Alcohol Vs. Water Based Setting Spray: Which Is Better?

Setting spray is to a makeup routine what topcoat is to a manicure — sure, you could opt to go without. But just like a topcoat-less mani is more likely to chip and fade with normal wear, makeup without setting spray is prone to smudging, smearing, and running throughout the day. And why would you want to waste all that hard work? 

Whether you prefer intricate, multi-step glam looks or barely there makeup routines, setting spray is a crucial final step to lock the look in place. Setting spray protects your makeup from heat, sweat, water, tears, and excess oil so that your beat looks as good at 8 p.m. as it did when you first put it on at 8 a.m. However, not all setting sprays are made equal. 

Like most other makeup products, there are countless brands and options of setting sprays to choose from, with varying differences between each spray. The two main categories of this staple product are alcohol- and water-based formulas. Here's how to figure out which one is right for you.

The difference between alcohol and water-based setting sprays

As cosmetic chemist Michelle Wong explains for Lab Muffin Beauty Science, the difference between alcohol- and water-based sprays boils down to their function on the skin. The former shields the skin and is also known as "fixing spray," while the latter only blends makeup. Ergo, all fixing sprays are setting sprays, but not all setting sprays are fixing sprays. 

Alcohol-based setting sprays contain polymers that remain on the skin after the alcohol in the spray evaporates off the face. These polymers form a film that locks makeup in place. Water-based setting sprays, on the other hand, don't have the same shielding capabilities. These types of sprays are used to blend makeup and moisturize the skin, creating a cleaner, brighter finish — but not necessarily a long-lasting one. 

For this reason, celebrity makeup artist Gloria Elias-Foeillet told Byrdie that alcohol-setting sprays are the superior option for extending your makeup's wear. However, that doesn't automatically mean alcohol-based setting sprays are better for your skin.

Finding the right setting spray for you

Whether you should use a water- or alcohol-based setting spray ultimately depends on your skin type and what you're looking for out of your product. While alcohol-based formulas are more likely to keep your makeup from moving throughout the day, they also contain a key ingredient to avoid if you have sensitive skin, and it's right in the name: alcohol. 

Alcohol is incredibly drying, which might make these formulas a no-go if you're already prone to parched skin — even those with less sensitive skin should be modest with alcohol-based formula applications. To keep your dry skin looking dewy, it's best to opt for water-based formulas. If alcohol's shielding power is non-negotiable, look for alcohol-based formulas that contain additional moisturizing ingredients like aloe or hyaluronic acid.

Alternatively, water-based formulas might not work for you if you have oily skin. For this skin type, setting powders might be your best bet to keep your makeup in place. With a bit of patience, experimentation, and a quick check of the formula's ingredients, you'll be able to find the perfect setting spray for you in no time.