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Benzyl Alcohol

Today's Chemical:

Benzyl Alcohol (aka Phenylcarbinol)

EWG Risk Score:


What is it?

Benzyl Alcohol is an aromatic alcohol used as a preservative, as the active ingredient in head lice treatment, and as a solvent.  It is most often created by combining benzyl chloride (a suspected carcinogen that has been used as a war gas) with sodium hydroxide (lye).  Sometimes it is created by reacting phenylmagnesium bromide (C6H5MgBr) with formaldehyde.

Benzyl alcohol also does naturally occur in green and other teas, and some essential oils including ylang ylang and jasmine. 

Is it a risk?

  • Benzyl Alcohol can act as a skin sensitizer in some people, and, according to a 1998 study can "can instigate immune system response that can include itching, burning, scaling, hives, and blistering of skin" at certain concentrations.
  • It is a common skin contact allergen. (Source)
  • High concentrations can induce asthma and bronchitis in some individuals. (Source)
  • Benzyl alcohol was formerly used in neonatal care as a preservative in intravenous drips, however, infants started getting benzyl alcohol poisoning (with numerous fatalities), and it has now been discontinued in this use. (Source
  • Can react with titanium dioxide to form aldehydes, including formaldehyde. (Source)
  • When high concentrations of benzyl alcohol were injected in to cows uteruses, it shortened their estrus cycle. (Source) However, it is unknown if or how benzyl alcohol reacts with the human reproductive system. 

Steph's Opinion:

Should you avoid products containing ylang ylang or jasmine essential oils?  Benzyl alcohol is a component of these essential oils, but it is a minor constituent of these essential oils.  Toxic reactions and allergies to benzyl alcohol usually occur when the isolated chemical is used in a higher concentration as a preservative (1-5% of the formulation.) A product containing one of these essential oils may contain .5% of the essential oil, 1% of which may be benzyl alcohol, so the total concentration of benzyl alcohol would be .005%. If you were a person that has a history of being allergic to benzyl alcohol, then you may want to avoid these two essential oils just to be safe.  However, if not, this is not a large enough concentration to be concerned with for the general population. Jasmine and Ylang Ylang have a history of not causing sensitization, irritation, or toxicity when used properly.  

Revised 1/18/13

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Reader Comments (22)

I purchased Saline Nasal Spray because it was recommended by a doctor a few months ago when I had a sinus infection. I liked the way it moisturized, since I live in the desert, so I recently picked up a bottle of store brand spray. I keep smelling formaldehyde; Now I know why. It contains Phenylcarbinol & Benzalkonium Chloride "as preservatives." I entered Phenylcarbinol into the Skin Deep Database & your database, and Benzyl Alcohol comes up each time. I'm so pleased to learn I've been sticking this up my nose! (sarcasm) Is there a safer alternative to achieve the same results as the nasal spray? I've heard a little about a Netti Pot. There are several choices as the drug store, but I don't know what to look for in the packets. Will I need to buy distilled water? Should this stuff be avoided all together?

Thu, February 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterShelly

As a sufferer of sinus infections myself, I can tell you there are natural and simple options. One is the netti pot, as you mentioned, the other is a simple saline solution. There's a spray you can buy that's called "Simply Saline" that's just salt and water. It does the trick just great!

Thu, February 11, 2010 | Registered Commenter[Stephanie Greenwood]

Hi Stephanie, today I bought a tube of Weleda Everon lip balm, and a Burt's Bee's Lip Shimmer, and I was planning on using these two balms together, the Weleda as a base for the shimmer. However, when I got home, I saw that the Weleda balm contains benzyl alcohol, and the Burt's Bees states that it "may contain" titanium dioxide. After reading your information about benzyl alcohol, I'm concerned about using these two products together. What is your opinion on this?

Sat, August 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKeira

Yeah, I'd definitely reconsider using these products, especially together.

Mon, August 29, 2011 | Registered Commenter[Stephanie Greenwood]

But you find benzyl alcohol in some essential oils too, and so long as they aren't used in high doses or ingested they won't harm you...

Wed, January 11, 2012 | Unregistered Commentersa

I saw a product that contained Benzyl Alcohol, but said it was plant derived. Is it any less toxic and would you avoid this product? Thank you.

Mon, March 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSteve


Hi! I'm thinking of purchasing this sunscreen~
I am just wondering if it is safe to use.....with benyzl alcohol and titanium dioxide in the same formula.....and also lemon oil in a day moisturizer?

Thanks for your help!

Sun, April 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJenny

Curious.....does benzyl alcohol have the same reaction to plastics as acetone?I was told it is an ingredient in Advantage II for dogs (flea treatment) by the manufacturer. Today, after applying the treatment to my dogs backs, it got shook on my linoleum floor, also came in contact with my dogs electric fence collar, and INSTANTLY reacted with them and melted them. MELTED THEM. The dog collar plastic clasp stuck to my dogs white fur, and left a silver dollar sized BLACK SPOT on his fur from the melted plastic. I was told by the company this is a normal reaction of benzyl alcohol.....? Is it? Nowhere on this box did it state any kind of warning to such an effect, or even name it as an actual ingredient of the 90.44% "other ingredients" in addition to the "effective" ingredients. I do NOT recomend this heavens, what is it doing to the dogs health if it's melting floors?? Please advise. I want to know if this chemical is indeed possibly responsible for the noted reaction as I was told... Thank you!

Wed, May 9, 2012 | Unregistered Commentercynthia

I bought a WalMart brand of Mylanta, for heart burn indegestion. When I got home I read the bottle and it contains this benzyl alcohol. I was concerned and looked this up, I see it seems toxic. I'm throwing this away.
The reason I bought this one without looking was because I had bought the brand name one a few months ago, at the grocery store, and ran out of it. I then found this one cheaper, should of known, and felt they were all just about the same. I think it's wrong that this product contains this and it can be ingested.

Mon, July 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPatricia

I am a medicinal chemist with 25 years of experience in pharmaceutical chemistry. Medicinal chemists work with these drugs every single day. You won't find better experts anywhere. It is true that benzyl alcohol, just like any other chemical, is not innocuous, but just like evrything else, it's how much you use that matters. The Worls Health Organization (WHO) has set safe limits for intravenous benzyl alcohol at 5mg/kg. That a quarter of one gram for a 120-pound human. That is a lot of benzyl alcohol, and it is by intravenous injection. So you can see that the small amount in your cosmetic product is not likely to harm you.

Wed, October 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDrugDoc

Okay... So if its not exactly harmful then why does it need to be in these products? Bcz it's not exactly good for u either! If I'm putting it on my face twice every single day over a duration of years and years that is pretty damn lot of benzyl alcohol in putting on my actual face there

Fri, October 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSarah

I got some EQuate brand mouth was says no alcolhol however benzyl alcohol is the first ingredient on the list. Is this a plant alcolhol? i called one of the reps and was told it was alcohol made from plants however i read on this site it is a plant preservative. The mouth wash it says is equivalent has no alcolhol on lit there is not alcohol on list of ingredients. HELP

Sat, December 22, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterann

Ann--on a chemical level, benzyl alcohol is an alcohol, meaning it is an organic (carbon-containing) molecule with a functional hydroxyl group bound to a carbon atom. However, it is not "alcohol" in the common meaning of the term, meaning containing one specific type of alcohol we know as ethanol, or ethyl alcohol. When they say it is "alcohol-free" they mean that it's free from ethanol.

Fri, January 4, 2013 | Registered Commenter[Stephanie Greenwood]

Ive found that nasal sprays containing benzyl Alcohol cause me to experience burning in my nostrils and down my throat, and shortly after i use them oftentimes a headache and flushing. Ones without B.A. do not cause this.

Sat, March 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterWEEWOO

Hi Steph, Whats your take on the following ingredient list please?

Aloe barbadensis leaf juice(¹), aqua (water), glyceryl stearate SE, caprylic/capric triglyceride, helianthus annuus (sunflower) seed oil(¹), cetyl alcohol, stearic acid, stearyl alcohol, olea europaea (olive) fruit oil(¹), calendula officinalis flower extract(¹), chamomilla recutita (matricaria) flower extract(¹), butyrospermum parkii (shea butter)(¹), vitis vinifera (grape) seed oil(¹), simmondsia chinensis (jojoba) seed oil(¹), cyamopsis tetragonoloba (guar) gum(¹), hydrolyzed wheat protein, sorbitol, tocopheryl acetate, benzyl alcohol, potassium sorbate, sodium benzoate.


Fri, June 6, 2014 | Registered CommenterDebbie s

I'm allergic to dust mites and am looking at a product to wash my sheets in that contains Benzyl alcohol, tee tree oil, and methyl salcylate. Do you think it is safe?

Wed, August 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoann

@Joann--It should be fine, considering the likely low concentration, the fact that this isn't a product you're applying directly on your skin, and would be washed out in the rinse cycle.

Wed, August 13, 2014 | Registered Commenter[Stephanie Greenwood]

I recently came across products for use in the eye to relieve dryness, and the makers add N acetyl carnosine "incidentally" to clear cataracts and improve eye health. So it is sold mainly as a cataract med. I tried it and it burned my eye, as people have found it burned the nose when applied in saline. It has benzyl alcohol. I tried 2 products, but both had the benzyl alcohol and both were irritating and hurt. So these are going back.

Just thought you should know this since what a committee pronounces as "safe" may not be comfortable or safe for individuals. Also, there is NO NEED to put this stuff in eye drops--other drops use no or less toxic preservatives.

Sat, September 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMarion

To rinse the nose I use saline in a packet (CVS and other drugstores), and a plastic squeeze bottle that comes with the saline packets. Add the salts to water in a newly washed squeeze bottle.
I Brita filter the water then boil it, letting it cool before using. Since the bottle is plastic, I let the water cool before adding to the bottle. Don't use a lot of pressure-- the fluid goes in one nostril and out the other easily if things are ok. Directions come with the kit. I might also try using distilled water but would still bring it to a full boil for about 10 minutes before using.

Sat, September 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMarion

I recently sent a post about benzyl alcohol in eye drops causing burning. The first use was soothing but the second was really painful even after I washed the eye drops out with another type of eye drop that does not contain preservatives.

. Yesterday I used a red clay face mask which I had used without problems about a week before. During the second facial, my face began to burn, so I washed the clay off. My face remained as red as the clay until I put some Noxema on it, then it calmed down. But the reaction lasted for hours to some degree.

The ingredients in the clay included benzyl alcohol. Now I will check every cosmetic and med for this ingredient and will do so even if getting salon care. This "safe" preservative should be more comprehensively tested and regulated since even a very small amount of an allergen can trigger a reaction.

Thank you for providing a "feedback" forum for the public.

Tue, September 30, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMarion

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