really no benefit to having an alcohol free hairspray other than just saying it’s alcohol free?

“Yes. But once again it’s all about consumer perception. There’s a huge trade-off between [being able to say it’s] alcohol-free and [then the reality of the] way it actually feels during and after use. It leaves hair wetter, leaves bigger droplets, takes long to dry and looks clumpier. The bigger the particles are, the clumpier your hairspray will be. Alcohol is a very fine spray and dries very quickly, leaving a much better performing spray. It’s all about consumer perception, like the whole sulfates/no sulfates [debate].

It’s the same thing with non-alcohol mousse—there are many more non-alcohol mousses than there are non-alcohol hairsprays. For mousse it’s much easier because mousse has a lot of water in it so alcohol acts as a co-solvent, thus making it easier to replace. But for hairspray, there’s a huge difference in the way a water-based hairspray and an anhydrous (water-free) alcohol hairspray performs during and after use.”

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