Cetyl Alcohol and Skin Moisturizers

Woman examining skincare product
What's in your cream?

Don't confuse cetyl alcohol with other types of alcohols listed as ingredients in skincare products. Those might dry or damage your skin but cetyl alcohol can keep your skin moisturized and hydrated. You will find it in many skin creams and lotions as well as numerous other personal care products.

The Role of Cetyl Alcohol in Moisturizers

Cetyl alcohol is an insoluble, fatty alcohol, derived from animal or plant sources. Historically, it was extracted from whale oil in 1817 (cetus is Latin for whale). Modern sources include coconut, palm, and other vegetable oils.

Purpose in Manufacturing Moisturizers

As an emulsifier or surfactant, the white, waxy alcohol allows oil and water ingredients (which don't usually mix) to blend to produce a rich, creamy moisturizer. Cetyl alcohol is also used to control the consistency of a liquid product during manufacturing and as a carrier for other substances in a mixture. Other fatty, moisturizing alcohols include stearyl alcohol and cetearyl alcohol.

Hydrating and Moisturizing Benefits

As an emollient, fatty alcohols such as cetyl alcohol are hydrating, moisturizing, and lubricating to skin. Cetyl alcohol is used as an ingredient in skincare products to prevent or smooth dry, rough, flaky, itchy skin.

According to the Skin Therapy Letter, emollients hydrate and moisturize by attracting water into the skin and by reducing water loss by protecting its surface barrier of ceramides and other lipids.

Used in Many Products

Cetyl alcohol is used in many personal care products and cosmetics. These items include:

  • Body lotions and creams and facial moisturizers
  • Anti-aging and other facial treatments and facial cleansers
  • Hand lotions, hand creams, and baby lotions
  • Anti-itch creams, lip balm, and lipstick
  • Moisturizing shampoos and conditioners, and many other products.

Comparison to Other Alcohols

Unlike the protective, moisturizing, and hydrating cetyl alcohol, other types of alcohols can dehydrate and damage your skin. Drying alcohols cause loss of water by disturbing the skin's protective barrier. Watch out for alcohols such as ethanol (ethyl alcohol), isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol, or denatured or SD alcohol, and benzyl alcohol, especially if your skin is dry.

Potential for Allergic Reaction

One side effect reported for cetyl alcohol is a potential for contact dermatitis. According to a case report of a cetyl alcohol allergy in the journal Contact Dermatitis, an allergic reaction might be due to commercial impurities in the alcohol. Important points to consider include:

  • Based on a 2011 review in the Journal of Allergy, cetyl alcohol is a rare allergen among a list of more common allergens, such as perfumes and preservatives, found in cosmetics.
  • Despite the rare risk for cetyl alcohol, even with mild substances some people are more prone to skin irritation or allergic reactions no matter the positive data on the safety of a chemical.
  • People with skin conditions such as rosacea, eczema, or psoriasis have sensitive skin and might be more prone to an irritant or allergic reaction to moisturizers with cetyl alcohol despite being marketed as "doctor-recommended" for these problems.

Safety Designation

The FDA has designated cetyl alcohol as nontoxic and safe for use in skin and hair care products and as food additives. The Environmental Working Group's (EWG) Cosmetic Database rates it as a low health hazard. It has not been found to accumulate in the body or have any adverse reproductive effects according to the EWG.

Skin Moisturizers That Contain Cetyl Alcohol

Examine the label of any skin care product you want to buy for a complete list of ingredients. The following is a selection of moisturizers containing cetyl alcohol that are popular and rated well by consumers for their smoothing and hydrating properties:

  • Body Care
    Lubriderm Daily Moisture Body Lotion for normal to dry skin is said to be easily absorbed and moisturizes for 24 hours. The product is fragrance free and contains other moisturizers such as cetearyl alcohol and glycerin as well as vitamin B5 (panthenol). The lotion retails for around $4 for six ounces at Walmart.
  • CeraVe Moisturizing Cream contains cetyl and cetearyl alcohols and ceramides which help protect the skin's surface barrier. It is rated highly by Target customers as great for dry and sensitive skin. However, note that this product contains parabens which might cause allergic reactions. A 16-ounce jar sells for about $12 at Target.
  • Olay Active Hydrating Lotion Face Moisturizer also contains glycerin and mineral oil as moisturizers. The Olay line of products have been trusted for over 60 years. This daily face lotion penetrates, hydrates, and soothes the skin. The product costs around $6 for 12 ounces at Walmart.
  • Cetaphil Moisturizing Cream, or the lotion, is often recommended by doctors for people with skin conditions. The light, hydrating lotion for body and face has been popular for years with consumers. It contains cetearyl alcohol - a combined chemical of cetyl and stearyl alcohols. The product also contains vitamin E and vitamin B5 and is fragrance free. It retails for around $11 for a 16-ounce jar at Target.
  • Johnson's Baby Lotion has been popular with hospital and mothers for decades and is said to be gentle and mild. The lotion contains other moisturizers in addition to cetyl alcohol. However, it also contains fragrance and other additives that might be skin irritants. The lotion sells for just over $5 for a 15-ounce bottle at Walgreens.

Keep Skin Hydrated and Smooth

Moisturizers containing cetyl acohol are formulated to keep your skin hydrated and smooth and are designated safe to use. Skin reactions are uncommon but might happen to people who are sensitive to the alcohol or other ingredients in a product. Discontinue any lotion or cream if you get an irritation or allergic rash after using it.

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