Is cetearyl alcohol good for skin and hair?

Megan Dominion

It is no secret that alcohol in skin care has often been a subject of controversy and debate. We certainly know that drinking it can leave us feeling dehydrated – so surely putting alcohol on your skin or in your hair would do the same?

There are many questions about the safety and efficacy of alcohol in skin care products, whether it will dry out your skin, why it is even used in the first place, or even what kinds of alcohol should be used.

Answers to these questions are going to vary, depending on the kind and use of alcohol in your skincare product. We’ll go into one of the most commonly used alcohols in skincare, cetearyl alcohol, so you can equip yourself with the knowledge to decide whether you’d like to avoid products that contain this ingredient or not.

Cosmetic companies use cetearyl alcohol to make a wide range of cosmetic products. We’ll go into the benefits and side effects of cetearyl alcohol, as well as the products that contain it.

What is cetearyl alcohol?

Cetearyl alcohol is a chemical ingredient used in many cosmetic products.

This “long tail” alcohol is a combination of cetyl (also known as 1-hexadecanol and palmityl alcohol) and stearyl (octadecyl alcohol or 1-octadecanol alcohol). As a fatty alcohol, cetearyl alcohol has a white, waxy consistency, making it a useful emulsifier. It is completely insoluble in water but soluble in oils and alcohols.

What is an emulsifier? It’s an ingredient that helps hold the ingredients of the product together. Meaning cetearyl alcohol can be a really useful ingredient when combining different oils and water-soluble ingredients together. Think your L-Ascorbic Acid form of vitamin C, which is water-soluble, and combining it with Rosehip Seed oil – this product formulation is going to need an emulsifier to help keep this product from separating. It’s also going to ensure your beauty product lasts a bit longer.

Cetearyl alcohol can be found in nature, especially in coconut and palm tree oil, but it can also be made in a laboratory.

Products that can contain cetearyl alcohol?

Cetearyl alcohol it is known to be used in many cosmetic products because of its emulsifying properties. Additionally, it can make a product thicker and foamier. This is especially useful for products such as shampoos or moisturisers, making these products feel richer and easier to use.

Products that often contain cetearyl alcohol:

  • skin lotions
  • moisturizers
  • skin creams
  • sunscreen
  • shampoo
  • conditioners
  • hair removal creams
  • hair mousse
  • anti-frizz hair cream
  • hair dye
  • mascara

Most often, cetearyl alcohol appears on the ingredient list, although it may also have other names:

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

cetearyl alcohol for skin and hair

Cetearyl alcohol usage for skin and hair products

Cetearyl alcohol is a really useful ingredient for the beauty industry to use in order to keep other ingredients from separating and increasing the shelf-life of a product – but we all know by now that the beauty industry does not always have our best interest at heart.

What does cetearyl alcohol actually do to your skin or hair when it’s found in the product you are using? Due to its emollient properties, cetearyl alcohol will act as a softening agent and soften and smooth the skin and hair.

Alcohol use in skincare

There are many voices on the Internet that are recommending avoiding cosmetic products that contain all alcohols. These opinions are based on the fact that ethanol or rubbing alcohol can be very drying. So, knowing your different alcohols can be very useful in helping you choose what products to use. It can also be helpful in figuring out which products you are already using may be drying out your skin. If you use certain alcohols on your skin and/or scalp, you may experience itching, flakiness, and skin peeling (also known as dermatitis).

Alcohols are commonly used in products as an astringent, antiseptic, or in aftershave because they’re effective at drying quickly and helping skin feel tight. It also can have antimicrobial properties.

How is cetearyl alcohol different from other alcohols?

Fatty alcohols, like Cetearyl Alcohol, don’t have the same effects on the skin as other types of alcohol because of their unique chemistry. Cetearyl alcohol is not an astringent and therefore does not have the effect of drying out the skin, but rather does the opposite and can be amazing at protecting the skin barrier from drying out, and it has softening agents in it.

Safe use of Cetearyl Alcohol

The Cosmetic Ingredient Review CIR Expert Panel concluded in 1988, that fatty alcohols, including cetearylic acid, are safe for use as ingredients in cosmetics. Subsequent reviews confirm these findings.

Cetearyl alcohol is considered nontoxic, according to PubChem.

Side effects

Cetearyl alcohol is safe for humans as long as the products that contain it are used according to the instructions of the label.

Research done in 1997 outlines that emulsifiers rarely cause allergic dermatitis, but cited five known cases. All the participants who had allergic reactions had preexisting allergies to other substances.

People who have an allergy to Cetearyl alcohol may develop a rash known as allergic contact dermatitis, a type of eczema.

Bottom line

Cetearyl alcohol is used to thicken and stabilize cosmetic items like lotions and hair products in addition to softening the skin and hair. Cetearyl alcohol is regarded as an efficient emollient for calming dry skin.

You probably don’t need to avoid cosmetic products containing cetearyl alcohol unless you have sensitive skin or have reacted badly to it before. It’s not only regarded as safe and harmless for use on skin and hair; unlike other types of alcohol, it’s also not drying or irritating.

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.