Phenol is a member of a class of organic compounds with the same name, Phenols. It is the most commonly studied member of its family. Generally, phenols refer to any chemical compound which contains an –OH group attached directly to an aromatic ring system. Phenol is a common name of the first discovered and the simplest member of this family, monohydroxy benzene, which just contains an –OH group attached directly to a benzene ring.
Its structural formula is C6H5OH and is also sometimes referred to as benzenol or carbolic acid. Its structure may be represented in the following manner:
Phenol is widely used in a lot of industries for varied purposes. A complete list of the uses of phenols is given below:
• Phenol is the most commonly used disinfectants since ancient times. It has got amazing antiseptic properties too. It was one of the most common chemical to clean household materials, especially washrooms and floor tiles.
• Phenol is proven to be effective anti-bacterial, anti-fungi and anti-viral agent. A lot of studies have been conducted to find the mechanism of action behind these properties. It has been hypothesized by some studies that it hinders the protein and RNA synthesis in microorganisms, thereby leading to their death. Besides, some studies claim that it damages the cytoplasmic membranes of the microorganisms.
• Phenol, although in very minor quantity, is also used in the manufacturing of mouthwashes for effective cleansing of the mouth and removal of mouth bacteria.
• Phenol is also sometimes used as an oral analgesic and mild anesthetic. This is due to the numbing sensation it provides due to its astringent properties since it is an alcohol. However, precautions should be taken while using it orally because the concentrated solution of phenol can be toxic to human skin and may cause damage to the mucosal membrane.
• Phenol was one of the ingredients used by Hitler in the Second World War for executing the Nazi community due to its toxic effects when used in concentrated volume.
• Phenol is used as one of the starting materials for the synthesis of many chemicals such as picric acid, pharmaceutical drugs, explosive materials and plastic polymers.
• Phenols are one of the starting materials for the formation of azo dyes in the colouring industry.
• Phenol is produced as an intermediate in a lot of industries to be further utilized for the manufacture or production of various substances in different industries.
• Phenol is also used as a preservative in the wood industry to keep wood safe from the attack of microorganisms like bacteria or fungi.
• Phenol is used in the cosmetics and skin care products manufacturing industries for the production of various skin care and cosmetics products such as skin lightening creams and lotions, sunscreens and hair colours and dyes’ solutions.
• Phenol is used in the extraction of biomolecules for study and research purposes. In Molecular biology laboratories, phenol is widely used for the extraction of nucleic acids from DNA structures of the tissue samples of various sources for research studies and investigations.
• Phenol is used for its polymerization reaction with formaldehyde. This reaction is commercially used in the polymer industry for the preparation of phenolic resins. The polymeric resin which is formed in this reaction is named as phenol-formaldehyde resin, which is also known commonly by its commercial name, Bakelite. This phenol-formaldehyde resin is used in electrical appliances such as switches. It is also used in the automobile industry to provide lubrication to certain small and sensitive parts of the engine of any vehicle. This resin finds its applicability in so many industries due to its amazing property to withstand highly extreme conditions in terms of electrical resistance and heat or corrosion from other chemical agents.
• Another intermediate resin-like substance is formed during the polymerization reaction between phenol and formaldehyde, named novolac. This resin has very good adhesive properties and hence is used as a binding material in many industries. It is also used as a protective coating over substances which are easily degraded in the presence of moisture.
• One of the widest and extensive uses of phenol is in the plastic industry where it is used as a starting material to carry out the polymerization reactions which result in the production of various types of plastics. Life in today’s world seems impossible without plastics. They form an immensely important part of our routine life. We use so many materials made up of plastic daily. Phenol is made to react with acetone which leads to the formation of bisphenol A. This product is further utilized to produce a wide range of polymers used for the synthesis of epoxide resins and polycarbonates which are the basic skeletal structure of various plastics.
• Apart from bisphenol A, the reaction of phenol and hydroxylamine in acidic media is also used in the production of caprolactam. In this reaction, phenol is first reduced to acetophenone which then reacts with hydroxylamine to result in the production of an intermediate named cyclohexanone oxime which is formed as a result of Beckmann Rearrangement between the reactants acetophenone and hydroxylamine. The intermediate (cyclohexanone oxime) is then heated with 20% solution of oleum to convert it finally into caprolactam, which is a basic unit used in the polymerization reaction involved in the production of the polymer Nylon-6 (polycaprolactam).
• Phenol is an active ingredient of various pharmaceutical lotions, ointments and ear drops used to prevent bacterial or fungal infection.
• Phenol is also used in the sclerotherapy of varicose veins as it is a sclerosing agent. Due to its alcoholic nature, it forms an irritant solution which when injected into the blood vessels, it causes inflammation in the inner lining of the blood vessels, which leads to its collapse. As soon as the two opposite walls of the blood vessels collapse over each other, it gets stuck leading the blood to clot in that area. This is done to stop the blood flow through the affected veins and instead forcing it to direct itself through the healthy veins. It is a very destructive form of treatment and phenol is generally not recommended unless all other viable options such as hypertonic saline solution, polidocanol, sodium tetradecyl sulfate solution or chromated glycerin solution cannot be used.
• Phenol is used as an active agent for the “Nail Matrix Phenolization Method” which is used in the treatment of ingrown nails. This treatment method is the only alternative cure for this condition apart from the surgical option. In this method, the toenail is partially pulled or tore away from its lateral edge followed by chemical treatment with a solution of concentrated (80-88%) phenol. Although destructive to the skin, it is the only medicinal options available apart from surgery.
• Phenol is used for another destructive type of treatment. It acts as a neurolytic agent and it helps in getting relief from chronic nerve pain of muscle spasms. Since it is well known that nerves are a medium of pain sensation carriers, blocking of nerve signals is sometimes the only option remaining when normal analgesics do not work to cure this type of nerve pain. Although this method is not recommended due to its destructive nature, it sometime remains as the last terminal option for patients suffering immense nerve pains.
• Due to its astringent properties, phenol is also used as an ingredient in the chemical face peeling masks manufactured by the dermatological industry. Although it is a harsh treatment, it is considered as an effective remedial treatment for patients with severe skin burns on their face, hands or feet. Apart from this, the phenol chemical peel-off masks can also be used for treating rough wrinkle lines, scars and in some cases even premature tumor outgrowths. However, this phenol peel mask should only be used under the supervision of your dermatologist as it can cause severe harm to certain skin areas and does not suit all skin types and may result in severe swelling, redness and itching in some people.
• Phenol is sometimes also used as a chemical sterilizing agent for hospital rooms and medical equipments.
• An injection of phenol can treat muscle spasms in patients of Parkinson’s disease, brain trauma or cerebral palsy. It works in the same manner as described earlier for the treatment of varicose vein or chronic nerve pain. It disrupts any kinds of signals (including pain or spasms) from the brain to nerves, muscles or blood vessels.
• Phenol is used as a preservative in many vaccines such as Pneumovax 23 (used for the prevention of Pneumonia and Meningitis), Typhim Vi (used for the prevention of Typhoid fever), ACAM2000 (used for the prevention of Small Pox) and Ipol (used for the prevention of Polio).
• Phenol in very dilute concentration can relieve a sore throat.