Cetearyl alcohol is one of those skin care ingredients that really pulls double duty. Whether it’s nourishing the skin as an emollient or binding other ingredients together, cetearyl alcohol plays a number of different skin care roles, which is why it’s so frequently found in everything from moisturizer to eye cream. For that reason, in this post, we’ll discuss cetearyl alcohol, what it is, why it’s in skin care, and is it safe! If you’ve ever stayed away from alcohol in skin care products, we think cetearyl alcohol may change your mind!
The subject of alcohol in skin care is one of those topics that just seems to stir up controversy and debate. Questions about whether alcohol in skin care is safe, whether or not it will dry out skin, or even what kinds of alcohol should be used in skin care abound as does much confusing and often misleading information on the topic. The answers to these questions depend a lot on what kind of alcohol we’re talking about and how it’s used.
Most people have a tendency to immediately assume that alcohol, which is often used in skin care products for a number of reasons, is harmful to the skin. While some types of alcohol can definitely be damaging to the skin, there are some types of alcohol, like cetearyl alcohol, that are not only good for the skin but help keep your skin care products functioning at their best.
Cetearyl Alcohol: What It Is
Known as a “long tail” alcohol, cetearyl alcohol consists of a combination of cetyl (also known as 1-hexadecanol and palmityl alcohol) and stearyl (octadecyl alcohol or 1-octadecanol) alcohols. To throw it back to science class for a sec, it’s official formula is CH3(CH2)nOH.
Classified as a “fatty alcohol,” cetearyl alcohol is a white, waxy solid (which, as you’ll see below, is what makes it a great emulsifier!). Completely insoluble in water, it is soluble in alcohols and oils.
Cetearyl alcohol is found in nature, specifically from the coconut palm tree and the oil palm. Although long harvested from dolphins and whales, it can now also be made in synthetic form--that’s great news for all us animal lovers out there!
Cetearyl alcohol is found in all kinds of products from moisturizers to lotions to creams to hair conditioners. Even some make-up and perfume contain cetearyl alcohol (check the ingredients list of just about any product in your bathroom and you’ll probably find it contains cetearyl alcohol!).
Cetearyl Alcohol: Why It's in Skincare
Think of cetearyl alcohol as the rock that keeps your skincare stable and usable. Cetearyl alcohol acts as a backbone to many skin care products. Not only that, but it helps nourish your skin.
Here are a few of the functions cetearyl alcohol performs in skin care:
- It’s an emollient: Cetearyl alcohol helps moisturize and soften the skin, not just by providing hydration, but by locking moisture in to the skin.
- It’s a stabilizer: Cetearyl alcohol helps skin care formulas maintain their texture, consistency, and thickness.
- It’s an emulsifier: Cetearyl alcohol is like the peacemaker of the skin care world, acting as a binding agent, helping to keep oil and water, which ordinarily have a hard time staying together, together.
- It’s a thickener: Without cetearyl alcohol, a lot of your skin care would behave more like a soup than a cream!
- It’s safe: The Cosmetic Ingredient Review has determined that cetearyl alcohol is safe for use in cosmetics!
Cetearyl Alcohol: Is It Safe?
When used in skin care, cetearyl alcohol is completely safe for skin! Although some alcohol for skin can definitely be drying and irritating, fatty alcohols like cetearyl alcohol are the opposite. In fact, they help nourish and moisturize the skin and help give cosmetics their consistency (otherwise, you’d have a big, gloopy, gloppy mess in every jar!).
What alcohols for skin should I avoid?
The alcohols you should stay away from are classified as “simple alcohols” and include alcohols like alcohol denat, ethanol, propanol, and methanol. Usually included in skin care because of their ability to suck the oil out of skin, they are extremely drying and can cause irritation. If you’ve ever used a skin care product and suddenly felt as if you could barely move your face, it’s possible that’s because that product contained a simple alcohol.
How to Use Cetearyl Alcohol in Skin Care
As we mentioned, in addition to helping the ingredients in skin care products bind to each other properly, cetearyl alcohol is used in skin care as an emollient, softening and moisturizing the skin. Cetearyl alcohol is found in skin care products that range from hair conditioners to moisturizers, so you should have no trouble incorporating it into your skin care routine.
- As always, you’ll want to cleanse your face as a first step with a natural cleanser that cleans your face without drying out your skin.
- Lock in that moisture with a hydrating toner.
- Follow up with a good, brightening serum that contains vitamin C to restore your natural glow and diminish the look of fine lines and wrinkles.
- Use a moisturizer with cetearyl alcohol to moisturize and soften skin.
- Don’t forget an eye cream with cetearyl alcohol to take care of that delicate skin around the eyes.
- And be sure to treat yourself with a detoxifying charcoal mask that not only draws out impurities but nourishes the skin with cetearyl alcohol.
Frequently Asked Questions About Cetearyl Alcohol
What is cetearyl alcohol?
Cetearyl alcohol is a “fatty alcohol” consisting of cetyl and stearyl alcohols. Known as a “long-tail” alcohol, it is a white, waxy solid that is often used as an emollient in skin care products (meaning it helps moisturize the skin). It’s also used to help skin care products keep their consistency and texture.
Completely insoluble in water, it is soluble in alcohols and oils.
Is cetearyl alcohol safe?
Cetearyl alcohol is completely safe for use in skin care! Unlike denatured alcohol or ethanol, which can dry out your skin, cetearyl alcohol actually acts as an emollient to soften skin and is safe to use.
Is cetyl alcohol bad for skin?
No! Unlike “simple” alcohols like alcohol denat, ethanol, propanol, and methanol, a “fatty” alcohol like cetyl alcohol isn’t drying or irritating. On the contrary, it’s an emollient that helps the skin retain moisture.
That said, every skin is different, so if you have super-sensitive skin or have a tendency to experience irritation from skin care products, check with your dermatologist before using.
Is cetearyl alcohol natural?
Yes, cetearyl alcohol is found in nature, specifically from the coconut palm tree and the oil palm, but can also be made in synthetic form.
Cetearyl alcohol vs. cetyl alcohol?
Cetyl alcohol is an ingredient in cetearyl alcohol. As such, cetyl alcohol has fewer atoms than cetearyl alcohol. In addition to helping bind ingredients together, it works as an emollient to soften the skin (and even the hair!).
Are there alternatives to cetearyl?
The short answer is that yes, there are some alternatives to cetearyl as far as using it as an emollient in skin care products. Depending on what you’re combining it with, coconut oil, vitamin E, jojoba oil, aloe vera, almond oil, sunflower oil, avocado oil, and even olive oil are all great emollients. That said, if you’re looking into alternatives to cetearyl alcohol because you’re concerned about safety, there’s no reason to worry! Cetearyl alcohol in skin care is completely safe!
What we definitely wouldn’t recommend is using other, “simple” alcohols as alternatives to cetearyl alcohol as they will likely have the opposite effect on the skin--drying it out instead of hydrating it.
As for alternatives to cetearyl as an emulsifier, you can try using a natural wax like beeswax or a fat like lecithin which is found in egg yolks, but again, how well it works as an emulsifier will depend on what you’re pairing it with and, how adept you are at mixing it with other ingredients (please don’t be angry at us when your homemade skin care looks more like clam chowder than moisturizer. There’s a good reason we take great pains to make sure all our proportions are exact!).
So that’s the skinny on cetearyl alcohol. If you’ve always shied away from any kind of alcohol in your skin care products, we hope this has helped change your mind about some of the myths and preconceived ideas about alcohol in skin care!