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Why cetearyl, cetyl and stearic alcohols aren’t “alcohol”

Names can sometimes be misleading, and “cetearyl alcohol” is one of them.

Many people who are following the curly girl method or are looking for gentle shampoos and conditioners are told to avoid any alcohol as it can be drying to your hair.

People with dry or sensitive skin are often told the same.

However, if you’ve ever looked at the ingredients, you’ll find it very difficult to find one without any “alcohol” on the back.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use the product.

In this post, we’ll explain the difference between fatty alcohols (good for your hair) and ethanols (bad for your hair) and give you some examples of common ingredients names.

Hopefully, this will make it easier to sort the bad from the good in the future.

Just want the ingredient names? Skip to the end to see them.

What is an alcohol?

An alcohol is any organic molecule assembled with carbon (C), hydrogen (H) and oxygen (O) atoms.

When there are only two carbon molecules present and a terminal OH group, this structure is the alcohol that we think of as alcohol. Ethanol.

Vodka, whiskey, beer, wine, they all contain ethanol and have this chemical structure.

What’s special about ethanol is that it is a very small molecule, small enough to pass through the pores in our skin. It mixes well with water, while also being able to dissolve oil. All these factors combine to help evaporate water and remove oil from your skin and hair.

Why is ethanol used in hair and skin care?

Ethanol is used for a few different reasons:

Helping products spread: one of the great properties of ethanol is that it provides lubrication so a product can spread easily on the skin and hair, but then quickly evaporates without leaving a greasy or wet feeling on the skin. This is one of the reasons it is so popular in lotions, creams and styling products.

Astringent qualities: because of ethanol’s ability to penetrate our skin and dissolve oil, it’s often used to dry out oily skin, pimples or wounds.

Preservative: alcohol is an excellent preservative and is often used to increase the longevity of perfumes, creams and other cosmetic products.

Alcohol in itself is not a “bad” ingredient. It’s a product of natural fermentation and organic options can also be easily found.

However, when used at too high of a concentration, it can create or exacerbate skin issues by destroying the protective sebum layer of our skin and over-drying our skin and hair.

What’s different about a fatty alcohol?

Fatty alcohols also have carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms in their molecules, as well as a terminal OH group. The OH group is what classifies them as an “alcohol”. However, they have a longer chain of atoms (12-20), including more than two carbon atoms.

This longer carbon chain makes the molecule larger (incapable of passing through pores) and it’s insoluble in water. The large number of carbon atoms also makes it oilier, so it acts as a emollient (moisturizing) rather than a drying agent.

Why is it used in hair and skin care?

Fatty alcohols are used in hair and skin care for many reasons.

Emolliency: because of their long carbon chain, fatty alcohols are wonderful emollients. They soften and smooth the skin and hair while creating a “lipid barrier” (meaning they trap water and stop it from being evaporated from the surface of the skin and hair).

Thickening: because fatty alcohols are solid at room temperature as well as being oil-soluble, they are excellent thickeners for creams and other oil-based products. This is also why they are so important for many solid products, like our shampoo bars.

Stabilizing: fatty alcohols can help to stabilize an emulsion (when you mix oil and water together, like in a lotion) and prevent it from splitting into its separate oil and water components.

Examples of alcohols and fatty alcohols

While it’s helpful to understand the difference between a fatty alcohol and ethanol, that still doesn’t help when you’re at the supermarket trying to pick the right product.

So here is a list of the ethanols and fatty alcohols commonly found in cosmetics so you know what to look out for:


  • Ethanol
  • Alcohol denat
  • Isopropyl alcohol
  • Propanol
  • Propyl alcohol
  • SD alcohol
  • Ethyl alcohol

Fatty alcohols – biodegradable

  • Cetyl alcohol
  • Cetearyl alcohol
  • Stearyl alcohol
  • Brassica alcohol (C16-18)

Fatty alcohols – limited biodegradability (avoid if possible)

  • Behenyl alcohol
  • Brassica alcohol (C20+)

Fatty alcohols – biodegradable but harmful to aquatic life (avoid if possible)

  • Lauryl alcohol
  • Myristyl alcohol
  • Palmityl alcohol

Hopefully, this helps make your product selection a little easier in the future.

Or try one of our products. With nul you can be sure that none of the ingredients will be harmful to you or the environment.

Image credit: Priscilla Wendy, Unsplash



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