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What is O-Cresol?

By Douglas Bonderud
Updated Jan 25, 2024
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O-cresol is an organic compound that is a combination of a functional methyl group and phenol. It is also known as ortho-cresol and 2-methylphenol. This compound does occur naturally, but is also artificially produced. O-cresol is an isomer of two other common forms, meta-cresol (m-cresol) and para-cresol (p-cresol). All three of these compounds are known as phenols or methylphenols.

These molecules are aromatic, which means that their structure is more stable than chemically expected when they are formed. This stability is attributed to the cyclical structure that the atoms take on, when o-cresol is created. The electrons around the structure are able to circle freely, which lends greater stability to the entire compound.

This compound has a melting point of 85.64° F (29.8° C), which means that it can easily be liquefied by small changes in temperature. If o-cresol is heated to a temperature above 177.8° F (81° C), it becomes gaseous and may create an explosive air-vapor mixture. It also oxidizes when exposed to air at room temperature, a characteristic that it shares with all phenols. Once o-cresol is oxidized, it takes on a yellow or red tint, as well as a characteristic smell. This odor has often been described as being generally medicinal.

The most common uses of o-cresol are as a household cleaner, disinfectant, and ingredient in chemical pesticides. A well-known commercial form of this compound is the product Lysol®. In addition to being a popular cleaning product in the United States, Lysol® was also sold as a feminine hygiene product in the early part of the 20th century. O-cresols are also used as deodorizers, and to dissolve other chemicals. These compounds were used as surgical antiseptics, but have been replaced with less toxic alternatives.

O-cresol is found naturally in food products, as well as in tobacco smoke and crude oil. The compound is naturally generated when microorganisms present in soil and water break down organic material. Ingestion of o-cresol at low levels is non-toxic, but in high doses may cause abdominal pain and vomiting.

Prolonged skin contact with any amount of cresol burns the skin, and may also damage the liver and kidneys. Inhalation of gaseous cresols causes burning of the eyes, mouth, and throat, and, in concentrated amounts, can result in facial paralysis, coma, or even death. The long-term of effects of low-level cresol exposure, such as in a work environment, are unknown.

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Discussion Comments
By Sara007 — On Aug 31, 2011

@manykitties2 - I also have trouble using o-cresol because of the smell and how it makes my eyes hurt. I figure that if I can't touch what I am cleaning with without fear of getting burned, I shouldn't be using it at all.

My kids are pretty helpful around the house, so I make sure to use completely natural cleaners when we are doing the dirty jobs around the home. Basically, vinegar and lemons can be your best friend when you are trying to get your home clean without breathing in harsh chemicals.

You can find lots of recipes online for safe, chemical free cleaners. In my opinion, making your own cleaners is a much better idea than using o-cresol.

By manykitties2 — On Aug 30, 2011

I have always been curious as to how my disinfectant cleaners actually work, and I guess o-cresol is a pretty much what my family has been cleaning with all these years. My mom has always used Lysol to clean our house, and while it does a fantastic job, it always made me a bit ill. I just couldn't handle the smell of it.

I remember my mother sending me outside when she was in one of her cleaning moods. I guess this wasn't too bad because it got me out of helping to clean the floors and scrub down the bathtub. Nowadays I prefer products that have fewer harsh chemicals in them.

By wavy58 — On Aug 30, 2011

I have a spray that deodorizes and disinfects at the same time. It contains o-cresol, and it seems to be very powerful.

I spray it into my garbage can to get rid of odors from spoiled food. I also want to eliminate any bacteria that may be growing in there. I always spray the can after I remove a full bag of garbage and prior to putting a fresh bag inside.

The smell of the spray itself is strong, and it reminds me of a doctor’s office. They probably use something like it to clean the rooms between patient visits.

By kylee07drg — On Aug 30, 2011

@cloudel - You are right about the serious damage O-cresol cleaners can cause. My four-year-old cousin died from drinking some.

His mother had been cleaning the kitchen with one, and she had screwed the spray nozzle off of the top to pour some into a bucket. While she had her back turned, her son picked up the bottle and guzzled some down. He quickly realized how bad it tasted, but it was too late.

She rushed him to the hospital. His heartbeat was rapid. He was just about to have his stomach pumped when his lungs failed, and he died.

My husband and I keep all our O-cresol products in a locked cabinet now. We have children of our own, and we know what a nightmare it would be to have one of them ingest some.

By cloudel — On Aug 29, 2011

I use a product containing O-cresol to disinfect and clean my sinks, bathtub, and toilet seat. It has plenty of warnings on the bottle.

I use rubber gloves while spraying and rubbing down a surface with this cleaner. The label said to avoid contact with skin.

The warning also included a statement about using in a well-ventilated area. One time, I forgot about this and shut the door to the bathroom while cleaning. My eyes and mouth started to burn, and I quickly opened the door and turned on the fan.

This product does some serious cleaning, but it also can cause serious bodily damage. I guess the more potent something is, the more harm it can do.

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