What’s Phenolic?

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Phenolic refers to substances made with phenol, including resin used to make various consumer items, plant-based chemical compounds, and carbolic acid. Phenolic resin is versatile and durable, used to make a wide variety of consumer and industrial products. Bakelite® is a commonly used phenolic formaldehyde (PF) resin. Phenolic compounds are found in natural things, including fruits and vegetables, and have antioxidant properties. Carbolic acid was used medicinally but is toxic and largely discontinued.

The term “phenolic” is used to refer to a few different substances made with phenol, an organic compound. It can describe a type of resin used to create various consumer items and is the name given to a class of plant-based chemical compounds. It can also refer to carbolic acid, an organic material that has been used in various medical and cleaning products.


Phenolic resin is made by combining phenol and an aldehyde. When these organic compounds are mixed and both pressure and heat are applied, it causes polymerization, which is a chemical reaction that can be used to shape solids. Because it is both versatile and durable, this resin is used to make a wide variety of consumer and industrial products.

A range of products, from billiard balls to kitchen gadgets, automotive components to building adhesives, are made with phenolic resins. The material is often used to make consumer accessories, such as the caps on electronic devices, handles for pots and pans, and screw caps on most bottles. Its affordability and the ease with which it is shaped can make it an ideal choice for many applications.


The resin can be made by mixing simple phenol with any number of aldehydes, but the combination made with formaldehyde – known as phenolic formaldehyde (PF) resin – is the most commonly used. It was the first synthesized resin and was marketed under the brand name Bakelite®. Soon after, because it was cheap to make and admired for its beauty, this substance was used to make many household items, including jewellery, radios, musical instrument components and cameras. While the heyday of items made with it was from the 1920s to the 1940s, this malleable material is still used to create board game pieces, weapon parts, and even heat shields on rockets.

Use as a binder and insulator

The combination of phenol and formaldehyde is also often used as an agent for binding composite woods together, including chipboard and plywood. While it can be a bit brittle when used in this way, it produces very little smoke if it catches fire and, at high degrees, can withstand temperatures up to 370°F (185°C). In construction, phenolic foam made from these compounds is often used as insulation, usually in the form of rigid sheets. This type of insulation is often chosen due to its ease of installation, affordability and thermal mass – it is the ability to moderate temperature fluctuations.

As laminate

Sheets of paper, glass tissue, and some types of fabric, such as linen and cotton, can be treated with phenolic resin, then pressed and heated to form hard laminated plastic sheets. This composite laminate is heat resistant, strong and waterproof. Dinner plates are easily shaped or carved and used frequently on tables, countertops, and even as a pickguard on guitars.
Phenols in organic chemistry
Any member within the class of organic phenols can be termed a phenolic compound. Compounds of this class are simple hydrocarbon groups, similar to alcohols. Phenols are diverse and are found in a number of natural things: from capsaicin, the heat agent in chili peppers, to neurotransmitters in the brain, such as dopamine.

Natural compounds in plant antioxidants
Phenols are found in many plants, including fruits and vegetables. While the study of these substances is ongoing, it is known that their antioxidant properties, found in wine, berries and many types of tea, can protect cells from damage and death. These substances are also found in other foods, such as olive oil, and in some food nutrients, such as vitamin E.
carbolic acid
Carbolic acid is another name for phenol or carbolic acid and is a solid, white, crystalline natural substance. It was originally derived from coal tar and has been used in soaps, cosmetics and detergents. Throughout the 19th and part of the 20th century, this mild acid was used medicinally, particularly as a topical antiseptic and anesthetic in and around the mouth. It is toxic, however, and can cause chemical burns to the skin, so its use has largely been discontinued in favor of safer alternatives.

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