Cetearyl Alcohol, including Cetyl Alcohol, Acetylene, Cetearyl Stearyl and Behenyl Alcohol are fatty alcohols. They are white, waxy, solid materials in the form of flakes. They are typically derived from coconut and are solids at room temperature, therefore must be melted for use in cosmetic formulations.
These Alcohols are mainly used as a conditioning agent in hair and skin products or as a thickener and (or) emulsifiers to emulsify oils into water in creams, conditioners, treatments, face, hand and body lotions.
People often misinterpret the above mentioned alcohols when reading ingredient listings. These alcohols ARE NOT drying; instead, they are actually conditioning to hair and skin.
Regular alcohol (Ethyl Alcohol) is one of the most common alcohols used in cosmetics and is also referred to as Ethanol, SD Alcohol, Alcohol Denat or Simply Alcohol on some haircare and cosmetic ingredient listings. It is found in beer and wine, as well as in hairsprays, gels and facial toners. To ensure people (especially kids) do not drink hairspray, the ethanol used in haircare and cosmetic formulations is denatured, which creates a bitter taste.
Ethanol is typically derived from sugars, mostly from corn. It is a liquid at room temperature. An important characteristic of Alcohol (Ethanol) which is vital to manufacturing hairsprays is it is evaporates rapidly (much more rapidly than water.) The fast-drying activity of alcohol allows the fixative to be sprayed onto the surface of hair without 'wetting' the hair – which would ruin the style.
So, in the case of hairsprays, the alcohol (ethanol) used is the vehicle to deposit the fixative on hair. In such formulations, the percentage of ethanol would be from 10% to 30%. The amount of alcohol sprayed onto hair is minimal and will not cause a drying or damaging effect with typical use
Fatty (Solid) Alcohols - used in Conditioners, Treatments and Lotions.
Footnote: Alcohol hand sanitisers may contain 50% or more alcohol in order to effectively kill bacteria. Ethanol (Alcohol) may be used as a solvent in skin care preparations to assist in preservation.
Liquid (Dry) Alcohols - used in Hairsprays
There is a lot of misinformation and misconceptions about the term 'Alcohol' used in cosmetics and haircare products that unfortunately are perpetuated across the internet and media.
Many manufactures use both ethanol and fatty alcohols (See differences below) to effectively formulate exquisite, high-end haircare and cosmetic products, and with typical usage they WILL NOT dry out or damage hair or skin.