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Ingredient: Hydroxyethylcellulose

Fast Facts

Type of Ingredient: A preservative, emulsifier, binder, and thickener in beauty products

Main Uses and Benefits: It's a water-soluble polymer that provides colloid protection. It makes skin and hair products thicker and easier to apply on the skin or hair.

Find It In: It is found in most personal care items such as shampoos, body washes, moisturizing gels, shower and other bath products.

How Often Can You Use It: It can be used daily.

What Is Hydroxyethylcellulose?

Hydroxyethylcellulose is a cellulose-derived polymer that is used in cosmetics and personal care products as a thickening and gelling agent, as well as a rheology modifier.It will create crystal-clear gel products and thicken the water portion of the cosmetic formula. It can also be used to thicken shampoos, body washes, and shower gels.

Hydroxyethylcellulose appears as a white to off-white powder at room temperature and is effective at dissolving large particles without creating large lumps on the solution. It is referred to as a nonionic thickener in most industries


The Benefits of Hydroxyethylcellulose

1. Adds thickness to creams and lotions

Thickening agents are an important part of cosmetic formulas. More than 500 thickeners are registered in the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI) dictionary. Cellulose derivatives are common aqueous (water) thickeners. Even though dry hydroxyethylcellulose exists as a white, free-flowing granular powder, when it's added to water, it causes the powder to swell into a crystal-clear gel. In fact, of all the natural polymers, hydroxyethylcellulose forms one of the clearest serums and gels.

2. Improves a skin or hair product’s texture and feel

Hydroxyethylcellulose is also considered to be a rheology modifier. Rheology can be labeled as “the science or study of how things flow,” and it is necessary for personal care products to flow in the right way. For example, a skin cream should have a rich, thick appearance in the jar, but should be capable of being easily picked up and spread into the skin. Rheology modifiers can be added to a formula to improve the product texture and feel.

3. Reduces the skincare cream’s irritation potential

While improving the apparent viscosity will produce a feeling of “quality” to the product, it's only one aspect of rheological control.. In shampoos and cleansers, hydroxyethylcellulose enhances foam creaminess and richness. This allows the manufacturer to use less surfactant while also reducing the irritation potential, hence making the cleanser more gentle and effective.

4. Makes hair gels less sticky and flaky

Finally, hydroxyethylcellulose is a great choice for a clear hair gel. It offers a soft hold and a nice feel on the hair without stickiness or flaking.


Is Hydroxyethylcellulose Safe?

Hydroxyethylcellulose's safety has been assessed by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) Expert Panel. The Panel evaluated the scientific data and concluded that this ingredient was safe to be used in cosmetics and personal care products.There is one potential safety concern with hydroxyethylcellulose: the contamination with 1,4-dioxane, a substance known to possibly contribute to some cancers.

Hydroxyethylcellulose is made by reacting ethylene oxide with alkali-cellulose, a method known as ethoxylation. Ethoxylation can generate small amounts of 1,4-dioxane and leave residual ethylene oxide in the product. 1,4-dioxane is a known animal carcinogen that penetrates quickly into the skin. 1,4-dioxane has also been associated with skin allergies and is a kidney toxin, neurotoxin, and a respiratory toxin.

The potential presence of 1,4-dioxane can be managed through purification steps to remove it before blending hydroxyethylcellulose into cosmetic formulations. Therefore, it is critical to validate the safety of ingredients used with testing at the raw material stage.


  • Wikipedia, “Hydroxyethylcellulose”
  • Cosmetics Info, “Hydroxyethylcellulose”
  • Ingredients to Die For, “Hydroxyethylcellulose”, J. Univ. Chem. Technol. Metal. 2007 42. 187-194
  • Cosmetic Science Technology, “Rheology Modifiers for Skin Care Applications”, 2007
  • Organic Consumers Association, “1,4-Dioxane and Cosmetic Safety”