What are fatty alcohols and why are they commonly used in cosmetics?

Made from fatty acids, fatty alcohols are used in cosmetics as thickening agents and co-emulsifiers.

Fatty alcohols are not the be confused with alcohol, e.g. ethanol. Alcohol has a completely different function in skincare products (e.g. preservation) and can be drying or irritating on skin, while sugar alcohols, e.g. glycerin or xylitol, and fatty alcohols have moisturising and conditioning properties.

Since fatty alcohols are surfactants (surface-active ingredients), individuals with sensitive skin may not tolerate them very well and that’s why we’ve chosen to minimize them in our leave-on products. The replacement of fatty alcohols is quite challenging, but can be done by choosing optimal emulsifiers and other natural thickeners, like gums.

In our Milk Cleanser we use a fatty alcohol called cetyl alcohol as a thickener and co-emulsifier. Since the cleanser is a wash-off product, the cetyl alcohol should not irritate even sensitive skin. In our Face Cream, a leave-on product, we have chosen to use different kinds of gums, such as xanthan and sclerotium, and lecithin as thickeners instead of fatty alcohol, so not to irritate sensitive skin.