Cetearyl Alcohol

Cetearyl alcohol often appears on ingredient lists

cetearyl-alcohol

We all know what fat is.  And we all know what alcohol is.  But how about a fatty alcohol?

Chemically speaking there isn’t much difference between a fat and an oil.   The definition is basically that if it is solid it is a fat, if it is liquid it is an oil.  But they are all triglycerides, made up of long fatty or oily chains three of which are linked to a glycerin.  If you break down a fat you get glycerin and fatty acids.  It is easy to separate these because glycerin is soluble in water so you just wash it out.  You are then left with the fatty acids.  There are a lot of different kinds of fatty acid but they all share the same basic structure of having a long fat chain with a reactive acid group at the end.  Stearic acid is a typical example.

The acid group can be a nuisance because of its reactivity, so the acid group can be transformed into a much less reactive alcohol.  And there you have your fatty alcohol.  In fact the conversion to an alcohol makes a very interesting waxy material.  Fatty alcohol chains come in all shapes and sizes and by playing around with different proportions of different alcohols you can get quite a lot of control of the texture of the product you are making.

Cetearyl alcohol is a blend of cetyl and stearyl alcohol and is popular with formulators of beauty products because it is a very versatile choice.   It is used in loads of different kinds of products from baby oils to shampoos,  but is really useful in skin creams.  When you look on ingredient lists you will see that sometimes a whole set of fatty alcohols have been used – this is often evidence of someone spending ages fiddling to get just the effect that they are after.  I’ve put a list of some popular fatty alcohols at the bottom of the post.  If this post proves popular I might do so posts on some of the other fatty alcohols.

Cetearyl alcohol and the other fatty alcohols have had a fairly easy ride from the scaremongers.  But the Environmental Working Group rarely let you down when you are looking for nonsense.  The Skin Deep database lists it as a suspected environmental toxin.  Given that it is easily biodegradable I can’t imagine what gives rise to these suspicions.  If you asked the average micro-organism it would probably describe it as not just as readily biodegradable but as positively tasty.  Another surprising concern was expressed to me once by a very intelligent and well educated young muslim woman who noticed the word alcohol on the ingredient list for, if I remember rightly, Vaseline Intensive Care Lotion.  She was bothered as to whether using it would violate her religion’s ban on alcohol.   I was able to reassure her that it had nothing to do with alcohol produced by fermentation.

Another issue is the source of the fat or oil from which the fatty alcohol is derived.  Triglycerides are found in all kinds of living organisms.  It is perfectly possible to get them from plant or animal sources – or even from more unconventional feedstocks.  I doubt it will ever be economical to do so, but it would be quite feasible to produce them from micro-organisms via some kind of biotechnology.

Artful-Teasing-Bergamot-Cardamom-Pepper-Gift-Set

A story went round a couple of years ago that a gang in Peru were extracting fat from human victims for use in cosmetics.  It was a gruesome story but the chemistry was straightforward enough.  Humans would make as good a source as any.  But as exactly the same material can easily be produced from plant sources cheaply and in great quantities I am not sure what exactly the motivation of the Peruvian villains was.   The bulk of feedstocks for the cosmetics industry has always been plants, but tallow was used as well until recently.  This stopped with the BSE crisis.  Governments around the world brought in regulations to ensure that BSE could not get into the food chain.  This had the effect of making animal sourced fats more expensive and that has to all intents and purposes stopped their use.  Vegetarians would probably be pleased to hear that, but I don’t think any company has made a point of highlighting its vegetarian status.

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Fatty alcohols related to Cetearyl alcohol

Stearyl alcohol

Myristyl alcohol

Cetyl alcohol

Behenyl alcohol

Notes for Chemists

The CAS numbers for cetearyl alcohol are 67762-27-0  and 8005-44-5.  Cetearyl alcohol is the name that you have to use on an ingredient list but it is usually referred to as cetostearyl alcohol.  No safety concerns have ever been raised with this material and it is so easily made that it is a very cost effective material in most applications.  The thing to watch out for though is the differences between grades.  Because it is a blend of fatty alcohols the distribution of chain lengths can vary a lot from supplier to supplier.  Particularly where it is being used as an emulsion stabiliser the more diverse the chain length the better it is.  Purer is definitely not better.  The chain length distribution will have a big effect on the liquid crystal structure too, so it might well affect how actives are delivered from a formulation.  Just because this material is cheap and familiar doesn’t mean a formulator can fail to treat it with respect.

If you are interested in cosmetic ingredients you might like to have a look at my posts on isopropyl myristate and glyceryl stearate.

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39 Responses to Cetearyl Alcohol

  1. Lise says:

    I just love it when you get down and dirty with ingredients! Thanks for another great article.

  2. That was really interesting. It would be nice to get some more information on the other fatty alcohols as well and how they compare in formulations.

  3. Harriet says:

    From this article it seems to be that a fatty alcohol, is an alcohol made from a fatty acid, which as been separated from it’s glycerol.

    Surely this would just mean it could be any carboxylic acid? Looking at the organic chemistry, fatty acids seem structurally interchangable with carboxylic acids, and if this is so how come some alcohols are moisturising, and some drying?

  4. Colin says:

    Thanks to Lise and Sabine for the kind words.

    Yes Harriet, fatty acids are indeed a class of the carboxylic acids. And the answer to your question is that the carbon chain length is what makes all the difference. Short chains are drying and longer chains are moisturising, with the optimum being somewhere between 12 and 18 carbons long.

  5. ms says:

    Greetings to you Colin. I read with much interest your article on Cetearyl Alcohol. I would furthermore like to take the opportunity to ask you to explain in some detail your comment: “I was able to reassure her that it had nothing to do with alcohol produced by fermentation,” in response to the concern of one Muslim lady. Is cetearyl alcohol and likewise stearyl and cetyl alcohols potentially intoxicating? Looking forward to your valuable comments and findings.
    MS

  6. Colin says:

    Fatty alcohols like cetyl alcohol are not soluble in water and cannot cause intoxication of any kind. I don’t think that religious bans on alcohol consumption would apply to using it on your skin either. Presumably the objection that Muslims, Methodists and other groups that don’t approve of drinking alcohol do so because it can cloud your judgement and make you fall into other errors. You’d never absorb enough through the skin to get remotely enough to get anywhere near doing that.

  7. Olivia says:

    Does cetearyl alcohol in moisturisers irritate sensitive skin? and can it be drying?
    Thanks
    Olivia

  8. Colin says:

    @Olivia, I have never heard of anyone with sensitive skin having a problem with cetearyl alcohol, though I suppose it isn’t totally impossible. It would not be drying.

  9. Amaal says:

    Thank you for the detailed information on Cetearyl alcohol!
    As a Muslim it is important to discern the type of alcohol in a skin product.

    Since fermented alcohols are metabolic waste byproducts they are considered unclean and would require washing off from skin before prayer and other daily practices. In this case it is not the intoxication that is of concern, but the cleanliness.

  10. Maril says:

    I have contacted CVS Pharmacy about the fact that its “age-defying towelettes” are advertised as “alcohol-free” and yet the second ingredient listed is cetearyl alcohol. Do you have an opinion as to how they can say their product is alcohol free? I assume at least some types of alcohol are not good for aging skin and that’s why they put it on the packaging that it’s alcohol free.

  11. Lily says:

    Hi, I like this article, you made it become so simple to understand cetearyl achol in beauty products. I am looking forward to see more posts refer to cosmetic ingredients. Thank you!

  12. Rachel says:

    I would be interested in seeing your reference page for this cetearyl alcohol article. I agree with you and I have read much of what you have written on other sites. I just would like to have a reference backup when sharing this information.

    Thanks!

  13. Colin says:

    @Maril Alcohol in everyday English means the stuff that gets you drunk and which you can burn in spirit burners. Chemists usually refer to is as ethyl alcohol or ethanol. This is indeed drying to the skin. Cetearyl alcohol is not at all drying.

    @Rachel – I am afraid I have been working with this stuff for so long that I have no idea where most of the information I am quoting comes from. But you make a good point, I’ll try and add some references when I get some time.

  14. Barbara says:

    I have just had a serious reaction to corn, which I have not knowingly eaten for a decade. It does, however, lurk in many supplements and personal care products. It is included in the list of things to avoid. Can you confirm that generally it is derived from corn?

  15. Colin says:

    Cetearyl alcohol is generally derived from coconut oil or palm oil. It is occasionally derived from tallow or from crude oil – but these sources are never used in cosmetic products to my knowledge. It’s a big world so it might happen somewhere. It would not be possible to derive it from corn without a lot of chemical knowhow and equipment, and I can’t think of any reason anybody would want to.

  16. Annie says:

    I have just started selling skincare products and find you site absolutely fab. Well done.

  17. Daisy Neate says:

    I was just wondering, if someone was to have a reaction from cetearyl alcohol what would the reasoning be? Would they be allergic to whatever the alcohol was derived from? Thanks – very interesting blog

  18. Colin says:

    I have never heard of anyone having this particular reaction, but it is possible to become allergic to anything so it is not at all impossible. I think the allergy would occur whatever the derivation of the cetearyl alcohol.

  19. Krysia Saul says:

    What a fab source of information, only just discovered! I was particularly interested in the page on Cetearyl alcohol as I have been advised to use alcohol free sunscreen on my face to help deal with wind burn. Boots the chemist have said that almost all soltan face products are alcholol free but it is confusing to see Cetearyl alcohol listed in the ingredients. How does the consumer tell which ingredients containing the word “alcohol” are harmful or not to sensitive skins?

  20. Colin says:

    Thanks for your nice comment Krysia. I am afraid the only way to know which alcohols are potentially drying to the skin and which aren’t is to either study chemistry or read blogs like this one.

  21. Pulsimonium says:

    I cannot believe the amount of people asking the same question about alcohol in Cetearyl Alcohol when you wrote this blog article and explained in detail why the word alcohol is used and what it means. What is it with people and not reading anything properly before going and posing these questions? I admire your patience, Colin.

  22. polythenepam says:

    Love this post, love your blog.Thanks for all the fantastic information that I can actually understand. x

  23. polythenepam says:

    V.upset about the lack of alchohol though! Was hoping to find Shiraz Oil I could rub on for hangovers.

  24. Rhonda says:

    Thankyou for your explanation of what cetearyl alcohol is, I found it very helpful. Hope you will continue with your web site- Colin’s Beauty Pages. I like nothing better than natural products.

  25. Tony says:

    Hi there. i am allergic to it. having just had 1 week patch test on my back with 41 chambers/chemicals, I reacted to it very clearly indeed. Very hard to find cream without it. E45 lotion is all I have found. Great article thanks

  26. Dave Jackson says:

    Tony, I make a skin balm using only beeswax from my own bees, Organic olive oil and organic essential oils. This is very easy to make as well.

    I can not call it organic as I assume the same rules apply as for hone which is you must have a radius of 6 miles around where the bees are kept that is organic. (This is impossible in UK. At the moment it is the only cosmetic I make. The standard one uses geranium and frankincense oils but I do make up individual pots for particular conditions.

    I really like the clear explanation and will be keeping an eye on it for hints if I start getting more ambitious with my cosmetics. At the moment the above is all I have a Chemical Safety Certificate for.

  27. Erin says:

    Thank you so very much for your article!! After several customer queries about the “alcohol” in my lotion, I googled “is cetearyl alcohol drying” and your site came up first. No hype- no advertising- just a good old fashioned organic chem explanation! Love it!! I will be back!

  28. Jo-an says:

    Hi Colin, is there any way to tell if it is made from coconut oil or palm oil? I would prefer to use products that are not made from palm oil.

  29. Colin says:

    It is not really possible I am afraid Jo-an. It is a bit like trying to work out which oil field your petrol has come from. There is so much trading, processing and blending between the plant and you product it is impossible to tell. You can buy credits towards the production of sustainable palm oil. It is a whacky scheme a bit like carbon trading. The details are at http://www.greenpalm.org/ – personally I find the whole scheme bizarre but it is getting some support.

  30. Dana says:

    Great information ! My question is what processes are used in the separation and transformation into a fatty alcohol? Is it a heat process? Are chemicals of any kind added? I just want to know if it is a natural process as opposed to using chemicals or other unnatural compounds to achieve the end product.

  31. rebecca says:

    thanks colin for your aticle, but the skin cream has this ingredient yet my skin is drying what should i do?

  32. david says:

    Just thought I’d let you know I had a postive reaction to cetearyl alcohol in a patch test recently carried out at Guys Hospital. The redness and itching were severe and went some way to explaining why any benefit obtained from topical steroid or moisturising creams was short lived if cetearyl alcohol was present in the ingredients.

  33. Ange says:

    My understanding is that if you have a reaction to cetearyl alcohol, your body is responding to the fat that the alcohol was derived from i.e. coconut or palm. I am allergic to coconut and some products with cetearyl alcohol cause a reaction while others don’t (I am not allergic to palm oil). I assume its the source that is bothering me.

  34. William says:

    Hi Colin
    I stumbled across your page as a result of an enquiry from someone who wants to try the product we distribute but he is allergic to cetearyl alcohol which it contains. I suggested he did a patch test but in all the years we’ve been selling Gloves in a Bottle this is the first time I have heard of this.Is it becoming more of a problem, are we all becoming more sensitive?

  35. Colin says:

    Anybody can develop an allergy to anything anytime. I have to say though, this is the first time I have heard of this particular one. There are a fair few people who are allergic to stearic acid which is reasonably closely related. I doubt this is the start of a trend and I wouldn’t be worried if I were in your position. Glad to hear Gloves in a Bottle is still thriving.

  36. Jenny Dammann says:

    I am using a “Slimming Cream” which contains cetearyl alcohol, it burns like anything, but only for say 30 minutes after putting the cream on, then again about 5 hours later it burns again. Is it busy “éating” all the fat????? or what is happening. Is it suppose to burn like that, I do go red a bit. Not sure if I must carry on using this stuff or not. AND thanks for all the info

  37. nielsen says:

    I think I may be allergic to cetyl alcohol and it’s cohorts, but the jury isn’t in yet. We’re pretty sure I don’t have atopic dermatitis due to a total lack of evidence in my history, but I have had allergic reactions for over a year now and had allergy testing for hundreds of different things. My dermatologist gave me Vanicream and Cerave to try and both made it much much worse. But–the steroid ointment, which is also a base of cetyl alcohol, did not. Go figure. It may be that I can tolerate it in certain amounts, or it may be photosensitizing. Or the steroids suppressed any reaction. It may not be cetyl alcohol at all. But I have read that, ironically, cetyl alcohol can aggravate eczema.

  38. Susan Karcher says:

    My lovely 17 year old daughter has developed a persistent eczema on her face in the last 6 months and I am wondering if it is all the exposure to cetearyl alcohol in makeup removers, facial cleansers, hair shampoo and conditioners, and moisturizers. I also read that “alcohol” can contribute to eczema. It is mostly around her nose and in the area around the sides of her mouth. Would “alcohol” be similar to cetearyl alcohol in cases such as eczema?

  39. Colin says:

    Hello Susan, fatty alcohols like cetearyl alcohol do exacerbate eczema from time to time, but are a relatively rare cause. There are plenty of other things that trigger it off that are more likely. Fatty alcohols are only similar to alcohol from a chemist’s point of view. Their behaviour on the skin is completely different. Alcohol disrupts the skin’s barrier function causing it to dry out, which is the last thing you want if you suffer from eczema.

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