Do not confuse the cetearyl alcohol contained in hand lotions and other skin care products with liquids such as rubbing alcohol or ethyl alcohol that can dry the skin. Cetearyl alcohol is a white, waxy substance that provides the creamy texture common to hand lotions and helps make skin feel smoother. It also helps hold the various ingredients in the lotion together in a stable mixture.
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The first role of cetearyl alcohol in hand lotions is to serve as an emollient. An emollient moisturises the skin directly and lends a smooth texture to hand lotion that makes it easier to apply.
Cetearyl alcohol helps other beneficial ingredients in the lotion penetrate the skin better. For this reason, it is sometimes referred to as a "carrier" for other ingredients or as a "penetration enhancer."
Cetearyl alcohol also serves as an emulsifier in hand lotions. An emulsifier keeps the lotion's diverse ingredients, such as water and oil, from separating and holds the mixture reliably together. Oil is normally immiscible, or "unmixable," in water. It chemically rejects mixing with the water and will separate from it unless the two are held together in an emulsion. The emulsion created by cetearyl alcohol prevents the oil and water in a hand lotion from separating. An emulsifier also distributes ingredients evenly throughout the lotion and thickens it to make it easier to apply.
Fatty alcohols such as cetearyl alcohol occur in small amounts in plants and animals. Cetearyl alcohol is actually a combination of two other fatty alcohols found in coconut and palm oil---cetyl alcohol and steryl alcohol. It can also be manufactured artificially. Cetearyl alcohol is delivered to cosmetic manufacturers in large bags and typically takes the form of flakes or soft waxy pastilles. Hand lotions or other personal care products labelled "alcohol-free" are intended to be free of ethyl alcohol, but may still contain cetearyl alcohol or other fatty alcohols.
Safety and Approval
After evaluating available scientific data, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, an independent panel of experts in dermatology, toxicology, pharmacology and veterinary medicine in the United States, found cetearyl alcohol to be safe for use as an ingredient in cosmetic products.
Other Names and Uses
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also permits the use of cetearyl alcohol during food processing and allows it to be added directly to foods. In addition to skin care products, hair conditioners and creme rinses frequently contain cetearyl alcohol. It is sometimes the main conditioning ingredient in these products because it moisturises hair and smooths out tangles. Cetearyl alcohol may also be referred to as cetostearyl alcohol or cetylstearyl alcohol.
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