Cetearyl alcohol is a type of fatty alcohol that companies use to make various cosmetic products. It is an emollient, which means it softens the skin and hair

Manufacturers also use cetearyl alcohol to stabilize emulsions, which are mixes of oil and water.

Cetearyl alcohol is different from the alcohol in drinks, which is known as ethanol. While ethanol is drying to the skin, fatty alcohols are not. Experts widely accept cetearyl alcohol as a safe ingredient in cosmetics, and it is practically nontoxic, although some people can be sensitive or allergic to it.

This article discusses cetearyl alcohol and the products that contain it, as well as its benefits and side effects. It also examines other alcohols in cosmetics.

Smears of different gels, creams and liquids that contain cetearyl alcohol against a turquoise background.Share on Pinterest
Iryna Veklich/Getty Images

Technical-grade cetearyl alcohol is a mixture of cetyl alcohol and stearyl alcohol. Both alcohols are present in small amounts in plants and animals.

Cetearyl, cetyl, and stearyl alcohol are all fatty alcohols, which means they derive from natural oils and fats. Cetearyl alcohol is a waxy, white solid that manufacturers typically sell in the form of flakes. While it is soluble (dissolves) in oils and alcohols, it is insoluble in water.

Other names for this ingredient include:

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

Cetearyl alcohol is an ingredient in many products, such as:

  • moisturizing creams and lotions
  • shampoo
  • conditioners
  • exfoliants
  • sunscreens
  • hair sprays
  • hair dyes
  • hair mousse
  • facial cleansers
  • makeup, including foundations, lipstick, and mascara
  • shaving creams
  • body washes and bar soaps
  • baby wipes
  • antiperspirants and deodorants
  • toothpaste
  • nail treatment
  • hand sanitizer
  • body oil
  • mouthwash
  • fragrance
  • glitter

Cetearyl alcohol has emollient properties, which means it softens and smooths the skin and hair.

Manufacturers also use this ingredient to alter the texture and performance of their formulas. They may add it to products to:

  • create an emulsion, which is a blend of oils and water
  • stabilize foams
  • increase foaming capacity
  • change the thickness of liquids

Cetearyl alcohol is practically nontoxic, according to PubChem. An older 1988 safety assessment found it is safe as a cosmetic ingredient.

Cetearyl alcohol poses little to no risk to humans as long as someone uses products containing it as instructed on the label.

An older 1997 study noted that emulsifiers rarely cause allergic dermatitis, but cited five known cases. All of the people who had allergic reactions had preexisting allergies to other substances.

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

The National Rosacea Society states that in addition to cetearyl alcohol, cosmetics and personal care products may contain other fatty alcohols, such as:

  • cetyl alcohol
  • steryl alcohol
  • lauryl alcohol

All of these are safe. They help prevent water loss from the outer layer of the skin and give products a creamier consistency.

However, some cosmetics contain astringent alcohols. These are alcohols that can dry and irritate the skin, particularly if someone has sensitive skin.

Ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, is a type of astringent alcohol. This is the alcohol in alcoholic drinks, and is also in some cosmetic products. Manufacturers sometimes use it because it makes liquids dry faster, or to preserve ingredients and prevent them from spoiling.

To prevent people from using cosmetics containing ethanol as an alcoholic beverage, the cosmetic may contain a denaturant, which is a substance that makes the alcohol undrinkable. In a product’s list of ingredients, this is called SD alcohol, which stands for specially denatured.

A person may find ethanol listed on a product label under the following names:

  • alcohol
  • ethanol
  • denatured alcohol
  • alcohol denat
  • SD alcohol

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), products that do not contain ethanol may have “alcohol free” on the label. This label does not apply to fatty alcohols, such as cetearyl, cetyl, or stearyl alcohol.

Other astringent alcohols that may be in cosmetics include:

  • isopropyl alcohol
  • methanol
  • benzyl alcohol

Cetearyl alcohol is biodegradable, according to SAAPedia. However, the Environmental Working Group states that it is a suspected environmental toxin.

More research is necessary to determine if using cetearyl alcohol in products could have an adverse effect on the environment.

Cetearyl alcohol is a fatty alcohol that can soften the skin and hair. It also stabilizes products that contain a mixture of oil and water, and changes the thickness of liquids. Because of these properties, it is a popular ingredient in many cosmetics and toiletries.

While cetearyl alcohol and other fatty alcohols in cosmetics do not dry the skin, ethanol and other astringent alcohols do. People with dry, sensitive skin may wish to look for products with “alcohol free” on the label to avoid the irritating effects of astringent alcohols.