Is Cetearyl Alcohol Bad for Hair? No, But Here’s What You Need to Know…

Reader Question:

“I recently came across a hair product at Walgreens that lists ‘Cetearyl Alcohol’ as one of its main ingredients. I’ve always been kind of cautious about what I put to my hair, and I’ve heard conflicting information about alcohols in hair care products. Can you shed some light on whether Cetearyl Alcohol is bad for my hair or not? Thank you.”

Sally Plank
Port Orchard, WA

Hi Sally,

Hairdressers have long understood just how important cetearyl alcohol is as an ingredient. It is a main ingredient in shampoos, conditioners, and even hair dyes. You’ll also find it in skin products, such as lotions and moisturizers.

Cetearyl alcohol is not bad for hair. It is excellent for conditioning and nourishing dry and damaged tresses.

Hairdressers and their clients alike love this ingredient. Cetearyl alcohol has an innate ability to rejuvenate over-treated and over-styled hair. It’s perfect for restoring your hair’s former glory.

I spoke with Jessica Le, owner, nail artist, and hairstylist at Icon Hair in Scottsdale, AZ about this ingredient. First, I asked why alcohol gets such a bad rap.

She told me, “When people hear alcohol, they ultimately think of ethyl or rubbing alcohol which is super drying for the skin and hair. There isn’t much talk about cetearyl alcohol, but there definitely should be because there are so many benefits to having it in your hair products.”

Ready to find out more about this fabulous alcohol?

In this article, you’ll learn:

What is Cetearyl Alcohol?

Cetearyl alcohol is a white, waxy mixture of 2 prominent alcohols: stearyl alcohol and cetyl alcohol.

These components can both be found in trace amounts in plant oils, like coconut and palm oil. At one point in history, cetearyl alcohol was actually harvested from sperm whales! It also exists in small amounts in other animals. But each can be recreated in a laboratory, too.

Because all 3 derive completely from natural oils and fats, all are known as fatty alcohols. (source)

Cetearyl alcohol is also known by these names:

  • Cetostearyl alcohol
  • 1-octadecanol mixed with 1-hexadecanol
  • C16-18 alcohols
  • (C16-18) alkyl alcohol
  • Alcohols C1618

Regardless of what it’s called on the bottle, it’s used in cosmetic products to help soften both hair and skin.

Cetearyl alcohol is an ideal ingredient because it dissolves fast into other alcohols and oils. This happens even though it’s insoluble in water– it offers the best of both worlds for product brands. (source)

Where Is Cetearyl Alcohol Used?

Cetearyl alcohol is used for stabilizing and thickening cosmetic concoctions. In hand lotion, for example, adding this ingredient creates a smoother application. But this emollient’s primary use is softening and moisturizing dry or damaged hair and skin.

So, it’s no surprise that you’ll find it in a wide array of personal care and beauty products. Body wash, hand cream, and foaming soaps often contain it.

But it’s probably best known as a conditioning agent in hair care products. You’ll see it on the ingredient list for many shampoos, conditioners, serums, hair dyes, and mousses.

Benefits of Cetearyl Alcohol

There are many advantages to using hair products that contain cetearyl alcohol. Here are just a few of the top benefits:

Softens hair and skin. Cetearyl alcohol is a moisturizer, and it works wonders for softening both hair and skin. This is because it absorbs so well.

Soothes dry scalps and adds moisture to dried-out hair. Cetearyl alcohol can soothe a dry scalp, and condition dry, damaged, or frizzy hair. Unlike dry alcohols like ethanol, ethyl, or isopropyl, cetearyl alcohol isn’t likely to dry out your hair or skin. It actually does the exact opposite!

Tests safe for continuous use. Cetearyl alcohol has been scientifically proven to be safe for use. It’s non-toxic and non-mutagenic. This means it won’t mutate your DNA in ways that can cause cancer and other serious diseases. (source)

Side Effects of Cetearyl Alcohol

Even though cetearyl alcohol is a safe ingredient, you should know some people are allergic to it.

It’s true that cetearyl alcohol is relatively safe like most emollients. But you may want to do a patch test first.

The signs of a cetearyl allergy can include:

  • Redness
  • Stinging
  • Irritation
  • Burning sensations

If you have this reaction, consider avoiding products containing this ingredient. If your symptoms don’t improve after stopping use, contact your physician or pharmacist.

How Cetearyl Alcohol Works in Hair Products

Cetearyl alcohol has many different uses. Depending on the hair product it’s added to, its purpose will change.

It works well as a stabilizer in conditioners, mixing emulsions, or mixtures of water and oil. And it can thicken products like shampoo, while also increasing its ability to lather or foam. Cetearyl alcohol serves this same purpose when it’s added to hair mousse.

It also, of course, enhances the moisturizing capabilities of many products. It’s even a common ingredient in hair dye, where it protects your hair from chemical damage.

Hair Type Considerations

Cetearyl alcohol is a miracle worker when it comes to certain hair types. If your hair is unmanageable due to dryness, frizz, or untamed curls, you should try it.

I asked Jessica for her take on cetearyl alcohol for each hair type. She said, “I definitely think that cetearyl alcohol is safe for all hair types in moderation. If you’re not experiencing dry hair, I definitely don’t think you NEED it in your hair routine. But utilizing it here and there would be beneficial in maintaining moisture in the hair.”

Next, I’ll explain which hair types can benefit the most and why.

Curly, Frizzy, or Dry Hair

Do you have curly, frizzy, or extra-dry tresses? Then you should know cetearyl alcohol’s proven to detangle and soften your hair. It does so by providing slip to each strand as a conditioning agent.

Moroccanoil Curl Defining Cream and Moroccanoil Hydrating Styling Cream are two of my favorite products that are rich in this fatty alcohol! They both hydrate dry, frizzy curls while providing your hair with a glorious sheen.

Color Treated or Heavily Processed Hair

Are you dealing with over-processed, relaxed, dyed, bleached, or any other type of chemically-treated hair? Then cetearyl alcohol can restore your natural moisture and shine.

Try a cetearyl-infused product like Drunk Elephant Silkamino Mega-Moisturizing Masker to restore your dull tresses. This mask is full of cetearyl alcohol, and it’ll help repair your damaged texture.

Is Cetearyl Alcohol Safe for Your Hair?

Yes, cetearyl alcohol is both safe and healthy for your hair.

But it’s important not to confuse cetearyl alcohol with other, drier varieties. The difference comes down to simple chemistry.

There are long chain alcohols, which contain around 26 or more carbon atoms. These are referred to as fatty alcohols. Of course, cetearyl alcohol is a fatty alcohol, making it great for hair and skin care.

The extra carbon atoms are what gives fatty alcohols their lubricating properties. Short chain alcohols can contain as few as 3 carbon atoms, giving them a low molecular weight.

Drying Alcohols

Short chain alcohols have damaging and drying properties. But they’re still found in many hair products in spite of their reputation for damaging hair.

That’s because drying alcohols allow other products to bond to your hair as it’s styled. And they dry very fast, so they’re often found in various styling products like gel and hairspray.

Unfortunately, the fast dry time means frequent use can strip moisture from your hair. A good rule of thumb to remember is nearly any product that holds your hair in a firm position is very likely to contain short chain alcohols.

Fatty Alcohols

Fatty alcohols, such as cetearyl alcohol, are naturally creamy and conditioning. They also have beneficial smoothing and moisturizing properties.

That’s why they’re your hair’s best defense against dryness, frizz, and breakage. These alcohols also lubricate your scalp, helping you to remain flake-free.

As a matter of fact, cetearyl alcohol is one of the best fatty alcohols to use on your hair. As I said earlier, it’s a combination of two other fatty alcohols, giving it a magnificent 34 carbon atoms. This makes it a great thickener in cosmetics and other beauty products.

In a nutshell, fatty alcohols like cetearyl alcohol make your products easier to use and help your hair look amazing.

Chart listing which alcohols are drying and which are fatty

Frequently Asked Questions

What does cetearyl alcohol do to hair?

When you apply cetearyl alcohol to your hair, it moisturizes, hydrates, and smooths each strand. It also softens it and gives it a more slippery feel, so it’s much easier to detangle. You’ll find cetearyl alcohol in many hair products due to these unique properties.

Does cetearyl alcohol build up on hair?

Cetearyl alcohol can build up on hair, but it won’t if used in moderation. But because it’s oily and creamy, it can become very heavy on finer and straighter hair. If you have this hair type, you’re more prone to buildup because there isn’t enough hair to 100% absorb it.

Is cetearyl alcohol natural?

As a combination of two naturally-found alcohols, cetearyl alcohol is completely natural itself. It’s a flaky, white, waxy solid that’s found in many different plants and animals. Today, it’s humanely derived from vegetable, palm, coconut, and corn oils.

Is cetearyl alcohol bad for colored hair?

No, cetearyl alcohol is not bad for colored hair. In fact, it’s restorative to color-treated and processed hair. It’s short-chain alcohols, such as ethanol alcohol, that’re responsible for damaging chemically-treated hair.

Is cetearyl alcohol a silicone?

Yes, cetearyl alcohol is a non-water soluble silicone, specifically a siloxane polymer. As a conditioning agent and moisturizer, it adds a protective barrier to hair. Most silicones have this effect.

Is cetearyl alcohol safe as a skincare ingredient?
According to Jessica, “It is definitely safe for skin! It’s actually great for healing dry skin. As for pore clogging, there hasn’t been any negative side effects to having cetearyl alcohol in your skin care unless you find that you have very sensitive skin.”

Ask A Stylist