Hydroxyethyl cellulose

Hydroxyethyl cellulose

Fast Facts       


Type of Ingredient: Used as a preservative, emulsifier, binder, and thickener in beauty products. 

Main Benefits: It's a water-soluble polymer that provides colloid protection and can be thickened or thinned.

Who Should Use It:  It is found in most personal care items such as shampoos, body washes, moisturizing gels, shower and bath products.

Ideal For These Concerns: Makes products thicker and easier to apply on the skin or hair.

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


What is Hydroxyethyl Cellulose? 

Hydroxyethyl cellulose 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 aqueous phase of the cosmetic emulsions. It can also be used to thicken shampoos, body washes, and shower gels.

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


The Benefits of Hydroxyethyl Cellulose

In cosmetics and personal care products, hydroxyethyl cellulose functions as a thickening and gelling agent, as well as a rheology modifier.

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.


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 a necessity 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.

While improving the apparent viscosity will produce a feeling of “quality” to the product, it's only one aspect of rheological control. For instance, hydroxyethylcellulose not only adds thickness to creams and lotions but also gives them a softer texture. 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. Finally, hydroxyethylcellulose is a great choice for clear hair gel where it will offer soft hold and a nice feel on the hair without stickiness or flaking.



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. As mentioned above, 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”.