Skip to content

Cetearyl Alcohol is an awesome thing.

January 11, 2019


Microsoft PowerPoint - English_Figure & Table (T. Suzuki).pptx

Picture sourced from here.

Cetyl = C16. (C16H34O)

Stearyl = C18 (C18H38O)

Cetearyl = A blend of both.

This ingredient is the quiet achiever in your emulsion, one that people never used to really think about much until recently. Taken for granted until that point where it gets taken away.

Cetearyl Alcohol use is one of the things coming under the spotlight thanks to the ‘Palm Free’ movement.  It is 100% naturally derived, petrochemical free, vegan friendly, renewable, skin safe but not palm free.

I do keep my eyes open for palm free versions of this little material but alas, to date (and do remember you may well be reading this blog at some time in the far future from now) there is no supplier of such a beast that I’ve come across (and I’ve asked a lot).

Cetearyl Alcohol is a great example of how a ban on a certain material can impact a brand in ways that they had possibly not previously imagined.  This ingredient is often paired with others to form what we in the industry call ‘self-emulsifying waxes’. These ingredients are the thing that make it easy for the average person on the street to make an emulsion without getting out a calculator and figuring out HLB’s.  But besides that it’s a very useful ingredient in its own right and is often the thing that turns your lotion into a cream into a thick custard or pot-set rich cold cream. Without it things are left looking a bit thin…

The interesting thing about cetearyl alcohol is the way it works. It is fatty so it integrates its self into the oil phase of your emulsion but because it also has an alcohol portion to it it has a decent capacity to play with water.

If we compare that to your average oil phase ingredients – let’s take Olive Oil, Shea Butter and Beeswax as examples.  These three ingredients might differ in their chemical structure but they share the same feature of complete oil solubility.  They have practically zero interest in playing with water and will, therefore, become fully integrated into your oil phase.

People looking to thicken their creams may well think (with some logic and truth) that swapping from Olive oil to Shea butter will make the cream thicker because Shea butter is thicker.  Those same people are often disappointed when they realise that didn’t exactly happen.  Go one step further and add a dollop of Beeswax into the mix and while again, you do get some change in the way the cream looks and feels and a change in viscosity could well be part of that but the trouble with doing either of these things is that a) you don’t get the dramatic viscosity change that you can get with cetearyl alcohol and b) the whole feel and stability of the cream changes when you mess around with the dispersed phase.

Adding more oil does sometimes help but only to a point.  If you think about it, the oil is going to be emulsified INSIDE the cream into little spheres.  If you only have a few spheres of oil the cream could be quite loosely packed and flowable.  Pop a few more in and it will thicken a bit.  However, you will reach a natural limit with this strategy as the oil (internal) phase starts to become too much for the emulsifier.  Often these oil-heavy mixtures will separate leaving the oil floating on the top and the water phase sinking.

Cetearyl Alcohol isn’t without it’s problems, you can wax-out your formula, however, it’s definitely the quickest, easiest and cheapest way to affect your products viscosity.  0.5-5% is fairly typical in a cream, paired with glycerin if you want to go to the higher end- the glycerin helps to prevent total waxing and cracking.  Hair conditioners may have as much as 15% cetearyl alcohol in as, believe it or not, it’s this simple ingredient that provides most of the oil phase in those things!

The image above is the most beautiful I’ve seen of what actually happens inside your formula. The fatty alcohols form ripples of ‘thickness’ in your water phase with the polar phase – the -OH parts and the non-ionic tails -the cetearyl parts aligning to form chain after chain radiating out from each oil drop.  This is what makes your creams thicker, this structuring of the water phase with fatty alcohols,  this is what ensures your emulsions are non-greasy and light even when they are thick.

But we can’t use this in palm free formulations.

It may be that this material becomes available as palm free in the future but it’s not likely to be something that oleochemical factories are jumping around to do.  Basically palm oil makes its way to oleochemical plants, often, but not always it’s mixed in with coconut too and sold as a mixed vegetable oil with just the right mix of C16 and C18 to be helpful.  Scientists who research this type of thing found that if the chain length is bigger or smaller than this the layered cake structure doesn’t form as well and the desirable properties of cetearyl alcohol can’t be achieved.  This is why there are no drop-in replacements, just in case you were wondering.  So basically these oleochemical plants take the oil in and split it up into its fatty acids and then go on to react them from there.  For a long time it has made sense for oleochemical companies to be located near to the oil (saves on transport costs) so there are quite a lot of these manufacturers in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines.  As the oleochemical business is mainly a bulk commodity one it has become quite normal for the oleochemical processors to be backwardly integrated with their farmed supply.  So either the chemical companies purchased the farms or the farms purchased the chemical companies, whatever way it happened I don’t think there are that many sizeable oleochemical companies who don’t have an interest in palm.  So there we have it, the nub of the issue for those looking for palm free…

To make a palm free version of this or any other commodity, low priced chemical for cosmetics would require the development or segregation of a whole new supply chain. This is easier for the smaller makers outside of this hot-bed of palm growing activity than it is for the bigger players who probably, to be fair, produce 80% or more of the worlds supply.  Further, even though it is quite possible to produce these fatty alcohols from other oil feedstocks what is the incentive for companies to do that when they own palm plantations?  There is a risk in diverting expensive plant and man-power to a new product that is going to be more expensive and will potentially lead people to question even more why you don’t go palm free for everything or don’t simply ‘do more’.  On that note, I doubt many companies want to pretend there isn’t an issue with land clearing and un-sustainable practices more that nobody really wants to come out first and face it.

The bottom line then is that formulators of palm free products have to do away with cetearyl alcohol which means that things like hair conditioners, all kinds of moisturisers and some shaving products are all made heaps more difficult to formulate because we can’t use this ingredient and are unlikely to get a direct replacement any time soon.

So that’s that really and that’s why some palm free moisturisers are a bit different to palmy ones.

And no, this isn’t an ingredient you can just whip up at home.  It takes some serious chemistry equipment to create this – a simple enough reaction but not exactly home-makable.

Amanda x


17 Comments leave one →
  1. Mickey permalink
    January 11, 2019 5:01 pm

    Hi Amanda,
    I thoroughly enjoy reading your posts.
    They are so full of great info, and easy to
    understand. I really appreciate you for
    what you do!
    Thank you and I wish you a healthy and
    prosperous 2019!

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      January 11, 2019 5:34 pm

      Thank you Mickey, glad the posts are helpful for you and thanks for the lovely feedback.

  2. January 29, 2019 1:31 pm

    I really like your posts as well. I haven’t tried Cetearyl Alcohol because I’m afraid it would be too waxy. I stick with Cetyl Alcohol and only sometimes add only 1% of Stearic Acid.

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      January 29, 2019 1:38 pm

      Hi there, There isn’t much difference in terms of skin feel but the thickening capacity of the blend far exceeds the individual components which is why it is so popular. That said, each to their own and if you are happy with your formula then why change 🙂

  3. January 31, 2019 1:15 am

    Thanks for your post and for discussing the issue of the palm oil behind the cetearyl alcohol. Like Sally, I use cetyl alcohol instead. I’ve been using it in hair conditioners and users seem happy with the results. I haven’t tried cetearyl to compare since we aim for palm-free, but the cetyl seems to work well. Ethique beauty claims their stearyl alcohol comes from a palm-free source. I haven’t looked for it myself, but maybe it’s possible to create your own blend from the individual components.

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      January 31, 2019 5:48 am

      Thanks for that. I’d be interested in seeing the data for the palm free cetyl and/or stearyl as I’ve looked into that too and so far had no joy. You can’t make this yourself by just blending the two. It’s a specific reaction process. With regards to the substitution sure, it’s possible to use this instead of the blended alcohol but the results do differ. Maybe that difference isn’t enough to be a bother in your formula which is good 🙂

      • joanne reilly permalink
        May 16, 2019 8:09 pm

        If anyone has found a Palm Oil Free cetyl alcohol could they post the details of supplier and trade name as Im looking for a POF version and cant find and want to exhaust all possibilities before I have to rework 2 creams! Many thanks, Joanne

      • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
        May 16, 2019 9:14 pm

        To date, that isn’t available. You can get around it with some nifty formula tweaks but it isn’t easy.

  4. April 11, 2020 1:08 am

    Hi Realize Beauty Ed
    I have found this article.
    Exploring Our Newest Palm Free Emulsifier – New Directions …
    To improve the emulsification and thickening powers of this blend the Olivoyl emulsifier is supported by some trusty old friends which, we are assured are also palm oil and palm derivative free. Cetearyl Alcohol is a great addition to any cream as it helps to form a structure between the dispersed oil drops and the continuous water phase thus …

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      April 11, 2020 9:23 am

      Yes I wrote that too

  5. Lauren permalink
    April 18, 2020 12:49 am

    This was a great read! So informative for a newbie in the soap-making industry. Posts like this keep you going 🙂

    Lately I have been researching into cetyl alcohol, as it was mentioned in a recipe i’m following to make shampoo bars. I had come across some information that advised cetyl alcohol is often derived from coconut, palm or vegetable oil (which was saddening to read because I was hoping to avoid palm oil, but had to admit cetyl seemed like a key ingredient to use in products.)

    However having read the above comments, one reader advised they used cetyl in their product, and mentioned
    “I haven’t tried cetearyl to compare since we aim for palm-free, but the cetyl seems to work well.”
    If i were to only use the cetyl alcohol in my product, would it be palm free? I’m wondering if i’ve done my research wrong, and maybe its only Cetearyl alcohol which production is based around the reduction of palmitic acid?

    I have only just learned of Cetearyl since reading this post – would you personally say Cetearyl alcohol blend is better to use in products than cetyl alcohol alone?

    Thanks for your help and knowledge, I did try google the info to find myself a bit more confused, thought maybe you’d be able to get me on the right track.

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      April 18, 2020 4:38 am

      Hi Lauren. Cetearyl = cetyl and stearyl so this is both. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll find any of the three options as palm free. Not impossible but highly unlikely. This particular blend is the absolute best for thickening emulsions due to the way it orientates its self. It out performs cetyl or stearyl alone which is why it’s so popular. It’s a hard once to find a palm free replacement for. There are other options but nothing that’s really that similar. Good luck with your search

  6. August 20, 2020 2:47 am

    Hello there, thanks for your blog. I make emulsified skincare and run a brand that is palm oil free. And yes, there are emulsifiers out there that are palm free but they are very hard to find.

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      September 2, 2020 10:39 am

      Yes there are lots of palm-oil alternative emulsifiers around now but the palm-free cetearyl is still illusive and that’s what this post was about.


  1. Cetearyl Alcohol is an awesome thing. | Pretty Random Health and Beauty Blog
  2. Cetearyl Alcohol is an awesome thing. | Pretty Random Health and Beauty Blog
  3. Cetearyl Alcohol is an awesome thing. | Pretty Random Health and Beauty Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: