Cosmetics Containing Alcohol
The distillation of alcohol as a pure compound was discovered by Muslim scientists such as Al-Kindi and Abu Bakr al-Razi in the 8th and 9th centuries CE. The word ‘alcohol’ comes from the Arabic word ‘Al-Kuhl’ or more likely ‘Al-Ghawl’. There are many types of alcohol found in nature that are used for a variety of reasons. Some of them include:
– Ethanol/Ethyl alcohol
– Methanol/Methyl alcohol
– Propanol/Propyl alcohol
– Butanol/Butyl alcohol
– Cetyl alcohol
What concerns us here is the alcohol that people can drink which is intoxicating, the first mentioned in the list above, namely ethanol. All other alcohols that are listed as ingredients are pure and permitted for use, there is no difference of opinion on this matter.
Most of our drinks naturally contain small percentages of ethanol. For example, orange juice can contain up to 0.5% ethanol and malt vinegar up to 0.2%. For commercial use other than intoxication, methanol is added to ethanol to make it poisonous and unpalatable. The resulting substance is named alcohol denat (denatured alcohol), known as SDA in the US and methylated spirit in Australia. It is used widely in products such as petrol, antifreeze, solvents, cleaning agents, cosmetics, medicines, antiseptics, and solvent-based paints, printing inks, lacquer thinners, etc.
The Qur’an does not mention alcohol as a pure compound, however, wine (raw grape juice which is left to ferment until it becomes intoxicating) is mentioned in the following verses:
They ask you about wine and gambling. Say, “In both, there is a great sin and some benefits for people. However, their sin is greater than their benefit.” (2:219)
Oh you who believe! Wine, gambling, altars, and divining arrows are a defilement (rijs), from the handiwork of Satan. So avoid it so that you may be successful. (5:90)
The majority of jurists deemed that wine is impure. However, Rabi’ah bin Abdur-Rahman (the teacher of Imam Malik), Al-Layth, Al-Hasan al-Basri, and some others deemed that it is pure and only prohibited to drink based on the understanding that the word ‘rijs’ used in the verse is not a physical impurity like gambling, altars, and divining arrows. Likewise, the companions poured their wine out into the streets of Medina when the revelation was revealed (16 years prior to this, it had been permissible in varying degrees). Another consideration is that the ulama have agreed that using musk is permissible and some said that the musk pod is permissible to eat even though its origin is from the impure secretions of the musk deer. This is due to the hadith, “The most pleasant of fragrances is musk”. Some scholars have also extended it to the musk of the civet cat (known as civet).
As for intoxicating drinks other than wine, jurists differed regarding whether they could also be considered impure by analogy with wine or not. They also differed as to whether something impure can become pure by transformation, or not. Another consideration is that if an impurity becomes widespread and difficult to avoid, then its ruling will change from being impure or it will be excused.
According to the Hanafi School, the following has been mentioned: “Impurity is severe and light, the severe with Abu Hanifah is that which a scriptural text has mentioned being impure and no other scripture opposes it and there is no hardship in avoiding it… The light is that which two scriptural texts conflict regarding its purity and impurity.”
The Hanafi scholars made exhaustive lists of these two types of impurities and only ever mention wine as an impurity as opposed to other intoxicating drinks which they do not consider as impurities due to the absence of scriptural evidence.
After mentioning one of the differences with wine is that “its impurity is severe due to it being established by unequivocal evidence” and then discussing some other intoxicating drinks that are prohibited, Imam Ibn Mawdud al-Mawsili mentions: “The prohibition of these drinks is less than the prohibition of wine, so selling them is permitted and they are guaranteed (for compensation) if caused to perish.”
Therefore, it is clear that the only alcoholic liquid deemed impure in the Hanafi School is wine (uncooked grape juice when fermented until the bottom of it rises and it becomes intoxicating) and other liquids are not impure even if they are prohibited for consumption, like many other natural and synthetic liquids and substances.
I asked my Shafi’i teacher, Shaykh Umar al-Khatib, about this matter and he replied that “The origin of substances is that they are pure. So, a fragrance containing alcohol will be considered pure until a reliable Muslim informs us that there is an impurity in it.” The following has also been mentioned by Dr Muhammad Sa’id Ramadan Al-Buti in his book Ma’a al-Nas, “Using cologne is not prohibited, even if it has a percentage of alcohol in it. This is because it is overlooked due to the difficulty of avoiding it in this age as is well-known and the fact that it is a base that is an absolute must for purification of bacteria and sterilisation purposes.”
This view is supported by what Ibn Hajar mentioned, “That which its affliction becomes widespread is given the ruling of being pure like the sweat of riding animals (even if a lot) and their saliva.”However, the default ruling in the Shafi’i School is that “Every intoxicating liquid is impure.”. Al-Shirbini comments on this saying: “As for nabidh (a strong intoxicating drink made from dates), then (it is impure) by analogy with wine.”
As for the Maliki School, I asked Shaykh Abdur Rahman Ould al-Hajj about the matter and he replied, “The use of fragrances containing alcohol is permitted based on the ruling of transformation (istihalah) in the Maliki School.” This is based on what has been mentioned: “And musk is pure due to its transformation i.e. the transformation of its origin… and also wine if it becomes solid or is made solid (due to the disappearance of the intoxicating effect).” However, the default ruling mentioned in the Maliki School is that every liquid that intoxicated is impure.
Answered by Shaykh Bilal Brown
 (Muslim, 2252; Al-Nasa’i, 1905).
 (Al-Ikhtiyar, Chapter of Impurities).
 (Al-Ikhtiyar, Book of Drinks).
 (Pt. 1, page 18).
 (Tuhfah al-Muhtaj, Chapter of Rulings of Purification).
 (Al-Minhaj, Chapter of Impurities).
 (Mughni al-Muhtaj, Chapter of Impurities).
 (Hashiyah al-Dusuqi, 1/52, Section on Clarifying Pure and Impure Substances).