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Grab the closest skin-care product to you, and look at its ingredient list — chances are high cetyl alcohol makes an appearance at the top of the list, near good ol’ water. Just glancing at the word alcohol might make your skin start feeling parched and itchy after years of overdrying with alcohol-based astringents in the ‘90s. But fear not, cetyl alcohol is nothing of the sort. It doesn’t even fall into the same family as the alcohol you add to your margaritas or powers your hand sanitizer. In fact, the FDA permits beauty brands to label their products “alcohol-free” even if it contains cetyl alcohol, says Ohio-based dermatologist Hope Mitchell.
We asked dermatologists to share why cetyl alcohol is an essential ingredient in moisturizers and lotions.
What exactly is cetyl alcohol?
Cetyl alcohol is a waxy-like solid added to lotions and creams to help stabilize and bind their ingredients together “to prevent them from separating into an oil or liquid,” according to New York City-based board-certified dermatologist Marina Peredo.
Another function of cetyl alcohol is extending a product’s shelf life, as well as amping up its viscosity to make it feel richer and more concentrated, cosmetic chemist Ginger King adds.
How is it different from other alcohols?
The alcohols typically used in skin care can be categorized into three different kinds: simple, fatty, and aromatic. Simple alcohols, such as isopropyl (aka rubbing alcohol), ethanol, or methanol, are what we’re used to irritating and drying out our complexions while having a strong, nasal hair-burning scent. They are typically added to skin-care products as a “degreasing agent used after cleansing the skin and prior to applying a chemical peel for best absorption,” Mitchell says.
Fatty alcohols, like cetyl alcohol, do just the opposite. (More on that soon.) Typically, they are derived from vegetable oils, particularly palm and coconut, King says. However, in the past, cetyl alcohol wasn’t vegan at all — it was extracted from sperm whale oil.
How does cetyl alcohol benefit skin?
Other than acting as an emulsifier or thickener in skin-care products, cetyl alcohol is also an occlusive agent, similar to petroleum. It’s “great at protecting the skin barrier from drying out and preventing water loss,” explains Pittsburg-based board-certified dermatologist Lindsey Zubritsky.