Cetearyl alcohol certainly isn’t the most exciting ingredient in my DIY pantry, but it is easily one of my hardest working ingredients! If you don’t already have some on hand, I hope this post can convince you to invest in some 😊 These unassuming white pellets are crazy useful—I use cetearyl alcohol in everything from conditioner bars to sugar scrubs to lotions to facial cleansers. Cetearyl alcohol is inexpensive, versatile, and pretty dang shelf-stable. I think you should have some. Not convinced? Keep reading!

10 Recipes to Make with Cetearyl Alcohol

What is cetearyl alcohol?

Cetearyl alcohol is a blend of cetyl alcohol and stearyl alcohol—two fatty alcohols. It can come in 50/50 and 30/70 blends; I always use 30/70. Check with your supplier before purchasing so you know what you’re getting; if yours is different from mine you’ll likely notice a difference in the consistency and feel of your finished products, but that will vary.

Cetearyl alcohol melts around 50°C (122°F). For comparison, shea butter melts around 37°C (98.6°F), cocoa butter melts around 34°C (93.2°F), and coconut oil melts around 24°C (75.2°F). It is oil soluble and solid at room temperature—you’ll usually purchase it as smallish white pellets that are visually indistinguishable from ingredients like Polawax and BTMS-50. Make sure you keep your labels straight!

Cetearyl alcohol doesn’t smell like much of anything, and if you keep it reasonably cool it should last at least two years, if not longer.

What do we use cetearyl alcohol for?

Cetearyl alcohol is both a thickener and an emollient, and it’ll do both jobs in any formulation, though the concentrations it’s used at and the overall formulation will obviously come into play as well.

In lotions, it is often used at lower concentrations (2–5%) to thicken the lotion and add richness. Because it’s a more potent thickener than something like cocoa butter it gives us the ability to add body to emulsions with just a few percentage points, and without increasing the size of the oil phase. While you could thicken a lotion by including a large amount of something like cocoa butter in the formulation you’d need a lot more cocoa butter to get the same end result, and then your lotion contains a lot of cocoa butter—something you may or may not want. You can also thicken emulsions by increasing the size of the oil phase, but that also makes for heavier, slower absorbing end products. Thickening with fatty thickeners like cetearyl alcohol allows you to create thick, creamy lotions that are also lightweight and fast-absorbing.

You can also find cetearyl alcohol used in thicker creams as one of the primary emollients; it not only thickens the emulsion, but also works as one of the rich, fatty ingredients that help moisturize and soften the skin. It can be used instead of, or in combination with, butters and oils like shea or sunflower.

In anhydrous projects, cetearyl alcohol works to thicken, harden, and raise melting points in a rich, buttery way. While waxes like beeswax or candelilla wax can also do this, waxes contribute a stiff waxiness to our concoctions that isn’t always desirable. I like cetearyl alcohol as a thickener in wash-off products like conditioner bars and cleansers as it rinses off far better than waxes and has a much nicer skin feel.

Despite having alcohol in its name, cetearyl alcohol is not a “won’t this dry out my skin?!” kind of alcohol. It is not a volatile alcohol like isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol or ethanol (the active ingredient in many alcohol-based hand sanitizers and the intoxicating element in beverages like beer and vodka). It is pretty much the opposite of those sorts of alcohol, really—cetearyl alcohol is solid, non-volatile, and oil-soluble while drying alcohols are liquid, volatile, and water-soluble. So, no need to worry about your skin drying out from cetearyl alcohol!

Cetearyl alcohol is similar to cetyl alcohol and stearic acid in terms of being a non-waxy thickener/hardener, but all three create products with different end feel, so it’s worth understanding their differences so you can understand why you might choose one instead of another. I did one experiment three times, using each thickener—I highly recommend reading through the results so you can start to understand the differences between each ingredient!

From left to right: cetearyl alcohol, cetyl alcohol, stearic acid.

Is there anything else I should know?

Beyond the 50/50 70/30 thing, you should know that un-whipped anhydrous products thickened solely with cetearyl alcohol can take on a funny applesauce-y consistency, which is why I sometimes prefer to use a blend of cetyl alcohol and stearic acid in a formulation where it would seem like cetearyl alcohol would work just as well.

Also, you’ll sometimes see cetearyl alcohol sold as an emulsifying wax on its own, or described as an emulsifier. It is not an emulsifier. You’ll find it in both BTMS-25 and Emulsifying Wax NF—both are complete emulsifying waxes, but the cetearyl alcohol is there to stabilize, not emulsify (that’s what the Behentrimonium Methosulfate/Polysorbate 60 are for). If you attempt to use cetearyl alcohol as the sole emulsifier in a formulation that calls for an emulsifier like Emulsifying Wax NF, the formulation will fail.

10 Recipes to Make with Cetearyl Alcohol

Soothing Creamy Facial Cleanser

Cetearyl alcohol pops up in this formulation as an emollient and thickener, paired with stearic acid. This cleanser is very generally a lotion with added surfactants; using cetearyl alcohol as one of the emollients helps add body and richness while keeping costs down.

“Made this today with Polawax instead of Glyceryl Stearate and it worked well! Feels lovely on the skin, seems to do the trick of cleaning it too. Added a few drops of lavender oil at cool-down for a subtle scent, which might not work if you have super-sensitive skin.” –Deborah

Watermelon Mint Whipped Sugar Scrub

Whipped sugar scrubs need enough viscosity to support whipping and keep all that sugar from settling out—in this formulation, cetearyl alcohol provides the thickening power to get the viscosity right where we want it! It’s cheaper than using something like cocoa butter (you’d need more cocoa butter, too), and it rinses off far better than a wax would. The potential for cetearyl alcohol to go applesauce-y is off-set by all the sugar and the whipping.

“I made this as soon as you have posted it, following your recipe (almost entirely) and instructions. I must say I love the how it turned out, how it feels on my skin when I apply it and how my skin feels after rinsing it off <3” –Lavinia

Intense Hand Rescue Cream

Cetearyl alcohol and stearic acid work together to give this gorgeous rich hand cream decadent, rich body without feeling greasy or being slow to absorb. I absolutely adore this Intense Hand Rescue Cream—I’ve got a tub on my desk and another on my bedside table! Highly recommended 😊

“I just made this. It’s beautiful! I’ve tried numerous hand creams that were supposed to soften my hands but really didn’t made a lot of difference. This winter my cuticles were terribly dry and nothing would help. After using this amazing cream just once my cuticles softened and my hands are sighing in relief. Thanks so much for this amazing recipe! It’s literally a hand saver!” –knitpicken

Cranberry Orange Conditioner Bar

Conditioner bars need just the right melting point. Too low, and they’ll be too soft to use—too high, and it’s like trying to rub an eraser over your hair! A just-right amount of cetearyl alcohol gives this bar its perfectly melty consistency and also adds emollient, hair-nourishing goodness to the conditioner bar. Compared to using something like wax to harden the bar, cetearyl alcohol has much better slip and rinses out of the hair cleanly and easily.

“I was finally able to make this after waiting weeks for lotioncrafters to get more cetearyl alcohol in stock. The only changes I made to the recipe were using argan oil (or was it rosehip?) instead of cranberry oil, and omitting the dye. I. LOVE. IT. It glides on super easily and really moisturizes my hair. You were so right about this being better for fine hair, as it’s just enough to coat the strands without excess. I’ll never use store-bought conditioner again! Thank you Marie!” –Hana

Lavender Facial Cleansing Bar

This syndet bar gets much of its structure from the solid primary surfactant, Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate (SCI), which features at 50%. The rest of the solid-ness comes from a blend of stearic acid and cetearyl alcohol, which both harden the bar and make it more gentle, much in the same way a superfat does in a bar of soap. The fished bar is a lovely, gentle cleanser—Kachie shared this feedback on it:

“I made this last week and have been using it for a few days now – my skin absolutely loves it! Yesterday I used it to double-cleanse and my skin felt comfortable after, and did not feel stripped of moisture. I was once told by a colleague that it’s a custom in Japan to occasionally not apply moisturiser after cleansing as they believe in allowing the skin to do it’s work naturally. I’ve woken up this morning with fresh supple skin. I swapped out the glycerin for a rose hip and hibiscus glycerite that I made. I want to include more herbs next time I make it. It’s very solid too, so I can see it lasting some time.”

Silky Cream Foundation

I chose cetearyl alcohol to thicken my Silky Cream Foundation because I wanted its richness and its slip. Cetyl alcohol has great slip but melts really thinly—it doesn’t feel rich on the skin the way concoctions thickened with cetearyl alcohol do. Stearic acid has the richness cetyl alcohol doesn’t, but it can also be draggy and stiff, which isn’t something we want in a cream foundation! So, I chose cetearyl alcohol, and it’s lovely ❤️

“Hey Marie! I absolutely love this formula and have made two batches for myself and friends have made countless batches and we all Iove it!” –Kat

Creamy Lip Balm

Most lip balms are thickened/hardened solely with waxes, but for this one, I decided to blend several different thickeners; beeswax & candelilla wax, but also cetearyl alcohol and stearic acid. Incorporating four different thickeners that all offer different types of hardening and different end skin feels allowed me to really fine-tune the feel of this lip balm. It’s rich and creamy (much more so than a candelilla wax only lip balm) but without the tackiness you might associate with beeswax-only lip balms. It’s definitely a fussier-than-average lip balm formulation, but I love it!

“Oh just made this and the texture is so lovely!!!! I don’t know how you possibly made the perfect chapstick but some pulled off some magic!” –Zil

Sugar Plum Cleansing Conditioner

My hair isn’t terribly tolerant of oils (even small amounts of oil tend to make my hair look dirty), so when I make cleansing conditioners for myself I need to keep the oil phase quite small to ensure they leave my hair cleaner than it started. This Sugar Plum Cleansing Conditioner has an oil phase of just 8%, which could be really thin and runny—cetearyl alcohol to the rescue! Cetearyl alcohol is 3% of our 8% oil phase and it gives this conditioner a rich, lovely viscosity without making the end product too rich for my hair.

“I made this as a regular conditioner (omitted the Cocamidopropyl Betain) and this is, hands down, the best conditioner I’ve ever used! I love the consistency, rich yet lightweight. It left my hair so soft, with good volume. The cetrimonium chloride makes such a huge difference! I also had to sub honeyquat for the polyquat (I haven’t been able to find a source yet) and luckily didn’t have issues with odor. Thank you for such a fantastic formula!” –Christen

Basic Moldable Lipstick Base

Much like the Creamy Lip Balm we looked at above, this lipstick base blends a variety of hardeners to get a “just right” end product that can be used in a lipstick mould! Compared to this lip balm, this base doesn’t use any stearic acid, uses more cetearyl alcohol, and has an ever-so-slightly different wax balance. This creates a firmer, less grabby base that can be easily unmoulded when using a firm lipstick mould.

“I just made this base today and then used to make two gorgeous lipsticks. Thank you for the base recipe and then the tints.” –Ruth

Moisturizing Repair Cream

This gorgeous cream features two big firsts for Humblebee & Me; it’s the first cream formulation I shared using a heck of a lot of glycerin (30%!) and it’s the first one that uses glyceryl stearate SE as the sole emulsifier. This richly emollient cream is utterly amazing for dry, unhappy skin. Cetearyl alcohol features as our primary emollient at 5%, along with some shea butter and dimethicone. Though the oil phase is 16%, which is on the lower side (and would usually make for a fairly runny end product), this cream is more solid than liquid thanks to the cetearyl alcohol—but it isn’t really slow-absorbing, because that viscosity doesn’t come from a large oil phase!

“I just finished my last batch. It’s amazing, unlike any other foot/ hand lotions I’ve used – my hands and feet are very soft, perfectly moisturized and my skin tone is more even, more uniform (!) This cream has also helped repairing my fragile nails (genetic issue), which has never happened before. I’ve used your cream with diy egyptian magic 2-3 times / day. I can’t wait to see what else your cream has to offer! Thank you. <3” –Johanna


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