What Is Cetrimonium Chloride? Safety Guidelines and Usage Data - Public Goods Blog

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What Is Cetrimonium Chloride? Safety Guidelines and Usage Data

If you have long, curly, or frizzy hair, you understand the importance of a high-quality conditioner.

girl running her hands through colored hair

At a certain length, it’s no longer a luxury — it’s a necessity. While taking care of your voluptuous mane, you probably stopped to wonder why some conditioners are so effective and what that means about the safety of the ingredients.

Reader, meet cetrimonium chloride. This chemical compound has been depositing itself into each of your hair strands for years, resulting in a shiny, smooth ‘do. But don’t worry, you haven’t exposed yourself to a health emergency. Recent data suggests it’s perfectly safe in its proper uses and concentrations.

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What is Cetrimonium Chloride (Cetyltrimethylammonium Chloride)?

Cetrimonium chloride, also known as cetyltrimethylammonium chloride (CTAC) and N,N,N,-trimethyl, is a topical surfactant found in personal care products, particularly for hair.

As a chloride, you’ll find this alcohol-like ingredient in cosmetic crafting shops in the form of a clear liquid.

Chemically, it is a cationic long-chain quaternary ammonium surfactant that is often combined with long-chain fatty alcohols, like stearic alcohol, by formulators of hair conditioner and shampoo.

Practically, cetrimonium chloride smooths strands of hair to control frizz, fly-aways, and rambunctious curls. In fact, this chemical is so effective at detangling wind-whipped hair that you’ve almost certainly used it. It’s as common in hair conditioning agents as soap is to shampoo.

What Does Cetrimonium Chloride do for Hair? How it Works

Often confused with silicone because of the lightweight feel it gives every lock, cetrimonium chloride is actually a quaternary ammonium surfactant, or ‘quat’ for short. Other quaternary ammonium compounds include polyquaternium-7 and quaternium-15 and yes, you’ll see them on many hair care product labels as well.

As a surfactant, it acts more like a detergent that lifts dirt, debris, and oil and reduces static electricity-induced fly-aways.

woman combing lather through back of hair

This chemical bond looks like a tadpole; a single positive charge at the headgroup leads a tail of bonds that straighten out stubborn, dry hair. Because it’s a cationic surfactant (meaning positively charged), it attracts the negative charges produced by the daily shuffle, especially in cold, dry weather. It’s anti-frizz and anti-static.

Cetrimonium chloride is also an emulsifier, meaning it helps mix two or more solutions that would normally separate (i.e. oil and water). Because shampoo and conditioner can be made with natural plant oils but is meant to be water-soluble, this ingredient helps create a perfect texture, look, and lather.

Is Cetrimonium Chloride Safe?

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) gives cetrimonium chloride a 4 on the safety scale, with its worst score in the allergies and immunotoxicity category.

Of course, we strive for products with a score of 0. But let’s take a closer look.

A peer-reviewed article published in Cosmetic Ingredients Review asserts that with appropriate concentrations of the chemical, no reaction or sensitization is observed. These concentrations included skin exposure to 2% cetrimonium chloride and repeated insult patch tests (6 weeks of skin pokes with the chemical) of concentrations of up to 0.25%.

The analysts and writers of the report concluded that the ingredient is “safe for use in rinse-off products and […] safe for use at concentrations of up to 0.25% in leave-on products.”

Finally, it’s on the list of accepted preservatives created by the European
At this point, you might be wondering, “So is the amount of cetrimonium chloride in my shampoo safe?”

While it’s typically purchased in a 30% concentration, by the time it’s mixed with the other condition ingredients, soaps, and plant oils, most conditioners contain less than 2% of this ingredient. The FDA has reported this ingredient as being commonly found in lotion at 0.2%.

This ingredient can be made synthetically, but Public Goods derives it from vegetable oils. In addition, we use dimethicone, a skin protectant, to keep our conditioner as gentle as possible.

Risk Factors of Cetrimonium Chloride

The FDA, EWG, and the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) stress the fact that this chemical may cause eye and skin irritation. Therefore, consider skipping this ingredient when making baby shampoo formulations.

If you want to be sure you’re avoiding any irritating quats, try Public Goods’ Shampoo Bar made with saponified plant oils and aloe vera juice for hair. It’s RSPO certified, paraben-free, cruelty-free, sulfate-free, eco-friendly, vegan-friendly, organic, and does not contain cetyl trimethyl ammonium chloride. Smells nice, too! (Naturally fragranced, of course.)

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Quat’s Up With Cetrimonium Chloride?

It’s hard to believe that chemical ingredients with intimidating names can be safe, but many of them are derived from natural ingredients. That’s why it’s so important as a consumer to do your due diligence. Good on ya!

Used responsibly by formulators, cetyl trimethyl ammonium chloride is generally regarded as safe in rinse-off products like conditioner. Combined with dimethicone and calming ingredients like aloe vera gel, minor skin irritations may be non-issue altogether.

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