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Stearyl alcohol is a fatty alcohol that generally is not damaging to the skin, unlike other chemical-based alcohols. A product that is labeled “alcohol free” usually is free of harsh alcohols, but it most likely does contain fatty alcohols. These substances can, in fact, be quite beneficial for the skin and are excellent moisturizers. Other examples of fatty alcohols are cetyl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol, and lanolin alcohol.
Generally, stearyl alcohol is derived from coconut oil. In skincare products, it functions as an emulsifier and an emollient. An emulsifier is a compound used to help bind together the oil and liquid in the product. This keeps the oil and liquid from separating out over time. An emulsifier also functions to keep the finished product from generating foam when shaken.
As an emollient, this form of alcohol serves to soften the skin. It enhances a skincare product's moisturizing properties and functions as a humectant — a humectant allows water to bind to the skin. This helps give the skin a soft and smooth look and helps to maintain that appearance. Stearyl alcohol is usually found in products such as creams, lubricants, conditioners, and depilatories.
Stearyl alcohol is found naturally in many cases, and because of this and its chemical makeup, it is not considered a precursor for cancer or developmental problems. It also has a low rate of irritation or sensitization.
Alcohols that generally should be avoided in skincare products include ethyl alcohol, ethanol, methanol, denatured alcohol, methyl alcohol, benzyl alcohol, isopropyl alcohol, and SD alcohol. These alcohols are harsh and can have a severe impact on the state of a person's skin. Side effects of use can include dryness and irritation. More seriously, alcohol can dilate the blood vessels in the skin, which creates a reddish appearance, and reduce the absorption of vitamin A, which can cause wrinkles and fine lines to appear in the skin prematurely.