Have you ever asked yourself the question, “Is cetyl alcohol bad for your hair”?
Cetyl alcohol is one of the ingredients that you are likely to see on the label of hair conditioners, shampoos, lotions and skin creams. Along with stearyl alcohol and cetostearyl alcohol, this “alcohol” is used as an oily additive for allowing conditioner to more easily spread throughout your hair.
How Is Cetyl Alcohol Produced?
Cetyal alcohol is what is known as a fatty alcohol. It behaves nothing like what we know as real alcohols – in other words, it doesn’t behave like propanol or ethanol.
The word “cetyl” is a reference to whale oil (the Latin word for whale is cetus), from which the substance was first derived. Today the alcohol is derived from natural vegetable oils and substances like palm oil (hence the alternative name palmityl alcohol) and coconut oil. Cetyl alcohol at room temperature is a white, waxy solid or may also be found in the form of waxy white flakes.
Those who make soap at home will find the process of making cetyl alcohol very similar to the process of saponification. To make cetyl alcohol, coconut oil is heated with lye (which is the common name for sodium hydroxide) or another strong alkaline solution. When it was first made in 1817, sperm whale oil was heated with potassium hydroxide and the solution was cooled. What remained after cooling were flakes of cetyl alcohol.
Cosmetic Uses: The Role of Cetyl Alcohol in Hair Products
In the cosmetic industry, cetyl alcohol has many uses. It is added to lotions and skin creams as thickening agents, and is a major component of hair conditioners where it helps the oils and water in the conditioner mix together. Without the presence of the alcohol, the water-based and oil-based components in a conditioner would remain as emulsions (or oil floating in water). It helps these two components to mix and therefore is known as an emulsifying agent or an emulsifier.
Hair conditioners typically contain somewhere between 2% and 4% of cetyl alcohol. It may be found in both rinse-out conditioning products as well as leave-in conditioning products, usually in the top five ingredients listed. It’s the substance that gives your conditioner a creamy appearance. Note that leave-in conditioners may not always contain cetyl alcohol even if they appear creamy.
Is Cetyl Alcohol Bad for Your Hair?
As mentioned, cetyl alcohol mixes the water and oils in a conditioner. Without it, the conditioner would separate out in the bottle into watery and oily parts. It would be difficult to spread the conditioner in that case. So, the alcohol helps with easier application.
But it is also believed to have another role to play in your hair care regimen. After the conditioner is rinsed off, some of the alcohol may remain in the form of deposits on the hair and leave your hair feeling soft.
There is no evidence (from studies we’ve seen) that the alcohol penetrates the hair strand. It is a long chain alcohol with 16 carbons on the chain. Most substances that are able to penetrate the hair strand are only 3 to 4 carbons long.
The substance also does not clean your hair very well. It is a non-ionic substance – meaning it does not get charged when mixed with water (unlike detergents and surfactants used for washing). Cetyl alcohol is also a surfactant (something which helps solids to be wetted easily) since it reduces the surface tension of water and helps it to penetrate the oils in a conditioner. But as it is not “charged” it cannot bind with dirt and oils for cleaning purposes.
What About Stearyl Alcohol and Cetostearyl Alcohol?
Stearyl alcohol and cetosteryl alcohol are commonly listed cosmetic ingredients that are similar to cetyl alcohol. Stearyl alcohol is essentially just cetyl alcohol with two additional carbons on the chain. Cetostearyl alcohol is a combination of the two, as the name might suggest.
So, is cetyl alcohol bad for your hair? We don’t think so. We haven’t found any evidence that convinces us that ladies should avoid this particular alcohol.