Phenol is a type of organic compound. While toxic to consume on its own, it’s available in tiny doses in many household products like mouthwash and spray cleaners.
In its pure form, it may be colorless or white. It has a mildly sugary scent that might remind you of somewhere that’s sterile, such as a hospital room. In limited quantities, it’s available for several medical and health-related uses.
Pure phenol is used in certain medical procedures and as an ingredient in numerous treatments and laboratory applications.
Phenol can be injected into your muscles to treat a condition known as muscle spasticity. This happens when your brain doesn’t communicate properly with your spinal cord and nerves. It causes your muscles to become tight.
A phenol injection helps limit the signals sent from your nerves to your muscles that cause contractions. This allows you to move more easily and feel less discomfort.
This treatment is similar to getting a botulinum toxin A (Botox) shot. But phenol tends to be more useful for large muscles.
Phenol is commonly used in surgeries for ingrown toenails. It’s used on more severe ingrown toenails that don’t respond to other treatments. The phenol, in the form of trichloroacetic acid, is used to stop the nail from growing back.
A small 2001 study of 172 people found that 98.8 percent of those who received a chemical matrixectomy with phenol cauterization had successful results.
However, phenol matrixectomy may be falling out of favor. A 2014 paper in the Journal of the American Podiatric Medical Association found that sodium hydroxide had fewer complications than phenol as an ingrown toenail treatment.
Phenol is used as a preservative in at least four vaccines. It helps keep bacteria from growing in and contaminating the vaccine solutions.
- Pneumovax 23 for conditions like pneumonia and meningitis
- Typhim Vi for typhoid fever
- ACAM2000 for smallpox
- a phenol compound called 2-Phenoxyethanol is used in the vaccine Ipol, for polio
Sore throat spray
Phenol spray is safe to use at the recommend dose for a short time. But using too much or giving it to children younger than 3-years old can be unsafe. Read the ingredients label carefully to make sure you’re not allergic to any other components of the spray.
And if your sore throat is accompanied by a fever, nausea, and vomiting, see a doctor as soon as possible before using phenol for throat soreness.
Many phenol-based products that help relieve pain or irritation in or around your mouth can also be bought over-the-counter to numb tissues in the mouth and lips.
These products are used as a short-term treatment for the symptoms of pharyngitis. This happens when your throat gets inflamed from a bacterial or viral infection.
Phenol-based products for mouth and throat pain are widely available and safe to use in small doses. But throat sprays and antiseptic liquids shouldn’t be used for more than a couple days at a time. And if you’re having symptoms like fever and vomiting, see a doctor.
Phenol-derived compounds have a variety of uses, including:
- Chemical peels. Phenol in trichloroacetic acid is used to penetrate through layers of skin to get rid of old or damaged skin.
- Food and cosmetic preservatives. Phenol derivative butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) is a common FDA-approved preservative used in cosmetics, and to keep food from going bad. It’s safe to consume in small amounts. But some companies have removed BHT from their foods in response to public pressure.
Phenol liquid is often used in molecular biology with trichloromethane and chloroform to separate RNA, DNA, or proteins, and isolate them in the pure form.
This process is known as liquid-liquid extraction. It’s done by adding an equal amount of phenol and chloroform to a solution of cells or tissues.
The phenol-chloroform mixture separates molecules based on how soluble the tissue sample is in that solution. The pH level of phenol helps separate the DNA and RNA.
Soap and antiseptic
Soap containing phenol-based compounds is often called carbolic soap. It’s been used as an antiseptic during surgery since at least 1867.
It was also a common fixture in state schools in England and Scotland until the 1980s. It’s remembered by millions in the United Kingdom for its distinct smell and red streaks it left on bathroom sinks.
Carbolic soap is still widely used throughout the world. It’s also a common tool used to assist countries who receive foreign aid from organizations like the Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders. It provides effective, low-cost hygiene to poverty-stricken communities.
Over time, pure phenol has been replaced by some of its derivatives as an antiseptic. One derivative is n-hexylresorcinol, which can be found in cough drops. The compound, butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), replaced phenol as a food antioxidant.
Despite its toxicity in its pure form, phenol has been shown to have numerous health benefits.
Plant-based compounds containing phenol are known to be antioxidants. This means that they can stop the reaction of free radicals with other molecules in your body, preventing damage to your DNA as well as long-term health effects.
Free radicals are molecules that have lost an electron and become unstable. This makes them prone to react with and damage molecules like DNA. Free radicals sometimes cause the molecules they react with to create even more free radicals.
Antioxidant molecules are like a barrier between free radicals and healthy molecules: antioxidants replace the missing electron and render it harmless.
Some notable phenolic antioxidants with proven health effects include:
- bioflavonoids, found in wines, teas, fruits, and vegetables
- tocopherols, including vitamin E, found in many fruits, nuts, and vegetables
- resveratrol, found in fruits, nuts, and red wine
- oregano oil, composed of many beneficial phenols like carvacrol, cymene, terpinine, and thymol
Phenol-based compounds have been found to have some cancer prevention properties.
A 2010 animal review in Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology suggested that getting phenols from a diet heavy in plants containing phenolic compounds and foods fortified with phenols helped strengthen the immune system and make cells more resistant to cancer throughout their life cycle.
Most of this research comes from animal models, but human studies are also promising.
According to a 2014 paper in Current Pharmaceutical Biotechnology, the complex structures of phenolic compounds can help make cancer cells more receptive to chemotherapy treatments.
Phenol may have its share of uses and health benefits, but it can also be toxic or cause long-term health effects if you’re exposed to it in high amounts.
Here a few tips to avoid exposure:
- Be careful at work. Being exposed to phenol in industrial facilities may increase your risk of heart disease. This may be partly due to exposure to many other industrial chemicals in addition to phenol.
- Don’t eat anything that might contain phenol. Consuming phenol in its pure form can damage your esophagus, stomach, intestines, and other digestive organs. It can be fatal if you have enough of it at one time.
- Don’t put it on your skin. Pure phenol can damage your skin if it makes direct contact. This can include burns and blisters.
- Don’t inhale it. Laboratory animals experienced breathing difficulties and twitching of muscles when they breathed in a lot of phenol for even a short period of time. Phenol has also been shown to cause systemic organ damage in laboratory animals.
- Don’t drink it. Consuming water containing a lot of phenol can make muscles spasm and affect your ability to walk. Too much can be fatal.
Phenol has numerous health benefits and can be helpful to treat a few different conditions.
But it can be dangerous and even deadly in high amounts. Be careful in places that may contain high levels of phenol, such as industrial facilities. Don’t eat or drink anything that may have been exposed to phenol or have uncontrolled amounts of phenol in it.