Phenol cools and numbs skin on contact, kills germs, and reduces the risk for infection in minor skin irritations. It is also caustic, which makes it suitable as an exfoliant. It has been used medically for over 100 years, for these and other applications. In large doses, phenol is highly toxic, but when properly used, it remains a valuable chemical for medical and surgical use.
One of the first antiseptics to go into wide use, phenol has been largely replaced by safer chemicals; but it continues to be used for this purpose. It inhibits microbe growth in the irritations to which it is applied.
Phenol numbs skin on contact, making it an effective topical anesthetic and analgesic. It is often included in sore throat sprays and preparations applied to soothe rashes and minor skin irritation. Chloraseptic throat spray and cough drops contain phenol as their active ingredient. It is also in many lip balms.
Antipruritic (itch reliever)
Because it can improve other preparations' effectiveness at relieving itching, phenol is added to lotions meant for the relief of insect bites and stings, sunburn, and other painful and itchy skin conditions. One of the preparations containing phenol is Sting-Eze, which also contains camphor for additional cooling effect.
In high enough concentrations, phenol's caustic effect allows it to quickly and relatively painlessly remove scars, warts, and precancerous growths. These procedures should be performed by a medical professional, as spills or miscalculations at this concentration can cause injury or unwanted side effects. Since phenol is readily absorbed through the skin, it may cause internal toxicity even if not consumed directly.
The deepest facial peels use phenol. It is one of the most effective chemical exfoliant in wide use. Phenol peels are recommended for very rough, wrinkled skin, but mainly in lighter-skinned people, as it may change pigmentation. It is also used mainly on the face, since on other parts of the body it may cause unsightly scarring. Again, this procedure must be performed by a trained medical professional, who can safely apply phenol at the effective concentrations.
Because the application of phenol to the skin can reduce pigmentation (in some cases, it actually makes melanin production impossible), small amounts of phenol are present in many skin bleaching products. It can also be used to remove freckles. This use requires some caution; while phenol often bleaches skin, it can also darken it, and may cause uneven or blotchy results.
When used with caution, preferably under medical supervision, phenol is a valuable part of the pharmacopeia of contemporary medicine.