Green Beauty: benzyl alcohol in organic skincare

Have you noticed that quite a number of natural and organic skin care products include benzyl alcohol in their formulations? I’ve noticed this ingredient is often used as a preservative even though it is often said to be toxic. Or is it?

Toxic in high concentrations
Besides acting as a preservation, benzyl alcohol is an aromatic alcohol used in a wide variety of cosmetic formulations as a fragrance component, solvent, and viscosity-decreasing agent. Because it can act as a skin sensitizer, a 1998 study suggest that benzyl alcohol “can instigate immune system response that can include itching, burning, scaling, hives, and blistering of skin” (source). However, in terms of toxicity, it appears based on studies done that this ingredient is only toxic in high concentrations, resulting in respiratory failure, vasodilation, hypotension, convulsions, and paralysis.

Safe at concentrations up to 5%
This is why benzyl alcohol is approved by FDA and assessed by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) Expert Panel to be safe for use in cosmetics and personal care products at concentrations up to 5%, but manufacturers should exercise caution when using this ingredient in cosmetic formulations designed for infants and children. The CIR Expert Panel also concluded that benzyl alcohol was safe for use in hair dyes at concentrations up to 10%. (source) This means that if you’re using natural or organic skin care products, this ingredient is safe if listed lower in the ingredient list.

Irritating and drying to sensitive skin
But the bad news is, this ingredient is considered as drying for the skin as it is actually classified as a bad alcohol causing free radical damage side by side with ethyl alcohol, methanol, isopropyl alcohol, and SD alcohol (source). So all in all, it’s not a great ingredient to be used in skin care formulations. Personally, I try to avoid it as far as I can but it’s not always possible, and so I’ll just ensure that it’s listed way below in the ingredient listing.

So do any of your skin care products contain benzyl alcohol?

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  1. HKlights says

    Thanks for the article, there are so many “suspicious” ingredients even in some organic products that keep me on the fence about using them.

    I do have some experience about organic skin care products without benzyl alcohol in Hong Kong…look up the “Beyond Organic” chain, the store I personally use is located at the iSQUARE shopping mall.

    • sesame says

      Thanks for sharing the brand…haven’t seen it around. But seems like Hong Kong’s market for natural/organic products is growing.

  2. says

    None of my products have this ingredient, fortunately. I’d be very wary of any organic claims if this ingredient is involved. It’s mainly unnecessary, especially if it’s used solely for fragrance. As I’m getting older, I find that my skin’s developing new sensitivities to chemicals I’ve never had before, so the further away stuff like this are from my products, the better.

    • sesame says

      It is still organic if the ingredients are above 90% so according to some of the certification bodies. Personally, I dislike alcohol in my skin care products and would avoid as far as possible.

  3. Kim says

    Your post came in handy. This morning I was using Avalon Organics lavender revitalising eye gel and it really stung my skin. I previously used it, but the stinging effect wasn’t so strong then and probably also I just did a mask this morning. Just checked the ingredients, it contains benzyl alcohol. Not sure if that is the cause of the stinging effect, but will definitely stay away from it. Anything that stings the skin can’t be good right?

    • sesame says

      Oh your question is so timely too cos I’ve been trying to find out what could be causing stinging for my eyes with a cleanser I use. I don’t think it contains this alcohol but it could also be other ingredients. Is this ingredient high up in your Avalon eye gel? If it’s not, maybe it’s not the culprit.

      • Kim says

        Fortunately it was listed as the second last ingredient in a long list. The full list is here
        Any match with the ingredients in yr cleanser?

        • sesame says

          No…I wonder if mine is due to vitamin C listed as #2. I’ve been using it for a week and I really cannot continue using it.

  4. says

    Hmm, =( yet another ubiquitous ingredient that’s hard to avoid. True, I see this everywhere, but never gave a second thought. Will look out for it more after reading this.

    • sesame says

      Well, just to know…and at least avoid it if it’s listed too high up in the list. Otherwise, like you pointed out, hard to avoid.

  5. kay says

    I’m glad most of the products I use doesn’t contain this ingredient. The only product I have that contains this is my moisturizer that I hadn’t replace with an organic product. It’s about time to replace it!

  6. says

    hmmm…gotta check my products for this but I don’t really remember seeing this on any!!! btw, what do you think of mineral makeup which is so full of ingredients which are drying for the skin!!!

    • sesame says

      I wrote my views about them back in 2009 here I think mineral makeup may not suit everyone and it depends on what is being used. I am using one that is customized and moisturizing ingredients have been added…it’s very good!

  7. Coraline says

    Have you heard about Ethylhexylglycerin? It’s used as a preservative in organic products too since it’s originated from vegetable but went through many chemical steps. Is it safe to be used in organic skincare product?

    • sesame says

      Hi Coraline: I’ve read about it briefly and understand that it is a relatively new synthetic used as surfactant and a preservative. Seems to be relatively safe except some reports show that it can cause irritation such as contact dermatisis.

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