What is Cetyl Alcohol?
Cetyl alcohol is a fatty alcohol that functions as an emollient, emulsifier, thickener, and surfactant in a variety of cosmetics and skincare products. Cetyl alcohol is an organic compound that is classified as a fatty alcohol. 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 cetyl alcohol is drying to the skin. The reality is actually the opposite. Cetyl alcohol helps to protect the skin from allergens, bacteria and moisture loss and improves the texture of products.
Cetyl alcohol was discovered in 1817 by the French chemist Michel Chevreul when he heated spermaceti, a waxy substance obtained from sperm whale oil, with potassium hydroxide. After cooling, flakes of cetyl alcohol were left behind. Thus, the name cetyl derives from the whale oil from which it was first isolated. However, since sperm whales are vulnerable to becoming an endangered species, cetyl alcohol is no longer derived from sperm whale oil. Modern production of cetyl alcohol is based around the reduction of palmitic acid, which is obtained from palm oil. This is why cetyl alcohol is also referred to as palmityl alcohol. Cetyl alcohol can also be derived from the by-products of the petroleum industry. Cetyl alcohol comes in the form of a white, waxy solid.
the good: Helps to improve the texture of formulations, protect the skin from moisture loss and reduce the ability of allergens and bacteria to affect the skin.
the not so good: People often identify alcohols with drying out the skin or hair. While this is true, cetyl alcohol is not an alcohol in this sense. Cetyl alcohol is a hybrid of alcohols and fatty acids or oils and actually helps to keep the skin moisturized and plumped.
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: Nothing to keep an eye on here.
Why Is Cetyl Alcohol Used?
Cetyl alcohol has many functions in cosmetics and skincare products, including use as an emollient, emulsifier, thickener, and surfactant.
As an emollient, cetyl alcohol has the ability to soften and smooth flakiness on the skin, which helps to reduce rough, dry skin. Emollients are also occlusive agents, which means they provide a layer of protection that helps prevent water loss from the skin.
Skin barrier and hydration
As an emollient, topically applied cetyl alcohol has the ability to soften and soothe the skin. The fatty acids that make up this ingredient create a barrier on the skin that effectively seals moisture in while keeping air and other environmental elements out. Therefore, cetyl alcohol can be used in creams, lotions, and ointments that are designed to improve dry, flaky skin. Emollients help to maintain the skin’s natural barrier which is vital to the health of the skin. Disruption of the skin’s natural barrier has been linked to conditions such as eczema, dermatitis and psoriasis.
Cetyl alcohol also functions as a thickening agent, which can help to improve the viscosity of skin care products. Cetyl alcohol is mainly used to improve the texture of formulations, to make them more appealing to the senses. While this may not seem like an important element to a product, it is vital to ensuring the product doesn’t separate or become clumpy so that the key ingredients can be distributed evenly to the skin. The main way the cetyl alcohol does this is through acting as a thickener. Thickeners improve the consistency, viscosity or adhesion to the skin. The term viscosity corresponds to the concept of ‘thickness’, for example, honey has a higher viscosity than water. Thus, cetyl alcohol can be used to thicken formulas, adding body and viscosity.
Cetyl alcohol also functions as a surfactant. Surfactant is the short term for surface active agent. Surfactants are compounds that lower the surface tension between two substances. Another job of surfactants is to degrease and emulsify oils and fats and suspend dirt, allowing them to be washed away. This is great for lifting impurities away from the skin, allowing them to be cleansed 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. Due to these properties, cetyl alcohol can be found in many different cleansers and body washes. Cetyl alcohol also increases the foaming capacity of formulations.
Is Cetyl Alcohol Safe?
The US Food and Drug Administration, the regulatory group that is responsible for the safety of drug, food and skincare ingredients includes cetyl alcohol has approved cetyl alcohol for its indicated uses. It is also on the US Food and Drug Administration’s list of permitted food additives. The Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel evaluated the scientific data on cetyl alcohol and concluded that this ingredient is non-sensitizing, non-toxic, and safe to use in cosmetic products.
While the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel considers cetyl alcohol to be safe for use in cosmetics, many dermatologists believe that this ingredient can be irritating for those with sensitive skin. There is some evidence that suggests that cetyl alcohol, along with other synthetic fatty alcohols, have the ability to alter the lipid bilayer of the epidermis and cause allergic dermal reactions. With this information, it is best that those with sensitive skin or skin conditions like eczema, rosacea, or psoriasis perform a patch test with any product containing cetyl alcohol.
Cosmetic Ingredient Review, 1988. ‘Final Report on the Safety Assessment of Cetearyl Alcohol, Cetyl Alcohol, lsostearyl Alcohol, MyristylAlcohol, and Behenyl Alcohol’ International Journal of Toxicology.
‘Cetyl Alcohol’1978. Food and Cosmetics Toxicology, vol. 16, is. 1, pp. 683-686.
Fukushima, S & Yamaguchi, M, 2001. ‘Physical Chemistry of Cetyl Alcohol: Occurrence and Function of Liquid Crystals in O/W Creams’. In: Matijević E. (eds) Surface and Colloid Science. Surface and Colloid Science, vol 16. Springer, Boston, MA.