If you’ve ever used lotions, shampoos, or conditioners, you may have noticed they include a chemical called cetearyl alcohol. The good news is that cetearyl alcohol isn’t “bad” for you, your skin, or your hair. Most importantly, cetearyl alcohol is very different from “regular” alcohols, like ethanol.

As a health-conscious consumer, you’re likely always on the lookout for skin and haircare products that don’t contain harmful ingredients. Fortunately, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires manufacturers to list ingredients on a product’s label so that you can make an informed decision about what products you choose to put in or on your body.

Cetearyl alcohol is a chemical found in cosmetic products. It’s a white, waxy substance made from cetyl alcohol and stearyl alcohol, both fatty alcohols. They’re found in animals and plants, like coconut and palm oil. They can also be made in a laboratory.

They are used in personal care products, mainly skin lotions, hair products, and creams. They help create smoother creams, thicker lotions, and more stable foam products.

Fatty alcohols are sometimes called long-chain alcohols because of their chemical formula. They usually have an even number of carbon atoms, with a single alcohol group (–OH) attached to the last carbon.

Cetyl alcohol has 16 carbon atoms. Stearyl alcohol has 18. Cetearyl alcohol is a combination of the two, so it has 34 carbon atoms. Its molecular formula is C34H72O2.

Cetyl alcohol helps prevent creams from separating into oil and liquid. A chemical that helps to keep liquid and oil together is known as an emulsifier. It may also make a product thicker or increase the product’s ability to foam.

Products with cetearyl alcohol

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

It most often appears on the ingredient list as cetearyl alcohol, but may have many other names.

Other names

  • (C16-C18) alkyl alcohol
  • alcohols, C1618
  • C16-18 alcohols
  • cetostearyl alcohol
  • cetyl/stearyl alcohol
  • 1-octadecanol, mixed with 1-hexadecanol

Cetearyl alcohol isn’t the only fatty alcohol used in cosmetic products. Other examples include cetyl alcohol, lanolin, oleyl alcohol, and stearyl alcohol.

You may have heard that you should avoid hair and skin products that contain alcohol. This is because many alcohols, like ethanol or rubbing alcohol, can be very drying. Using alcohol on your skin and hair could lead to itchiness, flaking, and skin peeling.

In fact, alcohols are commonly found in products like astringents, hand sanitizers, and aftershave due to their fast-drying and skin-tightening abilities.

However, fatty alcohols, like cetearyl alcohol, don’t have the same effect on the skin as other alcohols due to their chemical structure.

The chemical makeup of cetearyl alcohol is different from more commonly known alcohols. In cetearyl alcohol, the alcohol group (-OH) is attached to a very long chain of hydrocarbons (fats). This feature allows fatty alcohols to trap water and provides a soothing feel to the skin.

Chemicals that make the skin feel smooth are referred to as emollients. They work by forming an oily layer on the top of the skin to keep the moisture inside.

The Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) Expert Panel has concluded that fatty alcohols, including cetearyl alcohol, are safe for use in cosmetic products. In clinical studies, cetearyl alcohol was found to have no significant toxicity and was non-mutagenic. A mutagen is a chemical agent that changes your DNA. DNA changes can cause certain diseases, such as cancer.

It was also found not to irritate the skin. According to the FDA, even cosmetic products labeled “alcohol free” are allowed to contain cetearyl alcohol and other fatty alcohols. Cetearyl alcohol is also included on the FDA list of safe and permitted food additives.

As with many skin care products, there’s a small risk of allergic reaction to cetearyl alcohol. A 2007 study confirmed five cases of allergy to cetearyl alcohol, but reactions to other chemical allergens also occurred in all of these cases.

A 1996 study of 140 people with suspected cosmetic contact dermatitis found that another commonly used fatty alcohol, oleyl alcohol, caused contact dermatitis in roughly 23 percent of those studied.

If you have sensitive skin or other allergies, it may be a good idea to perform a patch test with any product containing this ingredient. Tell your doctor if you experience burning, blistering, swelling, stinging, redness, or irritation that persists or gets worse.

Cetearyl alcohol is used to help soften the skin and hair and to thicken and stabilize cosmetic products, such as lotions and hair products. As an emollient, cetearyl alcohol is considered an effective ingredient for soothing and healing dry skin.

Unless you have very sensitive skin, you probably don’t need to avoid products containing cetearyl alcohol. Not only is it considered safe and nontoxic for use on the skin and hair, but it’s also not drying or irritating like other types of alcohol. Due to its chemical structure, cetearyl alcohol is even permitted by the FDA as an ingredient in products labeled “alcohol-free.”