Cetearyl alcohol is a so-called fatty alcohol that is a mixture of cetyl- and stearyl alcohols. It’s used as an emollient, texture enhancer, foam stabilizer, and carrying agent for other ingredients. It can be derived naturally, as with coconut fatty alcohol, or made synthetically. Cosmetic products labeled "alcohol free" are allowed to contain cetearyl alcohol, whose effects are quite different from skin-aggravating forms of alcohol.
Cetearyl alcohol is known for its beneficial effect on skin barrier and hydration. HelloSkin’s experts have highlighted two studies regarding cetearyl alcohol’s effect in dry skin conditions.
Because of cetearyl alcohol’s content of fatty acids, it serves as an emollient in skin care products, where it works to decrease water loss from the surface of the skin.
It is also shown in vitro that cetearyl alcohol can be oxidized to palmitic acid in specialised cells (by the enzyme NAD+ oxidoreductase in human fibroblasts)1. The palmitic acid formed may become part of the skin’s natural barrier, since palmitic acid is known to be a component of the skin’s upper layers (stratum corneum). In this way, cetearyl acid is proposed to indirectly increase the natural barrier function and thereby hydration of the skin.
A study investigating the burning and stinging experienced upon applying an emollient to skin lesions showed that cetearyl alcohol provoked very little sensation of burning and stinging to the skin on application. This is an important feature as patients suffering from various dry skin conditions often experience increased irritation upon application of skin care products, as a direct result of the decreased skin barrier function2.
The concentration of an ingredient is important for its efficacy, and therefore products containing the same ingredient may not necessarily have the same effect as in the studies mentioned above.
Updated: July 2017