Cholesterol at a glance

  • Plays a replenishing role topically to support moisture balance
  • Helps reinforce and strengthen skin’s barrier
  • Can also function as a stabilizer, emollient, surfactant, and water-binding agent
  • May also show up as lanolin or wool extract on an ingredient label (both are sources of cholesterol)
  • Scientists are continually exploring ways to create synthetic versions of cholesterol to mimic its skin benefits

Cholesterol description

Cholesterol is a natural component of skin’s barrier, accounting for 15% of its fatty acid content. Research shows that a deficiency of cholesterol in skin can lead to dryness. When cholesterol is applied to skin topically, it plays a replenishing role to support the moisture balance and lipid composition for healthier looking/feeling skin. Reinforcing skin’s outermost layers in this way also helps it resist damage from external stressors (think harmful bacteria, pollutants, etc.). In skin care formulas, cholesterol can also function as a stabilizer, emollient, surfactant, and water-binding agent. Cholesterol-enriched skin care products may list “cholesterol” on the ingredient label. Alternatively, if you see wool extract or lanolin on the ingredient list, know that these are sources of cholesterol as well. In addition, scientists are continually exploring ways to create synthetic ingredients that mimic cholesterol’s skin benefits. The safety of cholesterol in skin care products has been assessed by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel, who deemed it was safe in normal cosmetic use (studied in concentrations up to 5%, although they acknowledged most formulations they looked at contained cholesterol in the 0.1-1% range.) As with any natural fatty acid or oil, cholesterol is prone to going rancid with prolonged exposure to light and air so protective packaging is key.

Cholesterol references

  • Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology, August 2015, pages 1-6
  • Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, July 2007, pages 239-242
  • Journal of Structural Biology, June 2007, pages 386-400
  • International Journal of Toxicology, 2006, pages 1-89

Peer-reviewed, substantiated scientific research is used to assess ingredients in this dictionary. Regulations regarding constraints, permitted concentration levels and availability vary by country and region.

Ingredient ratings


Proven and supported by independent studies. Outstanding active ingredient for most skin types or concerns.


Necessary to improve a formula's texture, stability, or penetration.


Generally non-irritating but may have aesthetic, stability, or other issues that limit its usefulness.


There is a likelihood of irritation. Risk increases when combined with other problematic ingredients.


May cause irritation, inflammation, dryness, etc. May offer benefit in some capability but overall, proven to do more harm than good.


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Not Rated