Cetearyl Alcohol: Is It Bad for Your Hair?

Megan Dominion

Cetearyl alcohol has been used as an emulsifying agent in personal care products such as lotions and creams, as well as being used to thicken or add consistency to other formulations like hair care products. With the many debates on the use of alcohols in your hair care products, we go into how this ingredient affects your hair (with some science-y terms but we keep it to a minimum we promise!).

Due to its use in cosmetics and other personal care products, it’s a good idea to know how cetearyl alcohol affects hair and hair growth so you can make informed decisions about whether to include this ingredient in your personal care regimen or not.

What is cetearyl alcohol?

Cetearyl alcohol, also known as C16-18 alcohol and ceteareth-20, is an emulsifying and thickening agent. Emulsifiers help blend ingredients together while providing a smooth consistency; they’re commonly used in lotions, creams and hair products and can also lengthen the shelf-life of a product.

Cetearyl alcohol is also sometimes listed as alcohol cetearyl on ingredient lists. The alcohol portion of its name refers to its chemical structure. In cosmetics, its function is to thicken and lubricate formulas. This ingredient is not actually absorbed by skin or hair—it just sits on top of it.

Uses of cetearyl alcohol

Cetearyl alcohol is a mixture of fatty alcohols, with between 16 and 22 carbon atoms (that’s as science-y as we’ll go, I promise). This thick, white, or creamy yellow substance is used as an emulsifying agent and surfactant. Cetearyl alcohol is also called ceteareth-20 or PEG-20 cetostearyl ether.

The main uses of cetearyl alcohol include creams, shampoos and conditioners. In addition to personal care products, it is often found in cosmetics like lipstick and nail polish remover.

Cetearyl alcohol may also be found in foods like ice cream and candy bars. As an emulsifier, cetearyl alcohol helps keep oil and water from separating. For example, if you have ever seen a vinaigrette dressing separate from its oil after sitting at room temperature for too long, you know that without some sort of emulsifier (like mustard), it would not stay together.

Is cetearyl alcohol bad for your hair?

Alcohols, in general, can be drying for the hair and scalp, so many people like to avoid these in their hair care products – especially those with curly or coily hair, which tends to need more moisture.

It is impossible to make products such as hair sprays without this ingredient however, because cetearyl alcohol rapidly evaporates. You wouldn’t wish to spend time on a lovely blowout and styling to end up leaving your hair all wet after, right? But according to science, cetearyl alcohol, unlike many other alcohols, actually has properties that are extremely beneficial to hair and scalp. Cetearyl alcohol is hydrating, nourishing and softening. It helps to soften hair and give slip to help detangle it better!

So, should you always choose “alcohol-free” hair products? Sometimes the answer is yes; sometimes it is no. It completely depends on the kind of alcohol!

How to use hair products containing cetearyl alcohol

Although cetearyl alcohol is considered safe to use in personal care products, you should avoid using too much of it. If you have dry or sensitive skin, be sure to test any product containing cetearyl alcohol before using it on a regular basis. Also, if you’re allergic to shellfish, be extra wary of using cetearyl alcohol-based hair products because they may cause an allergic reaction.

Some people are allergic to cetearyl alcohol, so if you notice redness or irritation after using a product containing it, try switching brands or washing your hair with a mild shampoo. If your symptoms persist after discontinuing use of products containing cetearyl alcohol, see your doctor for advice about other possible causes.

cetearyl alcohol for skin and hair

Bottom line

Cetearyl Alcohol is not found to be damaging to your hair, and is generally used to help soften and condition the hair, as well as to thicken and stabilise cosmetics, like lotions and shampoos. As an emollients, cetearyl alcohol is considered an effective ingredient in hydrating and nourishing dry hair, and is often included in products labeled “alcohol-free”. Cetearyl alcohol is a non-toxic product, that is approved by the FDA.

Megan Dominion

Megan Dominion is SILKUP's Managing Editor. She's been down both the curly hair and skincare rabbit holes many times and loves that there's always something new to learn; a new science, method, product or personal experience.