Benzyl alcohol has many names: aromatic alcohol, benzenemethanol, benzenecarbinol, benzylic alcohol, benzoyl alcohol, alcool benzylique, benzylicum, A-toluenol, phenylmethanol, phenylcarbinolum, and benzal alcohol. It’s a primary, aromatic alcohol known for its characteristic, pleasant smell.
It occurs naturally in many plants: castor, tea, a range of essential oils including hyacinth, and fruits e.g. apricots, cherries, and cranberries. However, it’s more likely that the benzyl alcohol you’ll encounter in your natural and mainstream products is synthetic. It’s cheaply manufactured from benzyl chloride and sodium hydroxide.
Benzyl alcohol is usually added to personal care items as a fragrance to harness its pleasant smell. It’s also used as a viscosity-decreasing agent as well as a preservative, particularly in antiperspirants, blushes, perfumes, soaps, skin lotions, eye make ups, facial cleansers, shaving products, and shampoos. Moreover, it’s an effective chemical for depriving hair nits and lice of oxygen and killing them. Beyond the personal care industry, benzyl alcohol is used as a solvent in inks, epoxy resin coatings, waxes, lacquers, and paints. It’s also a useful degreasing agent in the cleaning industry.
Exposure to benzyl alcohol may be through ingestion, inhalation, and skin absorption. Skin exposure can result in anesthetic effects as well as severe irritation, urticaria (hives) and allergic reactions characterized by weals, erythema, and pruritus. Prolonged or excessive inhalation can result in eye damage, headaches, muscular and respiratory paralysis, convulsions, low blood pressure (hypotension), narcosis (unconsciousness) and death. Ingestion may result in gastrointestinal irritation, followed by nausea, vomiting, cramps, and diarrhea.
There’s evidence linking benzyl alcohol with cell genotoxicity, i.e. it can damage genetic material and cause mutations.
Note that the toxic effects of benzyl alcohol are more pronounced in children so it’s very important to make sure it’s not listed as an ingredient on personal care items meant for your little ones. Note also that benzyl alcohol may react with other ingredients in your product yielding aldehydes such as formaldehyde which is cancer-causing (carcinogenic).