What is Cetyl Alcohol & How Will it Affect Your Skin?

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Many people assume that alcohols are a cosmetic ingredient that should be avoided. After all, isn’t it common knowledge that alcohol dries out the skin?

Unfortunately, it’s not quite as simple as that. While it’s true that some alcohols can irritate the skin and cause sensitivities, others, such as cetyl alcohol, can actually be quite beneficial.

What is Cetyl Alcohol?

Cetearyl Alcohol

Cetyl alcohol is a fatty alcohol, which sets it apart from many of the other alcohols used in cosmetic products. A fatty alcohol is a waxy substance obtained from a natural source. In the case of cetyl alcohol, this used to be derived from sperm whale oil. However, with sperm whales now being endangered, modern production has taken over. The cetyl alcohol that you’ll find in personal care products today is usually derived from either palm oil or coconut oil, which is why it’s also referred to as palmityl alcohol.

Why is Cetyl Alcohol Used in Skin Care Products?

There are quite a few reasons why cetyl alcohol is a popular ingredient in cosmetic products. Let’s take a look at some of its main benefits:

Softens and Smooths the Skin

Since cetyl alcohol acts as an emollient, it’s able to significantly soften and smooth the skin. It can calm flakiness, reduce dryness, and fill in any tiny gaps and cracks on your skin’s surface, leaving you with a much healthier complexion. This is something that all skin types would benefit from, although it’s particularly useful to those with dry or aging skin.

Helps to Maintain the Skin’s Protective Barrier

In addition to being an emollient, cetyl alcohol also has occlusive properties. When applied to the skin, it forms an oily layer over the skin’s surface, mimicking the role of your skin’s own protective barrier. This not only helps to trap moisture into the skin, but also protects the skin from environmental damage. If you have dry skin, or skin that’s been damaged for whatever reason, the protective properties of cetyl alcohol will encourage the rebuilding of your skin’s own natural barrier.

Has Surfactant Properties

Woman cleaning her face with cotton pads

Cetyl alcohol is a common ingredient in cleansers because of its surfactant properties. This means that it’s capable of emulsifying oil and lifting dirt, allowing you to then wash all of those impurities away. As a bonus, cetyl alcohol can also increase the foaming capacity of a cleansing formula, which is why you’ll usually find it in mousse or foaming cleansers. Like the Gentle Foaming Cleanser from Formulyst.

Works as an Emulsifier to Bind Ingredients Together

As mentioned above, cetyl alcohol is an excellent emulsifier. However, in addition to emulsifying the oils on your skin, it does the same to any cosmetic ingredients that it’s mixed with [1]. It thickens formulas while adding body, binding ingredients together. This not only allows that product to be better absorbed by the skin, but also gives it a smooth texture that makes it so much more pleasant to apply.

What Does the Food and Drug Administration Say About Cetyl Alcohol’s Safety?

If you usually purchase alcohol-free products, then it’s understandable that you may still be concerned about the safety of cetyl alcohol. However, over the years, it’s been reviewed several times, with new studies being taken into account at each safety assessment.

The FDA, as well as the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, has confirmed that cetyl alcohol is not only safe to be used on the skin, but also as a food additive [2]. The only issue would be if you were allergic to the ingredient, which is why it’s always best to perform a patch test before using a product for the first time, especially if you have sensitive skin.

Cetyl Alcohol vs Other Alcohols

While cetyl alcohol may be safe to use on your face, body, and hair, don’t assume that all other alcohols are skin-friendly too. You don’t need to worry about fatty alcohols, such as cetearyl alcohol (which is actually made from cetyl alcohol), but avoid anything containing ethyl alcohol, denatured alcohol, or rubbing alcohol. These can strip the skin of its protective barrier, causing dryness, contact dermatitis, and other issues.

Woman in towel cheking skincare product

Whether it may be skin creams, skin lotions, an anti-aging treatment, or any other personal care products, pay attention to the type of alcohol it contains. If you’re ever unsure, then go for an alcohol-free formula just in case.


Is cetyl alcohol a natural product?

Yes, cetyl alcohol is a natural product that comes from certain vegetable oils.

Is cetyl alcohol the same as stearyl alcohol?

Cetyl alcohol and stearyl alcohol are both fatty alcohols with similar molecular makeups. The main difference is that cetyl alcohol has 16 carbon atoms while stearyl alcohol has 18.

Is cetyl alcohol a fatty alcohol?

Yes, cetyl alcohol falls into the group of fatty alcohols, meaning that it can be very beneficial for the skin.


When it comes down to it, cetyl alcohol is definitely not an ingredient that you need to avoid. Not only is it perfectly safe and non-toxic to use on the skin, but it actually offers a number of skin-boosting benefits. So, the next time you spot this ingredient in creams, lotions, or hair products, don’t let it put you off. Instead, give it a try – you may be surprised at how much this humble ingredient could improve the health and appearance of your skin.


[1] https://www.cosmeticsandtoiletries.com/research/chemistry/Cetyl-Alcohol-A-Multifunctional-Addition-to-Formulators-Toolboxes-500168321.html
[2] https://www.cir-safety.org/ingredient/cetearyl-alcohol

Avatar for Megan Foley

Megan has been a freelance writer and editor since 2016. In that time, she’s penned a diverse collection of articles for online publication, with a focus on skincare and beauty. From in-depth product reviews to concise marketing content, Megan is passionate about developing content that informs, entertains, and inspires.