What is cetearyl alcohol? Function in skin and hair care

Cetearyl alcohol is a type of fatty alcohol that companies use to make various cosmetic products. These include a wide range of toiletries, including hand creams, shampoos and body washes.

This alcohol is an emollient, that is, it softens the skin and hair. Manufacturers also use it to stabilize emulsions, which are mixtures of oil and water.

Cetearyl alcohol is different from alcohol in beverages, known as ethanol. While ethanol dries out the skin, fatty alcohols do not. Experts widely accept cetearyl alcohol as a safe ingredient in cosmetics, and it is virtually non-toxic, although some people may be sensitive or allergic to it.

This article discusses cetearyl alcohol and products that contain it, along with its benefits and side effects. It also examines other alcohols in cosmetics.

Technical grade cetearyl alcohol is a mixture of cetyl alcohol and stearyl alcohol. Both alcohols are present in small amounts in plants and animals.

Cetearyl, cetyl and stearyl alcohols are all fatty alcohols, meaning they are derived from natural oils and fats. Cetearyl alcohol is a waxy white solid that manufacturers typically sell as flakes. Although it is soluble (dissolves) in oils and alcohols, it is insoluble in water.

Other names for this ingredient include:

  • cetostearyl alcohol
  • cetyl/stearyl alcohol
  • 1-octadecanol mixed with 1-hexadecanol

Cetearyl alcohol is an ingredient in many products, such as:

  • moisturizing creams and lotions
  • shampoo
  • conditioners
  • scrubs
  • sun creams
  • hair spray
  • Hair dyes
  • hair foam
  • facial cleansers
  • make-up, including foundation, lipstick and mascara
  • shaving creams
  • shower gels and bar soaps
  • baby wipes
  • antiperspirants and deodorants
  • toothpaste
  • nail treatment
  • hand sanitizer
  • body oil
  • mouthwash
  • fragrance
  • shine

Cetearyl alcohol has emollient properties, which means it softens and smoothes the skin and hair.

Manufacturers also use this ingredient to modify the texture and performance of their formulas. They can add it to products to:

  • create an emulsion, which is a mixture of oils and water
  • stabilize foams
  • increase foaming ability
  • change the thickness of liquids

Cetearyl alcohol poses little or no risk to humans as long as someone uses products that contain it as directed on the label.

A older study from 1997 noted that emulsifiers rarely cause allergic dermatitis, but cited five known cases. All of the people who had allergic reactions had pre-existing allergies to other substances.

People allergic to cetearyl alcohol may develop a skin rash known as allergic contact dermatitis, which is a type of eczema.

The National Rosacea Society states that in addition to cetearyl alcohol, cosmetics and personal care products may contain other fatty alcohols, such as:

  • cetyl alcohol
  • steryl alcohol
  • lauryl alcohol

All of these are safe. They help prevent water loss from the outer layer of the skin and give products a creamier consistency.

However, some cosmetics contain astringent alcohols. These are alcohols that can dry out and irritate the skin, especially if someone has sensitive skin.

Ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, is a type of astringent alcohol. It is the alcohol contained in alcoholic beverages, as well as in some cosmetic products. Manufacturers sometimes use it because it speeds the drying of liquids or to preserve ingredients and prevent them from spoiling.

To prevent people from using cosmetics that contain ethanol as an alcoholic beverage, the cosmetic may contain a denaturant, which is a substance that makes alcohol undrinkable. In a product’s ingredient list, it says SD alcohol, which means specially denatured alcohol.

A person may find ethanol listed on a product label under the following names:

  • alcohol
  • ethanol
  • denatured alcohol
  • Denatured alcohol
  • SD Alcohol

According to Food and Drug Administration (FDA), products that do not contain ethanol may be labeled as “alcohol-free”. This label does not apply to fatty alcohols, such as cetearyl, cetyl, or stearyl alcohol.

Other astringent alcohols that may be found in cosmetics include:

  • Isopropylic alcohol
  • methanol
  • benzyl alcohol

Cetearyl alcohol is biodegradable, according to SAAPedia. However, the Environmental Working Group states that it is a suspected environmental toxin.

Further research is needed to determine if the use of cetearyl alcohol in products could have an adverse effect on the environment.

Cetearyl alcohol is a fatty alcohol that can soften skin and hair. It also stabilizes products containing a mixture of oil and water and changes the thickness of liquids. Due to these properties, it is a popular ingredient in many cosmetics and toiletries.

While cetearyl alcohol and other fatty alcohols in cosmetics do not dry out the skin, ethanol and other astringent alcohols do. People with dry, sensitive skin can look for products that say “alcohol-free” on the label to avoid the irritating effects of astringent alcohols.

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