Cetyl alcohol is usually found in cosmetics as a moisturiser. It is known by over 10 different other names, including cetanol and palmityl alcohol. Many shampoos use cetyl alcohol to help create lather and cleanse dirt away. Its toxicity is a minor concern because even though it may damage nonreproductive organs if ingested, all of its uses are external.
Cetyl alcohol is organic in origin. It was originally derived from whale oil when chemist Michel Chevreul first discovered it in 1817, but now it is obtained from vegetable oils, like coconut oil or palm oil. At room temperature it has a white, flaky appearance. Cetyl alcohol is also known as cetanol, 1-hexadecanol, n-hecadecyl alcohol, palmityl alcohol, hexadecan-1-ol, adol, adol 52, adol 520, adol 54, alcohol C-16 and atalco C.
Because cetyl alcohol attracts moisture, it is found in many hair conditioners. Many skin lotions and creams also use this chemical for hydration purposes. It also helps to make skin smoother.
Cetyl alcohol is a surfactant. A surfactant -- a word that comes from the phrase "surface acting agent" -- is a chemical that helps to produce foam when mixed with water. This foam helps to remove dirt, making cetyl alcohol an important ingredient in soaps. It also gives volume to many shampoos.
Cetyl alcohol is on the Environment Canada Domestic Substance List as a chemical of low to moderate concern. Scientists think that it may be an environmental toxin, but this has not been proven conclusively. Cetyl alcohol may damage nonreproductive organ systems as well, if ingested; however, since all the products that use cetyl alcohol are for external use only, this should not be a strong concern. According to the United States Food and Drug Administration, cetyl alcohol is "designated as safe for general or specific, limited use in food."
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