HPMC and MHEC 8 Best Difference

A Brief Overview of HPMC and MHEC

HPMC and MHEC are both water-soluble polymers derived from cellulose, the main constituent of plant cell walls. Both are widely used in various industrial applications, especially in the construction industry, for their rheological properties and ability to modify the physical characteristics of solutions.

Despite their similarities, there are distinct differences between the two. This article delves deep into the differences between HPMC and MHEC.

Definition of HPMC

Hydroxypropyl Methylcellulose (HPMC) is a water-soluble, non-toxic polymer derived from cellulose, a primary component of plant cell walls. This semi-synthetic cellulose ether undergoes chemical modification through a reaction involving methanol and propylene oxide to introduce both methyl and hydroxypropyl substituents onto the cellulose backbone.

HPMC exhibits unique rheological properties, enabling it to change or modify the physical characteristics of solutions in which it’s dissolved. As a result, it has widespread utility across a range of industries.

Figure 01: HPMC

In pharmaceuticals, it’s employed as a thickening agent, binder, and film former. In the food industry, HPMC functions as an emulsifier, stabilizer, and thickener. Moreover, its water retention capability makes it ideal for the construction industry, especially in cement-based products.

Its exceptional attributes, such as being thermally gelling and having a vast viscosity range, are due to the specific distribution and amount of its substituent groups. HPMC stands as a versatile and indispensable polymer in multiple domains.

Definition of MHEC

Methyl Hydroxyethyl Cellulose (MHEC) is a water-soluble polymer synthesized from cellulose, an integral structural component in plants. The production of MHEC involves chemical modification of cellulose using a mixture of methanol and ethylene oxide.

This process introduces both methyl and hydroxyethyl groups onto the cellulose structure. Unlike its counterpart HPMC, MHEC typically offers a higher viscosity at similar concentrations, making it distinct in certain applications.

Figure 02: MHEC

Notably prevalent in the construction sector, MHEC is lauded for its superior water retention properties, especially in materials like tile adhesives, plasters, and mortars. It also finds use in the paint industry, serving as a stabilizer and thickener.

Furthermore, cosmetic formulations benefit from MHEC’s capabilities as a thickening and stabilizing agent. The polymer’s chemical structure grants it unique behaviors in aqueous solutions, leading to its wide-ranging applicability.

MHEC is a multi-functional cellulose ether that significantly impacts various industrial sectors due to its unique characteristics.

Properties and Behavior:


  • HPMC: It is soluble in water and many organic solvents. The aqueous solution is neutral and does not show gelation over time.
  • MHEC: Soluble in water but has a different solubility profile in various organic solvents compared to HPMC.

 Thermal Gelation:

  • HPMC: Exhibits thermal gelation, meaning it can form gels upon heating.
  • MHEC: Does not show significant thermal gelation like HPMC.


  • HPMC: The viscosity of HPMC solutions can vary widely depending on the degree of substitution and molecular weight.
  • MHEC: Generally offers a higher viscosity at the same concentration compared to HPMC.

Chemical Structure of HPMC and MHEC

HPMC: In Hydroxypropyl Methylcellulose, cellulose undergoes etherification with methanol and propylene oxide. This results in the introduction of methyl (-CH3) and hydroxypropyl (-CH2-CHOH-CH3) groups onto the anhydroglucose units of the cellulose chain.

The degree and distribution of these substituents directly influence the properties of HPMC. For instance, the amount and location of hydroxypropyl groups can affect solubility, while the quantity of methyl groups can influence thermal gelation.

MHEC: For Methyl Hydroxyethyl Cellulose, cellulose is etherified with methanol and ethylene oxide. This introduces methyl (-CH3) and hydroxyethyl (-CH2-CHOH-CH2-) substituents onto the cellulose backbone.

As with HPMC, the properties of MHEC depend heavily on the degree and pattern of substitution. Typically, MHEC possesses a higher hydroxyethyl substitution than HPMC, which impacts its solubility and rheological properties.

 Production Process

The production of Hydroxypropyl Methylcellulose (HPMC) and Methyl Hydroxyethyl Cellulose (MHEC) revolves around the modification of natural cellulose. Both undergo a two-step process: alkalization followed by etherification.

In HPMC production, cellulose is initially treated with an alkaline solution, usually caustic soda (sodium hydroxide), turning it into alkali cellulose. Subsequently, etherification takes place when the alkali cellulose is exposed to methanol and propylene oxide under specific conditions. This introduces methyl and hydroxypropyl groups onto the cellulose backbone.

On the other hand, for MHEC synthesis, the alkaline treatment remains consistent, but the etherification agents differ. Methanol and ethylene oxide are used, resulting in the attachment of methyl and hydroxyethyl groups onto the cellulose structure.

It’s essential to control the degree and pattern of substitution during synthesis as these determine the final properties of the polymers. Post-reaction, the product undergoes purification, where it’s washed to remove unreacted chemicals, and then dried and milled to the desired particle size.



  • Pharmaceutical Industry: Used as a thickening agent, binder, and film-forming agent in tablet formulations.
  • Food Industry: Used as a thickener, emulsifier, and stabilizer in various food products.
  • Construction: Acts as a water retention agent in cement-based products.


  • Construction Industry: Preferred in construction for its excellent water retention capabilities, especially in tile adhesives, plasters, and mortars.
  • Paint Industry: Used as a thickening agent and stabilizer in paints and coatings.
  • Cosmetic Industry: Acts as a thickener and stabilizer in various cosmetic formulations.

Difference Between HPMC and MHEC

Full Name Hydroxypropyl Methylcellulose Methyl Hydroxyethyl Cellulose
Substituents Methyl and Hydroxypropyl Methyl and Hydroxyethyl
Derived From Methanol and Propylene oxide Methanol and Ethylene oxide
Solubility Water and various organic solvents Water (different solubility in organics)
Thermal Gelation Exhibits thermal gelation Limited thermal gelation
Typical Viscosity Varies (generally lower than MHEC) Higher at same concentration
Major Applications Pharmaceuticals, Food, Construction Construction, Paint, Cosmetics
Water Retention Capability Good Superior

Environmental Consideration

HPMC and MHEC originate from cellulose, a renewable plant resource, making them inherently environmentally friendly. Their production and usage entail broader environmental considerations.

The chemical processes involved in the production, particularly the use of caustic soda, methanol, propylene oxide, and ethylene oxide, require rigorous management. Spillages or improper disposal can harm aquatic ecosystems and soil health. Efficient containment and recycling methods have been developed in recent years to minimize environmental hazards.

Biodegradability is a significant plus. As these polymers break down, they return to the environment without accumulating as persistent waste. This contrasts favorably with many synthetic polymers, which can linger in ecosystems for extended periods.

The sourcing of cellulose, primarily from wood pulp, raises concerns about deforestation and habitat loss. It’s crucial for industries to ensure sustainable and responsible sourcing, emphasizing recycled materials or fast-growing, non-endangered tree species.

Lastly, ongoing research focuses on “green” production methods. These explore water-based reactions, enzyme-catalyzed processes, and the utilization of bio-derived solvents to reduce the environmental footprint of HPMC and MHEC synthesis.

Economic Impact

HPMC and MHEC have carved out significant niches in various industries, driving noteworthy economic contributions. HPMC, with its expansive applications in pharmaceuticals and food, has spurred the growth of these sectors, translating to billions in revenue annually.

Its role as an excipient in drug formulations and as a stabilizer in food products makes it indispensable, thus ensuring steady market demand.

MHEC’s predominance in the construction industry cannot be understated. As urbanization rates surge, especially in developing countries, the demand for construction materials like tile adhesives, plasters, and mortars has skyrocketed. MHEC, with its superior water retention properties, stands central to this boom.

Both polymers have also spurred job creation, from raw material sourcing to production, research, and application-specific roles. The continuous evolution in their applications promises future market growth.

Market dynamics can also be influenced by factors like raw material price fluctuations, environmental regulations, and technological advancements. As with any industry, the economic impact of HPMC and MHEC remains intertwined with global trends and sector-specific challenges.


While both HPMC and MHEC are derivatives of cellulose and share some similarities in terms of their appearance and basic properties, they differ significantly in their chemical structure, behavior, and applications. The choice between them is typically application-specific, depending on the desired properties of the end product.

It’s crucial for manufacturers and researchers to understand these differences to choose the most suitable product for their specific needs.