What is cetyl alcohol?
Cetyl alcohol is a fatty alcohol that acts as a plasticizer, emulsifier, thickener, and surfactant in a wide variety of cosmetic and skin care 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 cetyl alcohol dries out on the skin because the name contains alcohol. The reality is actually the opposite. Cetyl alcohol helps protect the skin from allergens, bacteria and moisture loss and improves the texture of the products.
Cetyl alcohol was discovered by French chemist Michel Chevreul in 1817 when he heated whale rat, a waxy substance made from sperm whale oil, with potassium hydroxide. After cooling, cetyl alcohol flakes remained. The name cetyl is derived from the whale oil from which it was first isolated. However, because sperm whales are prone to becoming an endangered species, cetyl alcohol is no longer made from sperm whale oil. The modern production of cetyl alcohol is based on the reduction of palmitic acid, which is obtained from palm oil. For this reason, cetyl alcohol is also known as palmityl alcohol. Cetyl alcohol can also be obtained from by-products of the petroleum industry. Cetyl alcohol is in the form of a white, waxy solid.
the good: Helps improve the texture of formulations, protects the skin from moisture loss, and reduces the ability of allergens and bacteria to affect the skin.
not that good: Alcohols are often identified as drying out the skin or hair. While this is true, cetyl alcohol is not alcohol in this sense. Cetyl alcohol is a hybrid of alcohols and fatty acids or oils and actually helps to moisturize and plump the skin.
For whom is that? All skin types except those who have an identified allergy.
Synergetic ingredients: Works well with most ingredients.
Keep an eye on: There is nothing to consider here.
Why is cetyl alcohol used?
Cetyl alcohol has many functions in cosmetics and skin care products, including use as an emollient, emulsifier, thickener, and surfactant.
As an emollient, cetyl alcohol has the ability to soften and smooth skin flaking, which helps reduce rough, dry skin. Emollients are also occlusive agents, which means that they provide a protective layer that helps prevent water loss from the skin.
Skin barrier and moisture
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 locks in moisture 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 maintain the natural skin barrier, which is vital to skin health. Disruption of the natural skin barrier has been linked to conditions such as eczema, dermatitis, and psoriasis.
Cetyl alcohol also acts as a thickener, which can help 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 doesn’t seem like an important element for a product, it’s important to make sure the product doesn’t peel off or clump together so that key ingredients can be evenly distributed over the skin. The cetyl alcohol does this mainly by acting as a thickener. Thickeners improve the consistency, viscosity or adhesion to the skin. The term viscosity corresponds to the term “thickness”, for example honey has a higher viscosity than water. Hence, cetyl alcohol can be used to thicken formulas and add body and viscosity.
Cetyl alcohol also acts as a surfactant. Tensid is the abbreviation for tenside. Surfactants are compounds that reduce the surface tension between two substances. Another task of surfactants is to degrease and emulsify oils and fats and to float and wash off dirt. This is great for removing impurities from the skin and cleansing them. This is possible because one end of the surfactant molecule is attracted to water while the other end is attracted to oil. For example, surfactants attract oil, dirt, and other impurities that have built up on your skin over the course of the day. Because of these properties, cetyl alcohol is found in many different cleaning products and body wash products. Cetyl alcohol also increases the foaming power of formulations.
Is Cetyl Alcohol Safe?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the regulatory agency responsible for the safety of drugs, food, and skin care ingredients, including cetyl alcohol, has approved cetyl alcohol for its stated uses. It’s also on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s list of approved food additives. The Panel of Experts for the Review of Cosmetic Ingredients has 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 Panel of Experts for Reviewing Cosmetic Ingredients considers cetyl alcohol to be safe for use in cosmetics, many dermatologists believe that this ingredient can be irritating to those with sensitive skin. There is some evidence that cetyl alcohol, along with other synthetic fatty alcohols, has the ability to change the lipid bilayer of the epidermis and trigger allergic skin reactions. With this information, it is best for people with sensitive skin or skin conditions such as eczema, rosacea, or psoriasis to perform a patch test with any product that contains cetyl alcohol.
Cosmetic Ingredient Review, 1988. ‘Final Report on the Safety Assessment of Cetearyl Alcohol, Cetyl Alcohol, Isostearyl Alcohol, Myristyl Alcohol, and Behenyl Alcohol’ International Journal of Toxicology.
‘Cetyl Alcohol’ 1978. Food and Cosmetic 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. (Ed.) Surface and Colloid Science. Surface and Colloid Science, Vol. 16. Springer, Boston, MA.