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Ingredient Watch List: Benzyl Alcohol, Another Irritating Preservative Unsafe for Infants

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Disclaimer: The information contained on this site is general in nature and for informational purposes. It is not meant to substitute for the advice... read more

Disclaimer: The information contained on this site is general in nature and for informational purposes. It is not meant to substitute for the advice provided by your own physician or other medical professional. None of the statements on this site are a recommendation as to how to treat any particular disease or health-related condition. If you suspect you have a disease or health-related condition of any kind, you should contact your health care professional immediately. Please read all product packaging carefully and consult with a healthcare professional before starting any diet, exercise, supplementation or medication program. Cosmetic products have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent disease. read less

Ready for another synthetic, potentially harsh preservative? Benzyl alcohol is actually a natural ingredient. Many plants, fruits, and teas have it as a component, as do essential oils like jasmine, hyacinth, and ylang-ylang.

Unfortunately, in most personal care products, you’re not going to find the natural version. Instead, manufacturers make the synthetic version in the laboratory by mixing benzyl chloride with sodium hydroxide. It’s cheaper that way, but not as wholesome, as benzyl chloride is very irritating to the skin. It can also be particularly dangerous to very young children.

Benzyl alcohol was linked to the deaths of
16 premature infants in the early 1980s.

What is Benzyl Alcohol?

Benzyl alcohol is a colorless liquid that has a mild, pleasant aromatic scent. It’s also called an “aromatic alcohol,” and is used as a preservative, as a fragrance ingredient, as the active ingredient in head lice treatment, and as a solvent, which simply means that it’s used to dissolve other ingredients to make a smooth formula or solution.

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Benzyl alcohol also works as an anesthetic, so it is sometimes added to formulas that relieve itching, especially eye products. Most of the time, you’ll find this ingredient in bath products, soaps and detergents, eye makeup, blushes, cleansing products, shaving products, makeup, and blush, as well as in hair, nail, and other skin care products.

Is It Safe?

The FDA has approved benzyl alcohol for use as a synthetic flavoring agent for direct addition to food, as well as an anesthetic in oral healthcare and topical analgesic drug products. The Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) has concluded that its safe for use in cosmetic products, at concentrations of up to 5 percent, and up to 10 percent in hair dyes. The CIR didn’t take into consideration, however, the duration of use or the frequency of use when concluding that these levels were safe.

In the European Union, benzyl alcohol is allowed as a preservative in cosmetics and personal care products at a maximum concentration of one percent. If it’s used as a fragrance ingredient, the manufacturer is required to list it on the label when it’s used at concentrations greater than 0.001 percent in leave-on products, and greater than 0.01 percent in rinse-off products.

Why would the EU care about labeling this ingredient? Because some studies have indicated that it can be a skin sensitizer, meaning that it can cause allergic reactions.

Increases Risks of Contact Allergies

Like many synthetic preservatives, benzyl alcohol can affect the immune system, gradually causing your skin to react. A 1998 study, for example, found that these reactions were possible, with researchers noting that the ingredient “can instigate immune system response that can include itching, burning, scaling, hives, and blistering of skin.”

The Material Data Safety Sheet (MSDS) on benzyl alcohol notes that it is a skin irritant, potentially causing redness and pain, as well as an eye irritant. Prolonged or repeated exposure can cause allergic contact dermatitis. It also warns that it may be toxic to the liver and central nervous system.

Another concern with benzyl alcohol is that like some other preservatives, it can break down to create aldehydes when combined with other chemicals, and one of those aldehydes can be formaldehyde, which is a known carcinogen. Again, the exposure levels are typically small, but still, this is something that you may not be entirely comfortable with.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) classifies the ingredient as a “6,” or “moderate hazard,” so this isn’t one of the horrible ones, but for those with sensitive or reactive skin, it’s definitely one to avoid.

Dangerous for Young Children

The ingredient can be particularly dangerous for very young children. In 1982, the New York Times reported that the deaths of 16 low-weight, premature babies at two medical centers had been related to the benzyl alcohol used as a preservative in their IV fluids. The FDA urged hospitals and pediatricians to stop using the preservative, because two studies had linked the chemical to these deaths.

Benzyl alcohol had been used for years before that to flush out intravenous or arterial catheters after blood samples were drawn, so those same catheters could then be used in feeding or medicating a patient. It was also used as a simple preservative in some intravenous medications. But researchers found that the alcohol’s toxic effects were enhanced in very small infants with tiny organs. Symptoms included respiratory failure, convulsions, hypotension, and paralysis.

It is now recommended that benzyl alcohol not be used for any infant products. Most do not carry it anymore, but be sure to check your ingredient lists on your baby products, including your lotions, soaps, shampoos, wipes, etc.

Safer, More Nourishing Choices

You can easily avoid this preservative by passing by any products that list it on the label. Be careful, as well, with products that simply say “fragrance” on the ingredient list, as that means the product could contain benzyl alcohol, but they don’t have to tell you because fragrances are protected as proprietary formulas.

I prefer to use natural preservatives that aren’t linked to such health problems, like Aspen bark and jasmine.

What do you think of benzyl alcohol? Have you had any negative experiences with it? Please share your story.

* * *

Sources
Adam Clymer, “Benzyl Alcohol Linked to Deaths of 16 Infants,” New York Times, June 1, 1982, http://www.nytimes.com/1982/06/01/science/benzyl-alcohol-linked-to-deaths-of-16-infants.html.

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COMMENTS ( 24 and counting )
  1. karen says:

    Most interesting since i have recently had a reaction to a bottle that has 3 different types of alcohol in its product of Moroccan oil repair purchased from Amazon.

  2. Evelyn says:

    You will also want to avoid Benzalkonium Chloride. It tools decades to figure my hypersensitivity issues. I blister and become very asthmatic, and had to be hospitalized several times. These preservatives are found in most all topical and inhaled medicine. Cosmetics, soaps, shampoos… Burning oakwood

  3. alice says:

    I read an article about Benzyl Alcohol referring to it as a cytotoxic preservative, along with propylparaben and methylparaben and phenoxyethanol. There were studies carried out showing high levels of apoptosis and necrosis. This is very worrying for me as I am in remission for a blood cancer. The problem is, I am struggling to find any face cream or body cream that doesn’t use an ingredient that isn’t a skin irritant or has some kind of health concern. The face cream I’m using now has Benzyl Alcohol but apart from that all the other ingredients are safe. I want to avoid this ingredient completely so which brands would you recommend?? Suggestions anyone??

    • Jay says:

      For moisturising you can just use organic virgin coconut oil, or olive oil whichever you prefer and scent with essential oils. Shea and cocoa butter can be bought pure as well and mixed with oils there are lots of recipes online if you have time to do a bit of reading. Combining the oil with a bit of sugar makes a scrub identical to the ones that sell for $30/lb minus the preservatives. Once you buy 4 or 5 ingredients you can pretty much make everything from your hair care to skin care and be guaranteed there’ll be nothing funny in it.

    • Ells says:

      Alice – have you tried Tinderbox? They are an Australian brand which do not use any nasties. Might be a good option? Their website is http://www.cheekyherbs.com/ but I don’t know if they ship everywhere. The only thing to think about that they use is xanthum gum and benzoin gum tincture in their skincare – while there are no side effects listed if you have any food allergies it might pay to try a sample? Xanthum gum is grown in soy/wheat/corn so could have trace amounts of that left in it which could cause some issues.

  4. Jenny says:

    Correct me if I am wrong but I believe that it is an ingredient in the vitamin K shot given to all newborns.

  5. Wanda says:

    I recently had a procedure done through an IV needle where they took multiple samples of blood at different time intervals. Between samples they flush the line with preserved saline. When they flushed the line with it I had a funny taste in my mouth(tasted like fuel of some sort) then I felt I was going to throw up followed by sweating and tingling of my hands and feet. I was definitley having some kind of reaction. For the next flush they used saline with no preservative, it did not cause a reaction. My arm with the IV in it tingled for about 45 minutes. Not a good experience. From now on I will always ask if there is a preservative in it.

  6. Elle says:

    Benzyl alcohol is found in jasmine as well. My guess is it’s one of the compounds that contribute to jasmine’s preservation characteristic.

    • fantomia says:

      Searching the net for the least harmless preservatives (to use in my own natural cosmetic) I came across this thread – and I agree on this comment – benzyl alcohol is in fact partly responsible for the lovely scent of many essential oils – and while benzyl alcohol is a nature identical chemical and not directly derived form nature, it might be a better option, as using natural oils for preservation would make much higher concentrations necessary, and it would increase the risk for sensitization. Benzyl Alcohol actually seems to be among a few that has low toxicity and some preservative action as well. Allergies can always occur but – should everyone avoid nuts and oranges because a lot of individuals are allergic to these food? Unpreserved cosmetics is without doubt far more dangerous than cosmetics with low percentages of questionable chemicals, and spreading myths that scares people from using protection without real knowledge can be lethal

  7. Hans Mellqvist says:

    Dear Sirs,

    Eye drops for cataracts contains (at least some of them) benzyl alcohol. The active substance is N-Acetyl carnosine. What is your opinion? Is it safe to use these eye drops? Do you know if this benzyl alcohol is natural or synthetic?

    Hans Mellqvist

    • KDS says:

      Hans, the benzyl alcohol in your eye drops is probably there as a preservative, and is probably there in concentrations low enough not to cause you any problems. However, having said that, benzyl alcohol is known specifically to be a severe eye irritant, and at certain concentrations it can even cause necrosis (the death of eye tissue). It was probably not put in your eye drops to make your eyes feel better or to reduce redness, it was put there to prevent the growth of bacteria which could also potentially damage your eyes.

  8. S Rodriguez says:

    I had a subdermal B12 shot 2.5 weeks ago and have been experiencing a moderate anaphylactic reaction since, complete with hives, itching and some respiratory effects. The B12 is cyanocobalamin which contains benzyl alcohil, the only known allergic in the solution. It’s a month long dosage…I’m 2.5 weeks in and after high dose steroids over a 10 day period (decreasing every 3 days) which suppressed the rxn but not entirely, the hives, have returned. Hoping that as the dosage is eliminated from my body after 1 month, the rxn ceases.

    • I was diagnosed as B12 deficient and I was to get 1 injection per week for 4 weeks then monthly after that. I received by 4th injection and the next day I was broke out in hives. The hives got worse over the course of 4 days. I had to take an oral antihistamine to clear it up. However, now I have unexplained rashes and bumps (almost boils) on my upper torso every since those injections.

  9. Pat Haney says:

    I had an injection in my shoulder of kenalog 40 that had benzyl alcohol included as a preservative. I ended up in the hospital when I went into respitory arrest. I had had a couple of injections prior to this which left me with hives and the doctors were puzzeled. With further testing they found it was an allergic reaction to benzyl alcohol. I have to carry epic pens with me at all times in case someone does not listen to what I tell them. One day I had out-patient surgery and had told them about 4 times about my allergy. At the last minute, on a second check before they put me to sleep they realized the meds they were getting ready to put me to sleep with had benzyl alcohol in it.

  10. Debbie says:

    I have just discovered through patch testing that I am allergic to Benzyl alcohol, amerol L-101 (wool alcohols) and Chloroxylenol (PCMX). Some of the products I use have be tested as well. Three of my products tested positive for allergies. What is really frustrating for me is the failure of ALL companies when it come to posting the actual contents of their products. You must have a chemistry degree and be a detective. Unfortunately for some people, they may die as a result of a hidden allergen. I am having a terrible time finding non-allergen products.

  11. Jodie says:

    I recently purchased an “environmentally-friendly” dish soap, neglecting to read the label, and was dismayed to discover it has SLS in it. This has caused me to take a closer look at ALL of the ingredients this company (Ecover) uses and they use several synthetic ones. Benzyl alcohol is one of them and they say “it is safe for people”. I’m doing my research and am not liking the way it’s going, this company seems to be using ingredients they deem safe when they’re really not. You have to be a detective nowadays!

  12. Toni says:

    I just purchased a mouthwash, made in Italy. It contains benzyl alcohol and is the 11th of 15 ingredients. I have read that in Europe this is mandatory to list if the concentration is above .001 % in leave-in products.
    I am rethinking using this product.
    I would be very interested if anyone has any comments or experience on this.
    Thanks so much.

  13. Marcia says:

    It makes my hair fall out for 6 months. Wow after reading some of the other reactions I guess some people would consider this a mild reaction. After further reading it sounds like it is in everything!!! My hair is currently falling out and now I am wondering if I ingested it or put in on me. I am so sick of reading labels so it looks like I will go back to making my own shampoo.

  14. Robert says:

    can a alcoholic use a nasal spray with benzyl alcohol in it.

  15. Rochelle says:

    I have very severe eczema. I am allergic to glue, pine products, benzyl alcohol and other products. I wonder if someone could recommend a shampoo and conditioner which does not have these ingredients in them.

  16. Amanda says:

    Benzyl alcohol is used in vitamin k shit too

  17. Camille Ercanbrack says:

    I’ve recently found I have high sensitivity to products containing benzyl alcohol but sometimes it is listed as benzyl peroxide or benzo-(insert random suffix here). Are they all the same thing?

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