Benzyl Alcohol

benzyl alcohol
benzyl alcohol

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.)

An extensive review of benzyl alcohol was carried out by the CIR in 2001.


17 thoughts on “Benzyl Alcohol”

  1. You need to be a chemist to decipher the ingredient labels on the average cosmetic product these days. I sometimes look them up and often, they aren’t as scary as they sound. Knowledge is power.

  2. Glad you like the ingredient posts Ali, especially as I have several scheduled and I am working on more.

  3. Rebecca Wright

    Hi Colin,
    Thanks for clearing that up. I was wondering if I should use this as my chosen preservative in my potions and now I think I will.(I have been having problems with this area as I think I may in the future get soil association certified and phenoxyethonol is not going to be an option from 2012).

    I find a lot of scaremongerers tend to be companies trying to market their products as less ‘toxic’ and more natural than the rest of them. However, they probably do not want to criticise benzyl alcohol too much as they know that one day they might unwittingly find it in one of their product…probably under allergens!

    I did stumble across one company called who does a quite a bit of criticising of ingredients including benzyl alcohol, they sell products aimed at sensitive skin however I find they dont tend to address the existence of all the allergens in their products (seen from the essentia oils).

  4. I quite like the Pai Skincare stuff. The stuff I have seen from them has been fairly positive about the benefits of what they sell and I haven’t seen any specific scare mongering. I have also met the woman behind it when they exhibited at a natural products show a few years back – though I don’t know if she realised who I was when I spoke to her. They are also small and British, so I’m sympathetic.

    If they have taken to scare mongering I’d rather not hear about it.

    It is easy to get carried away with the idea that essential oils are full of allergens. It is probably more correct to say that essential oils contain components that from time to time cause allergic reactions to a few people. I remember a mass market aromatherapy based product full of essential oils that contained literally dozens of so called allergens that was launched and sold several million units that did not elicit a single allergic reaction report back to the company making it.

  5. Rebecca Wright

    Yes, I agree we should support our British Beauty industry especially the smaller more progressive companies. I didn’t mean to offend. ;(

    I have essential oils in my products(in development at present) -one has 7 allergens listed and I was worried that this might cause a problem. I have extremely sensitive skin and suffered severe eczema as a child and I have never had a problem with using my stuff even though it is packed full of essential oils. Actually I wonder what precipitated the law that says we have to put allergens on the label- I mean how many people really know if they are allergic to linalool or any of the others on the list?

    Can you write a bit about Rose essential oil and especially Eugenol Menthol (I think thats what it is),I hear that it is a carcenogen at certain levels?

  6. Since you say that you like Pai Skincare stuff I’ve taken a look on ingredient lists of a few moisturizers (and I like their simplicity), but I don’t see any preservatives there, is it possible that certain essential oils are sufficient in that role?
    Sometimes I see ingredient list of organic products where I cannot figure out what can act as a preservative there although I like to check every ingredient. Can you make a suggestion what is used to preserve products like Pai Skincare’s and stuff like that?

  7. Marcia Clarke


    I have bought Pai and I really like their creams, on the box it says sodium levulinate and sodium anisate, I think. That is the preservative for their creams.


  8. Very observant Piernik, and you are right Marcia. Those are both preservatives. If you look them up on Wikipedia – look up the acid form i.e., levulinic and anisic acid you’ll see that their structures are not so different from sorbic acid and benzoic acid. So Pai are using unusual preservatives for sure, but not anything radically different in principle from standard ones. There won’t be so many skin reactions recorded in the literature but I can’t see any particular reason to believe these are intrinsically less likely to cause irritation.

    As Rebecca has pointed out, there is a bit of a whiff of chemophobia about they way they website is written. I think they might do better to put more emphasis on the positive benefits of what they are doing rather than hinting there might be something wrong with other people’s products. But as we all know, there’s way way worse scaremongering going on out there.

  9. Thanks Marcia and Colin.
    I’ve come across this names in some other “natural” stuff, but neither on Pai Skincare’s nor on some shop with organic cosmetics websites these preservatives are listed in ingredient list, which actually isn’t even in INCI system (so I shouldn’t be surprised), how honest is that? :/

  10. Marcia Clarke


    Personally I think that cosmetics companies should list all inci’s on their websites as this is, in effect their shop. As a purchaser I need all the information to make a decision on what I am going to buy.I dont think at present there is a legal requirement for e-commerce businesses to do this at present, in the uk anyway (I read that somewhere, may not be true).

    Quite a few natural/organic companies are a bit precious about their ingredients and often miss ingredients off the list to make them seem more chemical free or even preservative free because it suits their brand and image. I dont think they realise that the majority of people dont really care too much and most dont even look at the inci.

  11. Hi Piernik
    I had exactly the same question about pia’s preservation system. Infact I’ve been all over the web trying to find an answer. Thanks Colin and Marcia for the missing pieces. If you look at pia’s ingredients they list corn extract and basil extract.
    It turns out that corn extract is sodium Levulinate and basil extract is sodium anisate.
    Have a look at and you’ll see the same ingredients included in their range. Their listing is more honest I think.

  12. Hi Colin and commentators,

    I wanted to jump in here and say that I agree with Marcia. If it is a requirement for companies to put the INCI list on the pack so customers can view it in-store, then the same companies should put it on their e-commerce sites as well.

    Pai prides itself on its transparency – we think we were the first UK company to put both the INCI and an English translation on our packs. So really the INCI lists should have been on the site.

    They are now 🙂

    I hope they will be of interest to customers, but realise it will be of most use to formulators like Rebecca – this will save you from having to buy any more products from us!

    Will we still get odd emails from people pretending to be customers doing some “research” and then go on to ask us for exact details of how we make and preserve our products? Perhaps a few less now.

    By the way, it was a delight to talk to you last week Chris, and I hope the research project is going well 😉

    On another point, Rebecca did suggest we were scaremongering about ingredients.

    Unlike a lot of companies in the sector, Pai formulates and manufactures all its own products. We’re not just passionate about our ingredients, we’re positively geeky about them – I’m not even on the formulation side, but I could bore a dinner party for several hours on the benefits of vegetable oils over esterified oils!

    There are a couple of points to make here. The first is that Pai is all about sensitive skin. That’s how Pai came about at the start. So we avoid, as far as possible, using any ingredient that might be irritating.

    A number of commentators write about certain chemicals and say, actually, this is really not that irritating or is so only to a small number of people. Well those people are our core customers – people with extremely sensitive and reactive skin.

    I’m not suggesting our products are 100% non-irritating to everyone. That’s an impossibility, particularly if you are producing products that actually do something – i.e. perform well. But we formulate very carefully, test them extensively and if anyone does report a reaction, we do a lot of research to work out why.

    Pai is known as an organic company, and we’re pretty proud of our Soil Association certification. But we’re not organic for the sake of being organic. We are organic because people with sensitive skin who decide they want to move away from main stream cosmetic companies are looking for products that really are free of irritating chemicals, rather than just paying lip service to the idea.

    The Soil Association certification gives them confidence that there is a third party making sure that all our ingredients are the cleanest, purest possible.

    But to come back to Rebecca, we’re not interested in being the most natural brand out there. To do that you need to stick to balms and not make creams really.

    And we’re happy to say that we don’t use benzyl alcohol because we have concerns that it isn’t great for people with urticaria and contact dermatitis.

    We would never “unwittingly” find it in one of our products though, because we are extremely rigorous about our ingredient suppliers and have no intention of using it in our products.

    The second point I would like to make is that there is an assumption that a company’s website is written after sitting down, agreeing a consistent editorial view and then produced in one go.

    In fact the content on our site dates back to 2007, and really some of it should have been updated a long time ago! Some of our old blogs are a bit embarrassing actually – but I think anyone who writes one over a period of time will know that their editorial voice evolves over time.

    As a company we have a consistent shared view that it is better to talk about the benefits of natural ingredients. To do otherwise means you are defined purely by negatives – that you don’t include this, that or the other. Well that’s great, but not really a reason to invest money in a product.

    I’m not suggesting we’re not critical of certain ingredients – I think the one we criticise the most would be alcohol actually – but not formulating with alcohol isn’t what makes our products different from the competition.

    I do know what Rebecca is talking about though – there are companies out there talking purely about what their products don’t contain, and then going on to suggest that those ingredients are dangerous. i.e. use my products or get cancer – your choice, no pressure!

    So I agree with the sentiment, and also that there is room for improvement on the part of all companies in the natural skin care sector – ourselves included.

    I’ve obviously gone on a bit too long here. So just one final message – Colin, next time you see us at a show (we’re at Natural Products Europe again next year), please introduce yourself – we do read your blog regularly and would be delighted to meet you properly. In fact, if you are in the Chiswick area, please feel free to pop in for a cup of tea.

    Best wishes,


  13. Thanks for the very comprehensive reply Ed. As you say, there is a place in the market for products that are free of particular ingredients for people who are sensitive to them. And a lot of the ingredients that the natural sector likes do have benefits. But it is easy to slip into scaremongering even unconsciously, and like you when I look back at some things I have written a while back I sometimes find stuff that could be taken that way. I’ll take you up on your invitation next time I am in the Chiswick area.

  14. Hi Colin,

    I bought an Australian product from a company called ASAP.
    The product is a moisturiser called advanced hydrating moisturiser which contains vitamins & antioxidants. I was a bit concerned when I read the
    ingredient list that alcohol & benzl alcohol is in it despite being listed towards the end (6/5th last).
    So I rang the ASAP & their technical advisor couldn’t tell me what form of alcohol is in their product. Or what percentage is in it. I already know what benzl alcohol is.
    This product is claimed to be suitable for sensitive, dry, normal & sligtly oily skin.
    And those with seborrheic dermatitis can use this as well. I tried it on my face and it was fine but slight itchyness near the right temple and jaw. This product also list tangerine oil
    very high up on the list. Do you think based on how far down alcohol & benzyl alcohol are on the list is it safe to continue use?

    1. I haven’t heard of that company but personally I wouldn’t include more than a couple of percent of alcohol in a product aimed at sensitive skin. The alcohol in this product may well simply be a solvent used to get something else into the formulation so I wouldn’t be particularly worried. I’d say judge it on its results. If it gives a good moisturising effect I can’t see any good reason not to carry on using it. There are plenty of moisturisers out there if it doesn’t.

  15. I’m kind of confused why you, Colin, would like Pai, they use glycerin (usually made with bio diesel). I’ve been on the search for a complete natural organic company and have yet to find one, Miessance is the company I’ve been using and recently saw capryl glucoside and capric triglyceride. I also can’t find those in any ingredients of the products I’ve invested in, but just having them in their ingredient list is kind of unfortunate. I don’t like that, seeing as one is used for hard surfaces like bathrooms and windows, but companies use it as a foaming agent. The capryl triglyceride or caprilidene is used for Alzheimer’s disease. They are surfactants which can be a sulfate surfactant. How can i trust these companies? I’m looking into “Just Natural Natural Skin Care” ingredients, but have lost all confidence in all companies.

  16. Miessance is the best company out there for organic products. If you’re looking for one, they’re it. Those ingredients are in their cleaning products, so not so bad. Really good support by email.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

A newsletter for personal care business professionals

Subscribe to know what is going on.