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.
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.