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Grab the closest skin-care product to you, and look at its ingredient list — chances are high cetyl alcohol makes an appearance at the top of the list, near good ol' water. Just glancing at the word alcohol might make your skin start feeling parched and itchy after years of overdrying with alcohol-based astringents in the ‘90s. But fear not, cetyl alcohol is nothing of the sort. It doesn't even fall into the same family as the alcohol you add to your margaritas or powers your hand sanitizer. In fact, the FDA permits beauty brands to label their products “alcohol-free" even if it contains cetyl alcohol, says Ohio-based dermatologist Hope Mitchell.
We asked dermatologists to share why cetyl alcohol is an essential ingredient in moisturizers and lotions.
Cetyl alcohol is a waxy-like solid added to lotions and creams to help stabilize and bind their ingredients together "to prevent them from separating into an oil or liquid," according to New York City-based board-certified dermatologist Marina Peredo.
Another function of cetyl alcohol is extending a product's shelf life, as well as amping up its viscosity to make it feel richer and more concentrated, cosmetic chemist Ginger King adds.
The alcohols typically used in skin care can be categorized into three different kinds: simple, fatty, and aromatic. Simple alcohols, such as isopropyl (aka rubbing alcohol), ethanol, or methanol, are what we're used to irritating and drying out our complexions while having a strong, nasal hair-burning scent. They are typically added to skin-care products as a "degreasing agent used after cleansing the skin and prior to applying a chemical peel for best absorption," Mitchell says.
Fatty alcohols, like cetyl alcohol, do just the opposite. (More on that soon.) Typically, they are derived from vegetable oils, particularly palm and coconut, King says. However, in the past, cetyl alcohol wasn't vegan at all — it was extracted from sperm whale oil.
Michelle and Jenny tapped dermatologist Claire Chang to share why hydration is the key to plump skin and the best ingredients to achieve it.
Other than acting as an emulsifier or thickener in skin-care products, cetyl alcohol is also an occlusive agent, similar to petroleum. It's "great at protecting the skin barrier from drying out and preventing water loss," explains Pittsburg-based board-certified dermatologist Lindsey Zubritsky.
For these same reasons, cetyl alcohol can also shield skin from bacteria and allergens, Peredo adds. The ingredient also packs softening effects to prevent skin from being dry, rough, and itchy.
Due to these benefits, cetyl alcohol is safe for basically every skin type, both Peredo and Zubritsky agree. It's generally considered safe and effective with no disadvantages. The only major caveat is those with a history of sensitive skin, eczema, allergic contact dermatitis, or rosacea, should patch-test prior to slathering on products with this ingredient, Zubritsky advises.
Peredo swears by the lightweight texture of the First Aid Beauty Ultra Repair Face Moisturizer, which helps calm and relieves dry skin. "I also like that it is vegan, cruelty-free, gluten-free, and fragrance-free," she adds. If you're looking for a more affordable option, she also recommends The Ordinary's Natural Moisturizing Factors + HA. Packed with amino acids, hyaluronic acid, and dermal lipids, the face cream helps quench the thirst of all skin types.
First Aid Beauty Ultra Repair Face Moisturizer
The Ordinary Natural Moisturizing Factors + HA
Zubritsky and Mitchell's list of favorite cetyl alcohol-spiked products both start off with the beloved CeraVe Moisturizing Cream, which has won Best of Beauty and Readers' Choice Awards over the years for its no-frills, fragrance-free formula. You'll want to layer it on after washing your skin with another longtime Allure pick from Zubritsky: the Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser.
CeraVe Moisturizing Cream
Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser
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