What is Phenol? - Structure & Uses

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  • 0:01 What is Phenol?
  • 0:33 Properties
  • 1:31 Structure
  • 3:00 Common Uses
  • 4:02 Health Implications
  • 4:37 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Danielle Reid

Danielle has taught middle school science and has a doctorate degree in Environmental Health

Expert Contributor
Amanda Robb

Amanda holds a Masters in Science from Tufts Medical School in Cellular and Molecular Physiology. She has taught high school Biology and Physics for 8 years.

A type of carbolic acid and aromatic compound, phenol is found in numerous household products, like aspirin and detergent. Use this lesson to gain insight about phenol, understand its structure, and explore its uses.

What Is Phenol?

You wake up with a sore and itchy throat. The first thing you reach for is a bottle of throat spray to relieve those nasty symptoms. But, have you ever wondered what, exactly, is in that throat spray? One active ingredient is phenol, a group of organic compounds whose aromatic ring is bonded to an alcohol group. Now, this family, the phenols, doesn't mind being called a different name: carbolic acid or benzenol. The molecular formula of phenol is C6H5OH.


The suffix ending -ol in phenol provides a great clue as to what functional group this organic compound belongs to. In chemistry nomenclature, this suffix refers to compounds that contain alcohol (-OH) groups. Phenol is no exception to this rule, as seen by its molecular formula; an alcohol group is present in its structure.

Because phenol contains an alcohol group, it is not only able to form a very strong hydrogen bond with other molecules, but this bond contributes to phenol's affinity towards polar substances. As a polar molecule, phenol is soluble in water. In other words, phenol and water are friends.

Other physical properties of phenol include its physical state of a colorless liquid and its high boiling point. Keep in mind that those strong hydrogen bonds contribute to phenol's higher boiling point. At room temperature, the solid form of phenol is white in color. It is classified as having a sweet odor.


What does the structure of phenol look like? Shown in diagram 1, you will notice the presence of the alcohol group (-OH) we discussed earlier, as well as an aromatic ring. Aromatic compounds are compounds that form a cyclic ring containing double and single bonds. In phenol, this aromatic compound is referred to as benzene. It is worth noting benzene in phenol's structure because the synthesis of phenol most often begins with the starting use of a benzene molecule.

Diagram 1

For example, as shown in diagram 2, benzene utilizes two intermediates, chlorobenzene and sodium phenoxide, to make our friend phenol. Luckily, there is no need to remember the synthesis of phenol. But, it is very useful for us to learn a little bit about phenol's historical origins in organic chemistry. Although phenol is commonly made in the laboratory using reactions, as shown in diagram 2, sources of phenol are commonly found in nature as well.

Diagram 2
diagram 2

Many of the proteins in our body contain phenol in their chemical structure. The hormone serotonin, which gives us a happy feeling, and epinephrine, what gets our adrenaline pumping, both contain phenols. Even our favorite natural sweetener vanilla bean, derived from a compound called vanillin, contains a phenol group. Diagram 3 shows the structure of both hormones as well as the structure of vanillin. Test your knowledge to see if you can locate the phenol group.

Diagram 3

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Additional Activities

Phenol Uses

In this research assignment students will be learning about the different uses for phenol. Students can use the explanation in the lesson, but their research should expand on the information given. Students will learn about the structure of the phenol derivative used, how phenol plays a role in the properties of the substance, and how the substance is made. For example, students might choose to research perfume, which uses different phenol derivatives to make the scents. Students would research the specific phenol derivatives used in different scents, including their structure and how they cause us to perceive specific smells, and the method for manufacturing perfume.

Student Instructions

Now that you understand what phenol is, it's time to dive deeper. In this research activity you will be investigating one item that uses phenol in its production, such as laundry detergent, perfume, aspirin or others. You will research the structure of the phenol derivative, how that structure gives the item specific properties, and how the item is manufactured. You can put your final information together in a poster or slide show. To make sure you have all the information, use the criteria for success below.

Criteria For Success

  • Research is about one item that uses phenol or a derivative.
  • Poster or slide show includes images, is colorful, professional and attractive.
  • Research includes the structure of the phenol derivative.
  • Research includes how the phenol derivative gives the item its properties.
  • Research includes how the item is manufactured.

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