Monday, 10 January 2011

Ingredients Dictionary: Cetyl Alcohol, Stearyl Alcohol, Cetostearyl Alcohol

Today's ingredient is one which everyone asks about. It is a main (even ubiquitous) ingredient in conditioner but is not really one that people rave about.

I have combined these three alcohols with good reason...........read on! (I  sometimes refer to cetyl alcohol alone for simplicity but all the information here applies to all three!)


CETYL ALCOHOL, STEARYL ALCOHOL AND CETOSTEARYL ALCOHOL

Property
Notes
What is it? A fatty alcohol ( meaning it is an alcohol which comes from fat). It does not behave like a 'real alcohol' for example ethanol or propanol .
Where is it derived from? Commonly coconut oil and palm oil
How is it made? Cetyl alcohol is made by heating coconut oil with a strong base (for example lye - sodium hydroxide). This process is the same process used to make soap (saponification)
What is the difference between cetyl, stearyl and cetostearyl alcohol Cetyl and Stearyl alcohol are very similar. Stearyl alcohol is a slightly longer version of cetyl alcohol having two additional carbons (i.e Cetyl has 16 carbons while Stearyl has 18). Cetostearyl alcohol is simply a combination of cetyl and stearyl alcohol (did you guess from the name?).
Where will you find fatty alcohols in hair products? Hair conditioners (both rinse out and leave in).
 
ACTION IN HAIR CONDITIONER
What do fatty alcohols do in hair conditioner? Hair conditioner is a mix of water and oils. However oils and water do not mix...........unless you add a surfactant to them. When oil and water are mixed,  the resulting solution is known as an emulsion. Therefore you will commonly hear cetyl alcohol and the rest of the fatty alcohols being referred to as emulsifiers (i.e the things that help oil and water to mix)
How much cetyl alcohol is added to conditioner. Typically between 2 and 4% (can be lower or high)
Is cetyl alcohol a major component of hair conditioner? Yes for rinse out and deep treatments. It will normally appear within the first 5 ingredients after water.It is responsible for the creamy look of conditioners.
 
ACTION ON HAIR
So does cetyl alcohol really do anything to hair itself? Yes it has some effect on hair. During conditioning, cetyl alcohol is responsible for allowing conditioner to spread easily over the hair. Without it, the conditioner would probably separate out in the bottle (into water and oil) and on hair would be difficult to spread.

Once rinsed off, some cetyl alcohol is thought to deposit on the surface of hair (i.e cuticle). This will create a feeling of softness (hair may not be soft but feels soft!).
Since it is a surfactant can it wash hair? Not really. It is large and non ionic (meaning it does not have a charge when placed in water). Small charged surfactants tend to be the best for oil removal (i.e shampooing)
Does cetyl alcohol penetrate hair There are no published studies to indicate that it does. It is unlikely that it would as it is large (things that normally penetrate undamaged hair are 3-4 carbons in length - cetyl alcohol is a massive 16 carbons).
Is cetyl alcohol a major component of hair conditioner? Yes it is for rinse out and deep treatments. It will normally appear within the first 5 ingredients after water. Creamy leave ins may or may not have cetyl alcohol as a major components.

Sources for this article:
1. J Cosmet Sci, pp 37-56, 2006
2. Int J Cosmet Sci, pp 47-59, 2004.

Any Questions?

44 comments:

  1. very helpful JC (chm)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. yes the reason I am asking is, because I am on a scram braclet, and I was wondering if the products woukld affect me in any way whether using on my skin or on my hair

      Delete
  2. Hi Hi :) welcome back! lol

    I have a question - since these are made with lye ... does that make them "dangerous/bad" for our hair?

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks CY. The lye is used up in the process of forming these alcohols. The end product (i.e the cetyl alcohol) behaves more like oil. It has no charge in water (therefore no pH) - oils remember have no pH either. It is pretty harmless. (except ofcourse if you have an allergy to nuts in which case coconut oil and alcohols derived from it will be quite harmful).

    ReplyDelete
  4. Great post. I used to be really afraid of alcohol, but when I learned more about it... I stopped stressing about. My fave setting lotion (Sedal Lissage) has cetyl alcohol.Love it!

    ReplyDelete
  5. So true Latoya, there is too much floating out there about how bad alcohols are. These fatty alcohols are really just alcohols in structure but oils in behaviour. Totally different!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Learned alot as usually LC! Thanks for sharing your research with us!

    ReplyDelete
  7. Great post! I am learning that all alcohols aren't bad.

    ReplyDelete
  8. hi Jc! I am so glad you posted this. i so often have to reassure people about these alcohols, but somehow there is this big thing out there in the natural world about these particular alcohol being "bad" for the hair. I am a biochemist, and when i read posts or watch videos where they "backstab" my lovely "emulsifiers", i always feel like i need to jump to their defense! lol :) love to see you back and hope 2011 has started off on the right note for you. Happy New year, may it bring you great health (the rest usually follows.).

    ReplyDelete
  9. Thanks LaNeshe

    Thanks hybridomatech - happy new year!

    ReplyDelete
  10. Thanks! I thought everything that said alcohol was bad.

    ReplyDelete
  11. What's My Name Again?11 January 2011 at 01:47

    I found this post very informative. But I wonder about these alcohols ability to wash hair. You/your sources say that they can't really wash hair but as I have understood the conditioner only method it's just these alchohols that do the washing. How does that add up? Or am I missing something here?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The fatty alcohols aren't the main surfactant in conditioners. Cationic surfactants, like Cetrimonium Chloride and Stearamidopropyl Dimethylamine, are.

      Delete
  12. Great post, I like how you broke everything down into laymans terms. I was able to follow along and understand everything and I hate chemistry and science!

    I was wondering about alcohols and the difference between after seeing a comment on twitter about it.

    Thanks again! :)

    Jarmelia

    ReplyDelete
  13. I ♥ JC.....LOL! Thanks for posting your research. I've learned so much from reading your blog, especially what not to stress about regarding hair products. Keep the good stuff coming :)

    ReplyDelete
  14. What's My Name Again - This is the reason why strict no poo routines rarely work long term. While cetyl alcohol and similar fatty alcohols can attach to and remove some oil, their large size actually makes them more interested in depositing onto the hair rather than being washed off. Quite often people will complain about build up due to a conditioner washing routine - the fatty alcohols are the reason.

    Thanks busy body and Jarmelia - I'm glad it was all clear!

    I ♥ you too Mikimu :)

    ReplyDelete
  15. I'm new to your blog and I'm already loving it! This post was very helpful.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Very interesting info (in your last comment) about co-washing not being effective. I have been resistant to co-washing on instinct. Looks like the instincts were right, and now I know why. Thanks a bunch for all the science!

    ReplyDelete
  17. Great post as always, Jc!

    I wonder why you said the hair may feel soft, but not be soft. As consumers, aren't we looking for "feel" anyway?

    ReplyDelete
  18. Thanks again all.

    Little One - I want to get across the point that the reason why the hair feels soft is because of the deposits on it. Some people want their 'naked' hair to feel soft but that is more a question of what your hair texture feels like.

    ReplyDelete
  19. I surely agree with that. A lot of people don't hesitate to describe their hair as "coarse" but then expect their naked hair to feel soft. There was quite a Twitter debate about this ingredient earlier today.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Fascinating post! Consider me now no longer scared of everything that ends in "alcohol". I love being informed!

    ReplyDelete
  21. Incredibly helpful - thanks for the clarification. I can now point my friends to this when they ask about these 'alcohols' and whether they are bad for our hair!

    ReplyDelete
  22. Hey JC! Great post as usual ...

    Are you planning on doing a post about the actual BAD alcohols that might be present in certain products so that people can easily identify the good vs the bad ones and not be scared of ALL of them but cautious of specific ones?

    ReplyDelete
  23. JC, if Cetyl Alcohol can't cleansed the hair, does this mean its really not affect as a co-wash? This is promoted vs uses regular shampoos in the natural hair care community. When I try to use regular shampoo I can't use them too often because my hair does feel stripped or dried out. How can we effectively wash our hair, with what do we use, and how often?

    ReplyDelete
  24. Do you know anything about the taste and edibility of these compounds? I want to use them to emulsify oil and water in a drink, but I'm not sure if that would be unhealthy, unpalatable, or both. I'm sure one doesn't need more than a tiny drop to emulsify it.

    ReplyDelete
  25. Thanks I've seen this everywhere and would wonder if it was ok for my hair thanks very helpful!!

    ReplyDelete
  26. so helpful! I kept reading that alcohol is bad, and to this day, I have only found TWO conditioners that are "alcohol" free (including cetyl alcohol). Now I'm not afraid of cetyl alcohol!! I would like to know more about the "bad alcohol" though :) I wish the ingredients in hair products were more simple. I have to say that is one of the perks of all natural products. Ingredients don't require extensive chemistry knowledge to know whether they are good or bad for you! Great blog, thanks!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Rebecca which are the two products you have forund as I have an allergy to ctyl alcohol and im looking for brands with out it
      Thank you
      Melanie

      Delete
  27. As far as the no shampoo/conditioner only set goes. I have found that the build up issue comes from the siliconesb and glycerines in the conditioner. Once i figured that out and used a conditioner that does have cetyl alcohol high in the list but free of the other two, I haven't needed shampoo AND have no build up. Food for thought

    ReplyDelete
  28. will cetyl , steryl or denatured alcohol show as positive on an ankle braclet called the scram? it detects alcohol use through the pores of your skin? any info. would be great

    ReplyDelete
  29. according to ur article, cetyl alcohol is mainly used in hair products. but what if it used in other product such as cream..is there any side effect to the skin

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, cetyl alcohol and stearyl alcohol can cause problems for people with eczema, dermatitis or sensitive skin. I recently had a patch test (on the NHS) which showed I am allergic to both, and this is a real problem because nearly all skin creams, including those specifically designed for eczema, contain it/them. I have found it very difficult to find a moisturiser and impossible to find a hair conditioner which does not. I think that everyone who is having persistent problems with creams and conditioners should have a patch test, and it is vital to read the small print on every product = toiletries, cosmetics, prescribed topical medication, household cleaners etc.

      Delete
  30. Wow, thanks so much for the info! I ordered a 4 lb canister of cetyl alcohol and it just arrived in the mail today. It's in flakes, and I realized I didn't have much of an idea what to do with it, so I started looking for information. Looks like I may have a lifetime supply - haha!

    I've been co-washing for several months and I've been mostly happy with the results, but it's expensive: about $5 of Aubrey's Island Naturals conditioner each wash (about once a week) if I use it for my entire length (to knee). Aside from the expense, I'd like to make a conditioner that is easier to rinse out while being just as effective at grabbing oils because I like to oil-treat my hair before washing. I predict lots of experimentation in my future. :)

    ReplyDelete
  31. Jc, your explanation of the three different alcohols was wonderful (Cetyl, Stearyl and Cetostearyl) dated January 10, 2011. My situation: I have been prescribed Minoxidil due to alopecia from PAD. The alcohol is the prescription causes me horrible dermatitis and I am desperately searching for any other alcohol that can dissolve minoxidil and not be harmful to my scalp, etc. Benzyl alcohol scares me due to it's skin sensitizer capabilities. However, with what you have said about the above 3 alcohols......"Is there any information you can tell me about their ability to dissolve prescribed drugs (such as minoxidil) or are they used in that manner ?" Thank you very much. Joanne

    ReplyDelete
  32. Oh my goodness I love this blog. I wish I knew of this site when I first went Natural.

    ReplyDelete
  33. I finally found a site that uses SCIENCE with haircare. I've been searching for this, very glad I found it.

    ReplyDelete
  34. Thank you for your brief analysis of hair-cetyl alcohol chemistry. You've taken chemistry outside of the classroom.
    Saviour Ekiko

    ReplyDelete
  35. Hi, I just can't understand sometime, because other articles said that to reduce harm to hair or dry out the hair, we shall use alcohol free product, but i find every kind of brand, even the expensive and well-known brand, the conditioner will have cetyl alcohol as ingredient. And those product review isn't bad and it didn't dry out the hair like other article said for alcohol based product. Won't this be conflicts? Shall we use this alcohol conditioner or shall we find a alcohol-free conditioner?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Please see the first sentence - fatty alcohols are not the same as alcohols such as ethanol.

      Delete
  36. I can't believe I have been searching for a conditioner without any 'alcohol' for ages. Little wonder I haven't found any yet. I didn't realize there was a difference between the alcohol in conditioners and the other we drink.Thanks for this post!

    ReplyDelete
  37. I have been making soaps and lotions for 20 years now and have been researching this issue for many of those years and truly grateful to you not only for your extensive research, but being able to break this down into terms that everyone can relate to. Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
  38. Does that mean that non of the "fatty" includes animal derived ingredients?

    ReplyDelete

I love comments! All comments are moderated so they will only appear on the blog once I approve them.