Benzyl alcohol ends up in your skin care product for two reasons. It is either added deliberately as a preservative, or it is a component of a fragrance or an essential oil. It is one of those organic compounds that turns up pretty widely in nature, so I suppose you could call it a natural product if you wanted to. It is also manufactured from petrochemical sources so you can describe it as a synthetic chemical with just as much justice. Both types end up in cosmetics, and quite often in the same formulation. But Colin’s Beauty Pages is an equal opportunities kind of a blog, so we’ll judge this molecule on its properties not its origin.
Benzyl alcohol – legal limits
This is one of those cases where the dose makes the poison. Your body’s biochemistry has evolved in a world where it has had to cope with levels of benzyl alcohol in fruits and vegetables, so has a set of enzymes ready to deal with it. But this system can be overwhelmed by very large quantities, so you need to be careful with it. This is recognised in EU regulations that limit the amount that can be used in personal care products to 1%. Given the low level of toxicity of benzyl alcohol this is a pretty cautious regulation, but cautious is good in this context.
Benzyl Alchohol – smell problem
There is in any case another good reason to use relatively low levels of benzyl alcohol. Over time it oxidises to benzaldehdye. This smells quite strongly of almonds. It isn’t an unpleasant smell, but you don’t want the smell of your product changing during its shelf life or in use.
Benzyl Alcohol -scare stories
You will find blood curdling stories about this compound on the internet if you look for them but it hasn’t really excited the scare mongers very much. This is a little surprising as with a bit of distortion you could make a pretty strong case against it. Indeed this paper on problems with neonates and benzyl alcohol shows it can be risky when not used correctly. But I think the name doesn’t lend itself. It is fairly easy to pronounce and so doesn’t sound all that threatening. And there are quite a lot of alcohols used in cosmetic products, so you need to know a bit of chemistry to spot that this is the potentially toxic one.
(Benzyl alcohol is a popular choice of preservative in natural products and is often used in combination with potassium sorbate which I have already blogged about.)
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An extensive review of benzyl alcohol was carried out by the CIR in 2001.