May 15, 2017
By Jennifer Gilbert
Benzyl alcohol is an organic compound that might not have much recognition outside of the world of chemistry and manufacturing, but this alcohol is used in an incredible array of products with surprisingly varied purposes.
Classified as an aromatic alcohol, benzyl alcohol features a stable ring-shaped molecule indicative of all aromatic compounds. When used within the context of chemistry, the term “aromatic” doesn’t necessarily mean that a chemical has a noticeable odor, but benzyl alcohol is associated with all many pleasant fragrances.
Benzyl alcohol exists naturally in a variety of foods including apricots, cranberries and cocoa. The essential oils of various plants can contain the organic compound as well.
From romantic and relaxing jasmine to the intense sweetness of hyacinth, benzyl alcohol’s presence in these essential oils makes it an aromatic compound in multiple senses of the word. Outside of its natural occurrence in plants and their fragrant derivatives, manufactured benzyl alcohol is also used as a flavor-enhancing solvent, and can be found in wines, liqueurs, baked goods, and even e-cigarette flavoring.
In commercially manufactured cosmetics, benzyl alcohol is frequently utilized as a pH adjuster and as a preservative. It can be found in products for skin care such as eye makeup and cleansers. While we more commonly associate the use of preservatives with food products, they play an important role in extending the shelf life of cosmetics. As a bacteriostatic preservative, benzyl alcohol prevents the growth of bacteria without destroying it, meaning your personal care products won’t become bacterial breeding grounds, but also won’t wipe out any bacterium they come into contact with.
In addition to its natural occurrence in plants and frequent cosmetic applications, benzyl alcohol is an effective solvent for coatings like paint, shellac, and lacquer making it the active ingredient in certain paint strippers. When combined with a viscous substance to help it cling to coatings, benzyl alcohol is an effective solvent that is free of hazardous air pollutants. Benzyl alcohol is not just used for product removal, but some manufacturers use this organic chemical when dying leather and wool, where it acts as a dye-enhancing solvent.
Outside of commercial manufacturing processes, there are also various medical uses of benzyl alcohol.
The use of 5% benzyl alcohol lotion is an FDA approved treatment for head lice in anyone over the age of 6 months. By interfering with the openings that a louse uses to breathe, benzyl alcohol will kill adult parasites, but a second treatment is usually needed to eradicate any previously unhatched insects. When injected into the skin, benzyl alcohol can be used as a local anesthetic alternative to lidocaine that studies indicate is less painful upon injection.
Although there are no indications that benzyl alcohol is carcinogenic, there are some instances where it can be toxic or cause irritation. Medical use of intravenous drugs that contain benzyl alcohol preservatives have been associated with neonatal deaths, while contact between benzyl alcohol and the eyes can cause moderate to severe irritation, and should be avoided.
As an important ingredient in several sectors, most notably the paint, coatings, and personal care industries, the global market for benzyl alcohol is predicted to rise in the next decade. As the world’s population expands, more communities are becoming consumers of commercially manufactured personal goods, while aging populations continue to require the intravenous drugs that use benzyl alcohol as a preservative. Unless a less expensive or more effective alternative chemical is discovered, benzyl alcohol is likely to continue as a frequently used, yet relatively unknown aromatic compound.
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