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Cellulose ether - a multitalented polymer

Cellulose ethers

Cellulose ether is a truly multitalented chemical. Its initial material cellulose can take on different solubility properties through etherification, resulting in a polymer that is soluble in either water or many other organic solvents.

This characteristic makes cellulose ether highly versatile and allows it to have a wide range of functions in many different sectors. Cellulose ether products are used in a whole host of applications, including construction materials, personal care, cleaning agents, food production and much more.

Cellulose is extracted from deciduous timber, coniferous timber or cotton using a thermocatalytic process.

Various cellulose derivatives can then be synthesized by modifying the chemical structure of cellulose, a fully plant-based substance. This involves partially or completely substituting the hydrogen atoms of the hydroxyl groups with alkyl groups.

This process of generating cellulose ether is called etherification. The properties of the resulting substance depend on the average degree of substitution, degree of molar substitution, number of hydroxyl groups and the distribution of the substituted groups.

There are many types of cellulose ether, including:

  • Carboxymethyl cellulose (CMC)
  • Methyl cellulose (MC)
  • Ethyl cellulose (EC)
  • Hydroxyethylcellulose (HEC)
  • Hydroxypropyl methylcellulose (HPMC)
  • Methyl hydroxypropyl cellulose (MHPC)
  • Ethyl hydroxyethyl cellulose (EHEC)

Whether a cellulose ether is soluble in water or other mediums depends on the number and product type of ether groups, depending on the end-use. A low degree of etherification results in a cellulose ether that can dissolve in aqueous solutions, while a high degree of etherification makes the product soluble in nonpolar solvents. Using more than one etherification agent will result in a mixed cellulose ether.

Because there are so many types of cellulose ether, it is quite natural that the substance exists in different forms with varying consistency and texture.

This means the substance can be manufactured in the form of a fine powder with a high viscosity or uniform, quick-drying beads. Nevertheless, most types of cellulose ether are ivory in color and fine powdery. The crucial thing, however, is the consistency resulting from the addition of cellulose ether, which is similar to that of a viscous gel.

TER Chemicals offers the highly versatile and water-soluble carboxymethyl cellulose (CMC), hydroxyethyl cellulose (HEC) and methyl hydroxyethyl cellulose (MHEC, MC). Feel free to talk to us about your needs.


Cellulose ether acts as a binder, protective colloid, thickener, water retention agent, film former, etc., for the production of various industrial products such as building materials, paints, paper, detergent, textiles, pharmaceuticals, food, and cosmetics. In the construction industry, cellulose ether is used as a thickener and water retention agent. In the food industry, cellulose ether is used in confectionery, bakery products, nuts, cream, creams, sweetener tablets, cheese, tomato sauces, dairy products,and toothpaste. Our cellulose ethers are mostly used as rheology modifiers in various cosmetic applications.

One of the most common uses of cellulose ether is as a construction additive. In the construction material industry, the chemical derivatives of cellulose are used as binders, film-formers, thickeners and water-retaining agents. 

This is because cellulose ether is ideal for increasing the consistency of construction materials, improving their adhesive properties and boosting their water-holding capacity.

Furthermore, the addition of cellulose ethers to construction additives can slow down the hardening of mortar, gypsum, cement and other coatings, depending on product type.

Methyl hydroxyethyl cellulose (MHEC) is the most frequently used ethyl cellulose for this application. In contrast, although hydroxyethyl cellulose (HEC) is also used in construction work, it is meant more for reducing sedimentation.

Cellulose ether also acts as a thin-bed adhesive (i.e. for bonding tiles) in dry mortar. Cement- or gypsum-based materials that contain cellulose ether are used as grout or fillers.

Cellulose ether also has many applications in the cosmetics industry due to its properties and large number of varieties. It is known in the industry under various trade names, such as Natrosol.

As a thickener and water-retaining agent, cellulose ether can be found in shampoos, creams, soaps, toothpastes and other kinds of emulsions. Other applications include lubricants and makeup products that need to have film-forming properties.

HEC is both a consistency enhancer and a stabilizer because it dissolves in water to form a clear gel. Cellulose ether helps prevent coalescing in cosmetic products and significantly reduces their vulnerability to microbial attack.

Creams containing cellulose ether form a thin, elastic film that is hardly noticeable on the skin. However, due to the size of its molecules, HEC cannot penetrate the top layer of the epidermis, meaning that cellulose ethers are considered to be highly skin-compatible within the cosmetics industry.

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Graeme Manley


Managing Director