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The truth about benzyl alcohol in skincare - is it safe for your skin?

Get the lowdown on this common ingredient—and if you should use it in your skincare routine.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Jul 7, 2023 • 9 min read
Medically reviewed by Erin Pate, NP-C
Not All Products that Contain Alcohol Are Bad for Your Skin
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Jul 7, 2023 • 9 min read
Medically reviewed by Erin Pate, NP-C
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

Pick up any random skincare product, and the odds that you’ll see benzyl alcohol listed as an ingredient are pretty high. In fact, it’s just one of several kinds of alcohol that you may run into in your skin and cosmetic products.

Now, if you’ve heard that you should avoid alcohol in your skincare products, this might be concerning at first. After all, some types of alcohol can leave skin dry and inflamed. But the truth is, it’s not always quite so simple.

The internet is full of myths and misinformation about skincare. But at Curology, we rely on scientific data and medical expertise—and our experts say that benzyl alcohol may not be a cause for alarm. Here, we’ll get into what benzyl alcohol is, why it’s used in so many products, and how it can affect your skin.

What is benzyl alcohol?

There are many different types of alcohol, and despite the rumors, not all of them are bad for your skin. The ones that will likely irritate your skin or dry it out include isopropyl alcohol, methanol, and denatured alcohol—but even these “bad alcohols” can be okay in small amounts for very specific uses. For example, sterile wipes or cotton swabs that a nurse uses to clean the injection site on your skin before you get a shot often contain isopropyl alcohol.¹

On the other hand, there are some alcohols that can actually be “good” for your skin (in the right amount and for the right use). Benzyl alcohol is one of them.² Trace amounts of benzyl alcohol actually occur naturally in some plants and fruits³ as well as in some essential oils like rose oil⁴ and lemon oil.⁵

Benzyl alcohol is also widely used as a food additive for flavoring.⁶ It has a mild, fruity aroma.⁷ If you’ve ever had chocolate, a breath mint, or a piece of chewing gum, it has most likely contained benzyl alcohol.⁸

Other “good" alcohol types include what are called fatty alcohols, like stearyl alcohol, cetyl alcohol, and cetearyl alcohol. Many of these can be found in various amounts in skincare products and cosmetics. Even some products marketed as “alcohol-free” can contain some of these alcohols. That’s because the alcohol that they are “free” of is ethyl alcohol (also called ethanol).⁹ But even alcohol-free products can contain benzyl alcohol.

Benzyl alcohol in skincare products

Benzyl alcohol has several characteristics that make it an ideal ingredient for many different skincare products. Along with other less common uses, its main purposes in skincare are its fragrance, its antibacterial preservative properties, and its solvency—the ability to dissolve other ingredients without changing the fundamental properties of those ingredients.¹⁰ Here’s how it may play a role in your skincare products.

As a fragrance

Benzyl alcohol is known as an “aromatic alcohol,” which means it has a light but pleasant odor.¹¹ It can help stabilize other scents, which can help provide longer-lasting fragrances in perfumes and other scented products in turn. Occasionally it’s used as a masking agent: The more pleasant odor of benzyl alcohol hides the scent of other ingredients that sometimes don’t smell quite as pleasant on their own.

A word of caution here: Benzyl alcohol is usually found in much higher concentrations when it is used specifically for its fragrant characteristics. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but higher concentrations can sometimes cause irritation or contact reactions in people with naturally dry or more sensitive skin. If you have any concerns about a potential reaction, we recommend doing a patch test with any new product to make sure your skin can tolerate it before incorporating it more broadly in your daily use.

As a preservative

There’s a pretty good chance that you do the majority of your skincare routine in your bathroom, likely right after you shower. That warm and humid environment creates a perfect breeding ground for bacteria and fungus, especially in moist, creamy products contained in wide-mouth jars that get more exposure to air (and dipping fingers), as opposed to products in squeeze bottles or pumps. That’s where benzyl alcohol comes in handy as a great preservative.

It has antifungal¹² and antimicrobial¹³ properties, which means it helps keep bacteria and fungi from multiplying in your skincare products and cosmetics. And even if hands are clean (as they should be while applying skincare products!), there’s a possibility that some stubborn microscopic hitchhikers are hiding under your nails, on the shower curtain, or even under the faucet of your sink.

As a solvent

Benzyl alcohol is also a solvent,¹⁴ which means that it easily dissolves other ingredients without changing the fundamental structure of those ingredients. Sometimes it’s used for just that purpose, helping to break down active ingredients into smaller particles so they can penetrate more easily into your skin. 

Another benefit of the solvent property of benzyl alcohol is that it helps to thin out formulas, making them easier to spread (also called a “slip agent”). It can give your creams and lotions a light, silky texture that is pleasing to the touch. It’s what leaves your skin feeling soft, smooth, and evenly covered after applying your favorite moisturizer or face cream.

Is benzyl alcohol safe for skin?

Too much of anything can be a bad thing. But for the most part, benzyl alcohol has been deemed safe by the FDA for a variety of uses, including as a food additive and in cosmetics and skincare products.

At concentrations higher than 5%, some patients experienced non-immunological reactions (that means it’s not an allergic reaction) of itchy redness on the surface of the skin. Because those reactions are almost always strictly superficial, benzyl alcohol concentrations of up to 5% are considered safe in all topical applications.¹⁵

Of course, as with any skincare product or cosmetic, there is still the possibility of an allergic reaction,¹⁶ even if that possibility is a slight one. That’s why it’s important to read through the labels of every product you use to make sure that it doesn’t contain anything you may be allergic to—in addition to ensuring its ingredients are non-comedogenic. It’s also always a good idea to do a patch test to make sure your skin tolerates a new product before applying it to your whole face if you have any concerns!

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Finding skincare that works for you

Even though you may have heard the rumors that alcohol is bad for your skin, that’s not the case for every type of alcohol or every product. That advice is mostly applicable to alcohols that can dry your skin out with prolonged and frequent exposure, like isopropyl alcohol. If your lotion, cream, or other skincare product contains benzyl alcohol, it’s most likely in a low concentration and most likely perfectly safe. In some cases, it may even be beneficial.

If you have any questions about your skincare products, the best way to get accurate and reliable information is to talk to your dermatology provider. That’s where Curology can come in handy.

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

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If you want to take the guesswork out of your skincare routine, Curology’s team of licensed dermatology providers is here to answer any questions that you may have and to help create a skincare solution tailored to your individual needs. Sign up today* for a consultation and take the first step on your personalized skincare journey.

FAQs

Is benzyl alcohol toxic?

Any chemical compound, organic or synthetic, can be toxic in large enough quantities. That said, benzyl alcohol is said to have negligible toxicity in the small amounts commonly found in cosmetics and skincare products. It is considered safe in the present practices of use.¹⁷

Does benzyl alcohol clog pores?

Benzyl alcohol is considered to be non-comedogenic (doesn’t clog pores). But that doesn’t mean that the other ingredients in a given product are. Keep a close eye on the ingredient list of any product you use on your skin. Here’s a handy guide!

Is benzyl alcohol good for sensitive skin?

Any product can cause irritation, but if your skin is sensitive, you may run a somewhat higher risk. Still, the concentration of benzyl alcohol found in most cosmetics or skincare products is usually low enough that this isn’t too much of a concern (5% or less). But it’s always a good idea to do a “patch test” on a small inconspicuous area just to be sure that your skin can tolerate whatever you might be putting on it.¹⁸

• • •

P.S. We did the homework so you don’t have to:

  1. National Center for Biotechnology Information. WHO Best Practices for Injections and Related Procedures Toolkit. (March 2010).

  2. Johnson, Jr, W., et al. Safety Assessment of Benzyl Alcohol, Benzoic Acid and its Salts, and Benzyl Benzoate. International Journal of Toxicology. (2017, December 15).

  3. European Commission Health & Consumer Protection Directorate-General. Opinion of the Scientific Committee on Food on Benzyl alcohol. (2002, September 24).

  4. Umezu, T. et al. Anticonflict effects of rose oil and identification of its active constituents. Life Sci. (2002, November 22).

  5. Cebi, N., et al. Detection of Orange Essential Oil, Isopropyl Myristate, and Benzyl Alcohol in Lemon Essential Oil by FTIR Spectroscopy Combined with Chemometrics. Foods. (2020, December 24).

  6. European Commission Health & Consumer Protection Directorate-General. Opinion of the Scientific Committee on Food on Benzyl alcohol. Ibid.

  7. PubChem. Compound Summary: Benzyl Alcohol. National Center for Biotechnology Information. (n.d.).

  8. Younes, M., et al. Re-evaluation of benzyl alcohol (E 1519) as food additive. EFSA Journal. (2019, October 30).

  9. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Cosmetics Labeling Claims: “Alcohol Free”. (2022, February 25).

  10. PubChem. Compound Summary: Benzyl Alcohol. National Center for Biotechnology Information. Ibid.

  11. PubChem. Compound Summary: Benzyl Alcohol. National Center for Biotechnology Information. Ibid.

  12. Ogala, J.B., et al. Synthesis, antifungal activity and in silico ADMET studies of benzyl alcohol derivatives. Istanbul Journal of Pharmacy. (2022, April 28).

  13. PubChem. Compound Summary: Benzyl Alcohol. National Center for Biotechnology Information. Ibid.

  14. PubChem. Compound Summary: Benzyl Alcohol. National Center for Biotechnology Information. Ibid.

  15. Nair, B. Final report on the safety assessment of Benzyl Alcohol, Benzoic Acid, and Sodium Benzoate. Int J Toxicol. (January 2001).

  16. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Allergens in Cosmetics. (2022, February 25).

  17. Johnson, Jr., W., et al. Safety Assessment of Benzyl Alcohol, Benzoic Acid and its Salts, and Benzyl Benzoate. International Journal of Toxicology. (2017, December 15).

  18. Curry, E.J. and Warshaw, E.M. Benzyl alcohol allergy: importance of patch testing with personal products. Dermatitis. (December 2005).

Erin Pate is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner at Curology. She earned her Masters of Science in Nursing at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, FL.

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• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Erin Pate Nurse Practitioner, NP-C

Erin Pate, NP-C

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