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Works as an emollient, emulsifier, thickener and carrying agent for other ingredients contained in a cosmetic solution. It keeps the oil and water parts of an emulsion from separating, and gives products good spreadability. As a thickening agent and surfactant, it helps alter the viscosity and increase the foaming capacity of non-aqueous (i.e. lotions) and aqueous solutions (i.e. shampoo). It is often misinterpreted as an "alcohol" related to ethyl or rubbing alcohol, both of which can be extremely drying to the skin. The truth, in fact, is quite the opposite, as cetyl alcohol is well known to effectively condition and soften the skin and hair. Because of its multi-functional capabilities, this ingredient is used in a wide range of personal care products such as moisturizer, face cream, shampoo/conditioner, anti-aging treatment, hair dye, sunscreen, cleanser and lipstick.
Safety Measures/Side Effects:
The FDA includes cetyl alcohol on its list of permitted food additives. The EU Cosmetics Directive allows it to be used in cosmetics as long as it's derived from plants. The CIR Expert Panel has assessed this ingredient as non-sensitizing, non-toxic and safe to use in cosmetic products.
Despite the fact that the CIR Expert Panel recognizes this ingredient as non-irritating, many dermatologists recommend that individuals with sensitive/irritated skin avoid it. Many medical experts believe that cetyl alcohol, and many other fatty alcohols, have the ability to altercate the lipid bilayer of the epidermis (protective barrier) and cause allergic dermal reactions in some (see article in 1999 issue of Contact Dermatitis). There are many other medical studies supporting the potential irritation associated with this ingredient. Considering this information, it's best that sensitive skin types perform a patch test with any product containing this ingredient, particularly anyone suffering from a skin condition such as Rosacea or Psoriasis.
Recommended Products w/ cetyl alcohol:
Abrione Hydrodynamic Facial Masque ($22), AminoGenesis Cocoon Total Body Emollient, Eminence Organics Tomato Sun Cream ($66)