Cetyl alcohol is pretty unassuming. Give it a cursory glance and it looks like white dust—teensy little moderately glossy blobs and specks of nothing all too exciting. Cetyl alcohol is a saturated fatty alcohol derived from coconuts, with a melting point of 49°C (120°F), which still doesn’t sound all that exciting, frankly. I swear you’ll be stoked about it by the end of this post, though!
I added a bag of cetyl alcohol to my DIY cupboard sometime last summer, and ever since then I’ve been dabbling with it; adding a little bit to this lotion or that bar, just for a bit of fun. And, as tends to happen when I introduce a new ingredient to my recipes, I’ve been getting a lot of questions about alternatives. So, in order to help with those questions (and why I typically say no, there is no good substitution), I wanted to do one of my quick guides using cetyl alcohol.
So, why do we use cetyl alcohol? I see it most often in lotions and creams, where it’s usually used around 3%. Cetyl alcohol offers thickening, but more than that, it also improves the slip and glide of lotions. Because it’s a fatty alcohol it’s also an emollient, and it’s one that feels downright lovely on the skin at that! One of the biggest issues with trying to use a wax like beeswax instead of cetyl alcohol is that it only does one of the things cetyl alcohol does—the thickening—and then does the opposite in terms of slip and glide. I’ve found wax in lotions (especially lighter ones) tends to create a tacky end product that’s rather disappointing.
Lotions aside, after this experiment and the project that’ll be out on the 29th of this month, I’m really excited about the 100% oil based applications of cetyl alcohol. It hardens with the strength of a wax, but offers incredible slip and a wonderful, almost silicone-like finish that is beyond luxurious and impossible to achieve with waxes. It is so cool! And cheap! You should definitely get some, ’cause where we’re using it, nothing else compares.
Before we dive into the experiment, let’s talk procedure. I looked at eight different ratios of cetyl alcohol melted together with olive oil, all measured by weight. The first number is always cetyl alcohol, the second is always olive oil. Each part is a single gram, so 3:1 is 3 grams cetyl alcohol, 1 gram olive oil. 1:4 is 1 gram cetyl alcohol, 4 grams olive oil. I weighed the ingredients into individual glass dishes, placed each dish in a hot water bath to melt everything through, and swirled to combine before leaving the dishes to set up for about two hours before beginning the poking and prodding. And now, without further ado—the results!
Rock solid—I can’t dent this with a finger at all. It is very, very, firm. Running a finger over the top of it doesn’t cause any noticeable melt—it feels dry and almost powdery. I can scrape up some small, flakey shavings with a finger nail. These shavings disappear into my skin when I massage them in, but in a rather odd way. They don’t seem to melt, they just vanish, leaving a powdery, silky dry patch of skin behind. Very cool!
This one is also super solid—no finger denting happening here, and running a finger over the surface doesn’t cause any melting. I can scrape up larger flakes (almost curls) with my finger nail. When I massage these into my skin they do pretty much the same as in 3:1; the flakes sort of vanish into my skin when I’ve worked them out into small enough bits. The slip is good (especially if you’re used to working with wax—there actually is slip, not skid!). I can tell I applied something to my skin in that it feels softer and smoother, but there isn’t a hint of tack or oiliness; just silky dry smoothness.
Still very solid; I can’t dent it with a finger pad. This is the first one where I can get a bit of surface melt from running my finger across the surface of it, though, which is neat. It has the creaminess of a beeswax balm, but none of the tack or slow absorption. When I scrape up bits with my finger nail they don’t flake off; they clump together on the nail. That clump is surprisingly soft when I pick it up given how firm the mixture was in the dish on its own. It massages into the skin beautifully; it stays soft and pliable as I mash it around, never liquefying around the edges. The finish on the skin is beautiful; smooth and a bit silicone-y. No tack, fantastic slip.
This one is still solid, but we’re starting to get some give. It’s also slightly translucent. At first I thought I wouldn’t be able to dent it with my finger, but then my thumb popped through the harder surface layer and I was able to smear the mixture around a bit. It is soft, but doesn’t liquefy on contact with the skin. The slip is divine; I can massage a nugget of it into my skin for upwards of thirty seconds and it just keeps moving in the loveliest, silky manner, leaving a smooth, non-greasy finish. It’s fantastic. Seriously, I feel spoiled.
This one is definitely translucent, and has a bit of a crystallized appearance to it, which is neat. The surface is still firm, but once I press through it’s clear there’s a harder layer on top and the underbits and soft and a bit gooey. Running my finger over the surface quickly starts to melt the mixture and results in some lovely, silky slip. There’s great slip as I massage a bit into my arm, but it does seem like the slip is reducing in comparison to 1:2—interesting. Perhaps the olive oil has worse slip than the cetyl alcohol? In any event this mixture is still lovely—it’s even a bit oil-gel like.
This is the first one that definitely begins to liquefy when set on the skin, though it holds its structure fairly well until its rubbed in. The appearance is distinctly crystal like in the dish, and even when I scoop it out (before it starts to melt, at least). That’s pretty cool! I massaged a small dollop into my leg and it absorbed quite quickly, leaving a patch that was obviously not dry like the surrounding skin, but wasn’t shiny and oily looking. Still very silky, no tack or stickiness of any kind.
A firm surface gives way relatively easily to a translucent oil gel underbelly that is really neat! It’s basically just a thick oil, which I am pretty keen on. The slip and absorption speed are starting to be a lot more olive oil-like rather than cetyl alcohol like, meaning the mixture is starting to absorb faster with less of a silky/powdery finish. It’s still lovely, just much more familiar. If you needed to give a bit of body to an otherwise liquid oil serum or massage oil, this could be the way to do it.
This one is like 1:5, just moreso. It’s a bit softer, absorbs a bit faster, and liquefies a bit more enthusiastically. Very neat!
- Cetyl alcohol is so much more than just a thickening ingredient! It offers the most wonderful slip and finish, even in high concentrations—it’s the complete opposite of wax in that regard
- It’s quite a powerful thickener, though definitely not as strong as the waxes; I’m ok with that as it’s still nice in high concentrations, so I can use lots of it and get the same level of thickening/hardening that I’d get from wax without the awful texture side effects
- It’ll create oil-gel-ish concoctions at 1:3+
- It basically just thickens oils after ~1:3, which is really neat; if you need a liquid oil, just with a bit more viscosity, cetyl alcohol is the thing you want!
- Don’t try to use wax for cetyl alcohol. Especially beeswax. It’s so much tackier and stickier, and that’s not at all what we want when we choose cetyl alcohol!
|3:1||Very||Yes||It vanishes into the skin but never really melts.||No||Very good|
|1:2||Firm||Yes, but not once you start handling it||Average||No||Great|