Cetyl alcohol helps thicken and add texture to cosmetic products, such as creams and lotions where it increases thickness, emulsifies and improves both feel and application.
In fact, cetyl alcohol is a fatty alcohol that functions as an emollient, emulsifier, thickener, and surfactant in a variety of cosmetics and skincare products. Cetyl alcohol is an organic compound that is classified as a fatty alcohol. Fatty alcohols are a hybrid between alcohols and fatty acids or oils. There is often a misconception that because it has alcohol in its name that cetyl alcohol is drying to the skin. The reality is actually the opposite. Cetyl alcohol helps to protect the skin from allergens, bacteria and moisture loss and improves the texture of products.
As an emollient, cetyl alcohol has the ability to soften and smooth flakiness on the skin, which helps to reduce rough, dry skin. Emollients are also occlusive agents, which means they provide a layer of protection that helps prevent water loss from the skin.
Cetyl alcohol also functions as a thickening agent, which can help to improve the viscosity of skin care products. Cetyl alcohol is mainly used to improve the texture of formulations, to make them more appealing to the senses. While this may not seem like an important element to a product, it is vital to ensuring the product doesn’t separate or become clumpy so that the key ingredients can be distributed evenly to the skin. The main way the cetyl alcohol does this is through acting as a thickener. Thickeners improve the consistency, viscosity or adhesion to the skin. The term viscosity corresponds to the concept of ‘thickness’, for example, honey has a higher viscosity than water. Thus, cetyl alcohol can be used to thicken formulas, adding body and viscosity.
Cetyl alcohol also functions as a surfactant. Surfactant is the short term for surface active agent. Surfactants are compounds that lower the surface tension between two substances. Another job of surfactants is to degrease and emulsify oils and fats and suspend dirt, allowing them to be washed away. This is great for lifting impurities away from the skin, allowing them to be cleansed away. This is possible because while one end of the surfactant molecule is attracted to water, the other end is attracted to oil. Thus, surfactants attract the oil, dirt, and other impurities that have accumulated on your skin during the day. Due to these properties, cetyl alcohol can be found in many different cleansers and body washes. Cetyl alcohol also increases the foaming capacity of formulations.
Cetyl alcohol is a white, waxy ingredient that comes in pellets similar to beeswax.