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What is Cetyl Alcohol?
Ever wonder why you sometimes see a product labeled “alcohol-free,” only to see cetyl alcohol listed in the ingredients on the back? You might be surprised to learn that, unlike other forms of alcohol, cetyl alcohol is actually good for your skin.
Cetyl alcohol is a form of alcohol commonly used in cosmetic products. It is known as fatty alcohol, an organic compound of alcohol and fatty acids. As the term suggests, this alcohol is used to add viscosity or thickness to shampoos and conditioners. It can also be used as an emollient. An emollient is a medical moisturizer — examples include creams or lotions used to treat sensitive skin or conditions such as dermatitis.
The word Cetyl is derived from the Latin word “Cetus,” meaning “whale.” It was first discovered in 1817 by French chemist Michel Chevreul. He produced it by heating spermaceti, the white waxy substance obtained from sperm whale oil.
Today, it is generally obtained from coconut and palm oil. For this reason, it is sometimes referred to as palmityl alcohol.
How is it Used?
Cetyl alcohol is one of the most widely used fatty alcohols, with a wide variety of uses, especially in personal care products.
These range from hair products such as shampoo and conditioners to bath oils to creams and lotions. Because it melts at a higher temperature than typical human body heat, it is often used to make lipstick and makeup.
Besides cosmetics and grooming aids, cetyl alcohol also has several industrial applications. It is a primary ingredient in fuels, chemicals, and plastics. Cetyl alcohol is also sometimes used in manufacturing as a lubricant for nuts and bolts. And it is even considered safe for use as a food additive (often in cakes and candy)!
Some related alcohols include Stearyl alcohol and Cetearyl alcohol. Cetyl alcohol provides a higher viscosity than stearyl, but it also can break down over time. By contrast, stearyl is more stable. For this reason, Cetyl alcohol can combine with stearyl alcohol to create Cetearyl alcohol.
Much like Cetyl alcohol, Cetearyl is a waxy, white substance. It is also used as a thickener, emollient, or emulsifier, which prevents the separation of ingredients in a product. This makes it useful as a foam-boosting agent for products such as shampoos.4
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Is it Natural?
Cetyl alcohol is 95% natural and is found in a variety of plants and animals. Today, it is generally obtained from vegetable oils such as coconut and palm tree oil. It can also be synthesized in a laboratory or obtained from petroleum.
Does Cetyl Alcohol Contain Alcohol?
Yes, but not alcohol as most people understand it. Alcohol is among the most common of all organic compounds.
Technically, any compound involving a single oxygen atom attached to a single hydrogen atom is an alcohol. What most people think of when they hear the word “alcohol” are what are known as simple alcohols.
Examples of simple alcohols include ethanol, methanol, and isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol. These alcohols can dry out and irritate the skin. Unlike fatty alcohols, they are liquids.
Ethanol comes from fermented fruits and grains and is the primary ingredient in adult beverages such as beer and wine. It causes intoxication and a host of other side effects.
Cetyl alcohol, along with Stearyl alcohol and Cetearyl alcohol, is known as a fatty alcohol. This is alcohol obtained from plants and animals. Unlike simple alcohols, fatty alcohol is good for your skin and is often used in moisturizer creams. And unlike simple alcohols, they cannot be drunk as liquids.
The Food and Drug Administration allows companies to label their products “alcohol-free” as long as they contain only fatty and not simple alcohols.
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What Does Cetyl Alcohol Do to Your Skin?
Unlike alcohols such as denatured ethanol (often used in antibacterial soaps), cetyl alcohol does not dry out the skin.
Instead, the fatty acids help form a layer between the skin and the air. This allows your skin to retain moisture while also protecting it from various allergens and bacteria. By preventing loss of moisture, it helps soften your skin and hair.
Products That Contain Cetyl Alcohol
Various cosmetic products contain cetyl alcohol. These include:
- Creams and lotions
- Hair styling products such as wax and mousse
- Hair dye
Can You Drink Cetyl Alcohol?
Unlike simple alcohols like ethanol, you cannot drink Cetyl alcohol. This is because it is a waxy, white substance. It cannot dissolve into a liquid, making it an effective emulsifier (an agent that prevents water and oil in personal care products from separating).
Simple alcohol can actually be consumed. The most commonly consumed simple alcohol is ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, which is made from distillation of fermented starch.
Excessive consumption of ethanol leads to the side effects we know as intoxication. You can also drink isopropyl and methanol, but these are highly toxic and not intended for human consumption.
Isopropyl intoxication mimics ethyl intoxication.
Cetyl Alcohol Toxicity
Aside from a small number of cases, most data indicate cetyl alcohol’s safety is very well established. According to a study in the International Journal of Toxicology, Cetyl alcohol was found to be safe for everyday use in cosmetic products.
Numerous animal studies have shown that it is non-irritating to skin and eyes and safe to ingest, which is why it is so common in lipsticks.3
A small minority of the data has found some side effects associated with use of Cetyl alcohol products. People with sensitive skin or who may be allergic to Cetyl alcohol may experience contact dermatitis.2
Other side effects may include burning, stinging, redness, and inflammation. If you experience any of these symptoms, you should consult with a health professional for additional options and resources.
What Happens if You Drink Cetyl Alcohol?
Cetyl alcohol is not a liquid, so it is impossible to drink.
If you were to drink cosmetic products containing cetyl alcohol, such as hair conditioner, you would not become intoxicated. It would not provide any of the side effects associated with the consumption of ethanol products like beer.
What to Do if You Drink Cetyl Alcohol
Most hair products sold over the counter are safe to consume in small doses. However, just because you can do it, does not mean you should.
In large enough doses, you could still become sick and vomit. If you end up in this situation, you should seek immediate medical advice.