What Is It?

Phenol, is a colorless crystalline solid with a sweet tarry odor that resembles a hospital smell. It is commonly used as an antiseptic and disinfectant.

Why Is It Used?

Phenol is used as an ingredient to kill microorganisms, or prevent or inhibit their growth and reproduction, to help cleanse the skin or to prevent odor by destroying or inhibiting the growth of microorganisms. It is also used as an ingredient added to ethyl alcohol (grain alcohol) as a denaturant , or to help to remove dead skin cells from the skin’s surface (exfoliant). In OTC drug products, phenol may be used as an ingredient to relieve pain or retard bacterial growth.

Scientific Facts

Phenol can be found in areas with high levels of motor traffic, therefore, people living in crowded urban areas are frequently exposed to traffic-derived phenol vapor. The average (mean +/- SD) phenol concentration in urine among normal individuals living in urban areas is 7. 4 +/- 2. 2 mg/g of creatinine.

Safety Information

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the use of phenol in various different types of over-the-counter (OTC) drug products, including antiseptics and oral health care analgesics. On September 6, 2016, the FDA issued a final rule on the ‘Safety and Effectiveness of Consumer Antiseptics; Topical Antimicrobial Drug Products for Over-the-Counter Human Use,’ concluding that consumer antiseptic products intended for use with water (including antibacterial soaps, hand washes, and body washes) that contain any of 19 specific active ingredients (including phenol) can no longer be marketed. The FDA concluded that manufacturers had not adequately demonstrated products containing these ingredients are both safe for long-term daily use and more effective than plain soap and water in preventing illness and the spread of certain infections. Prior to the FDA ruling, some manufacturers had already started removing these ingredients from their products.

The FDA includes phenol on its list of indirect food additives. It is permitted for use in adhesives and coatings that have contact with food.

The Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel (CIR) has deferred evaluation of this ingredient because the safety has already been assessed by the FDA. This deferral of review is according to the provisions of the CIR Procedures.

Phenol is listed in the Cosmetics Directive of the European Union and must not form part of the composition of cosmetics (See Annex III).

In Canada, the use of Phenol in cosmetics is prohibited.

Phenol has antiseptic properties, and was used by Sir Joseph Lister in his pioneering technique of antiseptic surgery. The skin irritation caused by continual exposure to phenol eventually led to the substitution of aseptic (germ -free) techniques in surgery. Phenol is one of the main components of the commercial antiseptic TCP (trichlorophenol). It is also the active ingredient in some oral anesthetics. Notwithstanding the effects of concentrated solutions, it is also used in cosmetic surgery as an exfoliant , to remove layers of dead skin. Phenol is also used in phenolization, a surgical procedure used to treat an ingrown nail; more specifically, it is applied to the toe to prevent regrowth of nails. Exposure of the skin to concentrated phenol solutions causes chemical burns.


Find out more about the regulation of over-the-counter drugs by the Food and Drug Administration:

OTC Drug Home Page

Information about OTC Drug monographs

Search the Code of Federal Regulations

EU Cosmetics Inventory