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Cetyl alcohol is a fatty alcohol often found in skin care products. It’s commonly used as an emulsifier, helping to keep ingredients -- especially oil and water -- from separating and ensuring that the given product spreads smoothly over the skin. It also tends to attract and hold moisture, helping to hydrate your skin. Like many ingredients, there’s always the potential for an adverse reaction, so cetyl alcohol may not always be the best option for sensitive skin.
Cetyl alcohol is often considered mildly comedogenic. This simply means that the ingredients may partially clog your pores -- or at least contribute to a partial blockage. If you have acne-prone skin, skin care products with this ingredient might encourage a breakout. It may also worsen existing acne.
Cetyl alcohol is also considered a mild irritant. Not as high on the irritant scale as acetone, colloidal sulfur or isopropyl alcohol, for example, but it may still irritate the skin. This is especially problematic for people with sensitive skin. Your skin could identify this ingredient as an irritant -- or even an allergen, for that matter -- and lead to contact dermatitis, resulting in inflammation along the application site.
Don't confuse cetyl alcohol with cetyl acetate. Though they share the same prefix, the two ingredients are quite different. Cetyl acetate is actually a lanolin, not a fatty alcohol. Like cetyl alcohol, it acts as both an emulsifier and a moisturizer, but cetyl acetate is highly comedogenic. Your chances of a breakout are higher when using products containing cetyl acetate than those that have neither cetyle acetate nor cetyl alcohol. Cetyl acetate, however, isn’t as likely to cause skin irritation as cetyl alcohol.
Everyone’s skin responds differently to skin care products. You may find -- even with sensitive skin -- that lotions, conditioners or shampoos containing cetyl alcohol have no adverse effects on your skin. Your skin may not recognize it as an irritant, or the fatty alcohol may be so far down the list of ingredients that its concentration isn’t enough to cause skin problems. If you have sensitive skin and find a product you love with cetyl alcohol, you don’t need to stop using it if it doesn’t cause acne or skin irritation. When in doubt, talk to a dermatologist to help determine which products are best suited for your skin.