There are two types of alcohol—the good kind (emollients) and the bad kind (solvents). As it turns out, benzyl alcohol is in the second group.
In cosmetics, benzyl alcohol is known as an aromatic alcohol. It’s often used as a preservative, fragrance, pH adjuster, and/or solvent. Although it can be found naturally in plants and fruits, it’s often synthetically derived.
Companies love using benzyl alcohol because:
- it’s a good—not great—preservative
- it has bacteriostatic properties (meaning it stops bacteria from forming)
- it smells good
Plus, in low doses (< 5% concentrations), it’s fairly non-toxic. Which is to say, it won’t cause skin irritation and it’s not carcinogenic.
Truth be told, finding information that shed a positive light on benzyl alcohol was, let’s say, difficult. It’s not like it’s the worst ingredient out there—it’s not. It’s just that one of its downsides is really (really, really, really) bad.
According to a study published in 1981, benzyl alcohol has caused “gasping syndrome” in infants. And, in 1983, the CDC noted that benzyl alcohol was responsible for 16 neonatal deaths. So, if you’re expecting (or you just delivered), you might want to keep this stuff away—far away–from both you and your baby.
Now that we passed through the horrifying bits, let’s move onto its lesser evils.
The CTPA—a EU-based organization—lists it as a common allergen. And yet another study found that it’s the “fifth most common allergen” in a host of moisturizers. So, if you noticed a burning sensation (or just straight up redness) after using a cleanser/moisturizer/fragrance, you might be one of the many who are, in fact, allergic to benzyl alcohol.
Your skin isn’t the only thing can have a bad reaction.
Generally speaking, you should keep benzyl alcohol out of your eyes as well. It’s a mild-to-moderate irritant—you’ll most likely see some redness after use.
Last, but not least, it’s a solvent. Solvent alcohols are unsurprisingly drying. And, the-dry-factor is why so many skincare aficionados absolutely loathe “bad” alcohols. That being said, you don’t have to avoid it completely—just make sure benzyl alcohol isn’t a main ingredient.
- Aromatic alcohol
What It’s Used In
Soaps, cleansers, moisturizers, lotions, shampoos, and, of course, fragrances.
Benzyl alcohol is hard to avoid. As long as you’re using it in low doses (i.e. it’s on the bottom half of the ingredient list), you’ll be fine. Just keep them aways from your eyes (and, if you have them, your babies).