Alcohols In Skincare: Cetearyl Alcohol - The Dermatology Review

Alcohols In Skincare: Cetearyl Alcohol



What Is Cetearyl Alcohol?

Cetearyl alcohol is a fatty alcohol that is used in skincare and cosmetic formulations to improve the texture and sensory feel of products. It also has the added benefit of helping to soften and soothe the skin. 

Cetearyl alcohol, also referred to as cetostearyl alcohol, is a mixture of fatty alcohols, primarily cetyl and stearyl alcohols. Cetyl alcohol is derived from palm oil and stearyl alcohol is derived from stearic acid, a saturated fatty acid. Fatty alcohols are a hybrid between alcohols and fatty acids or oils. There is often a misconception that because it has alcohol in its name that cetearyl alcohol is drying to the skin. The reality is actually the opposite. Cetearyl alcohol is a white, waxy solid, usually in a flake form. It is insoluble in water and soluble in alcohol and oils.

Cetearyl Alcohol

the good:Improves the texture and sensory feel of products as well as helping to soften and soothe the skin.   

the not so good:Cetearyl alcohol is derived from palm oil which has ethical issues surrounding the sustainability of its harvesting. 

Who is it for?All skin types except those that have an identified allergy to it. 

Synergetic ingredients:Works well with most ingredients 

Keep an eye on:Keep an eye out for brands that use ethically harvested palm oil sources.  

Why Is Cetearyl Alcohol Used?

Cetearyl alcohol has many functions in cosmetics and skincare products, including use as an emollient, emulsion stabilizer, surfactant, opacifying agent, and a viscosity-increasing agent.

Cetearyl alcohol is an emollient, helping to improve spreadability, texture and provide the skin with a light protective barrier. Emollients are occlusive ingredients, which provide a layer of protection that helps prevent water loss from the skin. Thus, cetearyl alcohol has the ability to soften and smooth the skin, which helps to reduce rough, flaky skin. Additionally, cetearyl alcohol is commonly used in hair conditioners and other hair products due to its emollient properties.

Another function of cetearyl alcohol is as an emulsifier. An emulsifier is needed for products that contain both water and oil components. Oil and water-based ingredients don’t stay mixed in a formulation, separating and splitting after time. To address this problem, an emulsifier like cetearyl alcohol can be added to help the two-ingredient types to remain dispersed and produce a stable emulsion.

Cetearyl alcohol also functions as a surfactant. Surfactants are ingredients that lower the surface tension between two substances, such as two liquids or a liquid and a solid. Another job of surfactants is to degrease and emulsify oils and fats and suspend dirt, allowing them to be washed away. This is possible because while one end of the surfactant molecule is attracted to water, the other end is attracted to oil. Thus, surfactants attract the oil, dirt, and other impurities that have accumulated on your skin during the day and wash them away. Due to these properties, cetearyl alcohol can be found in many different cleansers and body washes. Cetearyl alcohol also increases the foaming capacity of products.

The last important function of cetearyl alcohol is as a viscosity-increasing agent. The term viscosity refers to the thickness of a formulation.  As a viscosity-increasing agent, cetearyl alcohol works to thicken formulations in order to make a product less runny and easier to spread.

Aren’t Alcohols Drying?

Due to its name, cetearyl alcohol is often misunderstood to be bad for the skin since it is an alcohol. It is true that some alcohols, like ethyl or rubbing alcohol, can be extremely drying to the skin. However, quite the opposite is true for fatty alcohols that have an oil component. As a fatty alcohol, cetearyl alcohol, is well known to effectively condition and soften the skin and hair.

What Is The Difference Between Cetearyl Alcohol, Stearyl Alcohol and Cetyl Alcohol?

 As Healthline discussed cetearyl alcohol is actually a combination of cetyl alcohol and stearyl alcohol.  They are all fatty alcohols but vary slightly in the number of carbon atoms on their carbon chain. For instance, cetyl alcohol has 16 carbon atoms, stearyl alcohol has 18 and cetearyl alcohol as the commbination has 34. 

Is Cetearyl Alcohol Safe?

The  US Food and Drug Administration includes cetearyl alcohol on its list of permitted food additives. The Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel, a group responsible for the evaluating the safety of cosmetic and skincare ingredients has evaluated the scientific data on cetearyl alcohol. Based on the reserach conducted the Expert Panel concluded that this ingredient is non-sensitizing, non-toxic, and safe to use in cosmetic products.

References:Cosmetic Ingredient Review, 1988. ‘Final Report on the Safety Assessment of Cetearyl Alcohol, Cetyl Alcohol, lsostearyl Alcohol, Myristyl Alcohol, and Behenyl Alcohol’, Internal Journal of Toxicology, vol. 7, no.3. 


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