Loading... Please wait...


Ingredient Spotlight: Phenoxyethanol - What Is It & Why Don't We Stock Products That Contain It?

Posted by

Phenoxyethanol – what is it?

Phenoxyethanol is known as a glycol ether. Okay . . . what’s a glycol ether? Glycol Ethers are a class of solvents that have both an ether and alcohol functional group in the same molecule. Phenoxyethanol is also naturally occurring in some substances like green tea, however, the ingredient used in cosmetics is normally chemically created.

What is the purpose of Phenoxyethanol?

Phenoxyethanol is commonly used as a preservative in cosmetic products to limit the growth of bacteria. It can be found in a range of products including skincare, body care, shampoos, makeup, as well as vaccines and other medical supplies. It is also used as a fragrance stabiliser.

How widespread is the use of Phenoxyethanol?

The popularity of Phenoxyethanol as a preservative of choice has increased dramatically in recent years, almost in direct correlation to the decrease in popularity of parabens (synthetic compounds also used as preservatives in the cosmetics and food industries). Parabens have fallen out of favour because of concerns that they mimic oestrogen and can act as potential hormone (endocrine) system disruptors.1

What are the safety concerns surrounding Phenoxyethanol?

As with many preservative ingredients, there continues to be much debate about the safety or otherwise of Phenoxyethanol. Globally, Phenoxyethanol has been approved for use in cosmetic products in concentrations up to 1%.

Some of the safety concerns include:

  • The Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for Phenoxyethanol states that it can cause skin and lung irritation, may be toxic to kidneys, the nervous system and liver, and that repeated long-term exposure can cause organ damage.2 The MSDS refers to dangers involving inhalation, skin exposure and ingestion. Of course, it should be noted that the MSDS is about Phenoxyethanol in its undiluted state and, as mentioned above, Phenoxyethanol in cosmetic products is usually limited to concentrations up to 1%.
  • The European Union has classified Phenoxyethanol as toxic or harmful for products for use around the mouth and on the lips.3
  • Studies have also linked Phenoxyethanol to endocrine disruption, bladder damage and acute pulmonary oedema (abnormal accumulation of fluid) in animals.4
  • Another concern is that Phenoxyethanol may be contaminated with 1,4-Dioxane – a carcinogenic impurity that is a by-product of an ingredient processing method called ethoxylation. Although 1,4-dioxane can easily be removed from products before they are made available for sale, testing of personal care products indicated that 1,4-dioxane contaminated up to 46% of them, suggesting manufacturers are failing to remove it from products.5
  • Phenoxyethanol has been associated with eczema and allergic reactions, including severe life-threatening reactions.
  • Apparently, the dangers associated with exposure to Phenoxyethanol are considered greater for children than adults. It is believed that infant oral exposure can acutely affect nervous system function. As far back as 2008, the US Food and Drug Administration warned consumers not to purchase a particular brand of nipple cream - Mommy’s Bliss Nipple Cream – which contained Phenoxyethanol, because it was ‘potentially harmful’. This is because research had found that the ingredient can depress the central nervous system and can cause vomiting and diarrhoea in breast feeding infants. In the European Union, regulations state that the use of Phenoxyethanol should be lowered to 0.4% in products intended for infants and children. The EU also recommends that Phenoxyethanol should not be used in nappies and baby wipes.6
  • Studies from the early 1980’s linked Phenoxyethanol to DNA mutations in animals.
  • The Environmental Working Group gives Phenoxyethanol a number 4 rating, classifying it as a ‘moderate’ hazard.

What other synonyms for Phenoxyethanol can be found on labels?


Why doesn’t Naturally Safe Cosmetics stock products with Phenoxyethanol?

Firstly, I have to acknowledge that any cosmetic product that contains water needs a preservative to prevent the growth of bacteria, yeast and mould – no-one wants bacteria in their products! There are many choices available to manufacturers when it comes to preservatives and, at the end of the day, all preservatives must have some toxic effect on living organisms, otherwise they would not be effective preservatives.7

Also, while some preservatives are food grade and generally regarded as safe (GRAS) worldwide, even these are restricted.

Although Phenoxyethanol is said to be safe in the small concentrations found in personal care products and cosmetics, there seems to be adequate evidence that the ingredient itself, in its undiluted state, is toxic and harmful.  However, unless you use no products whatsoever on your body, there will always be some level of compromise. In my opinion, it's about mitigating the potential damage caused by products wherever possible. So, for me, Phenoxyethanol is on the 'avoid if possible' list.

Do I think Phenoxyethanol is the worst preservative ingredient out there? No, I don’t.

Do I think that brands using Phenoxyethanol are all bad? Not really. There are many brands whose formulations are predominantly natural but they have chosen to use Phenoxyethanol to preserve their products, maybe because parabens are very much out of favour these days, maybe because it's more cost-effective.

Can products containing Phenoxyethanol be certified organic? No, they cannot and I think that says something.

What about the cumulative effect? Exactly, you may think that using a product with Phenoxyethanol in a concentration of less than 1%, as approved by authorities, is OK. But think about how many products you use in a day. If they all contained Phenoxyethanol, then your exposure would be increased.

The strictest and most ethical brands (in my subjective opinion) that I’ve come across will not use Phenoxyethanol. They are not willing to compromise. In the past I had a few products in store with Phenoxyethanol (mainly because they were companion products to other products that didn't contain it - e.g. shampoo + conditioner set). However, as more research is undertaken into the effects of Phenoxyethanol and more data becomes available, I do not feel comfortable using products that contain it, so why would I want to sell them to my customers?

1 Environmental Working Group

2 Chemical News

3 Environmental Working Group

4 1990 Journal of the American College of Toxicology

5 Environmental Working Group

6 PRNewsWire

7 Australian Society of Cosmetic Chemists

The author is not a health professional. Any information or advice in this article is of a general nature only and taken from the author's own research of information readily available online. Nothing in this article is intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. For medical advice regarding your own personal circumstances, it is recommended that you contact your GP or other healthcare professional.

View Comments

8 Reasons Why You Should Be Using a Body Scrub

When it comes to our bodies, we often neglect to take care of the condition of our skin. Of course, we wash frequently and maybe even moisturise occasionally but, if you want your skin to appear at its best, regular exfoliation is an absolute must.The reasons you should be exfoliating with a natural body scrub include: 1. Removal of dead skin [...]

Read More »

6 Winter Tips for Luscious Lips

It’s a fact: cracked, chapped, peeling or burning lips are no fun.Our lips can become dry and chapped at any time of the year but, for many of us, it’s the Winter time – with its colder temperatures, strong winds and lower humidity – that wreaks havoc on our pout.With that in mind, here are our tips for [...]

Read More »

Ingredient Spotlight: Retinol & Retinyl Palmitate - What Are They & Should You Avoid Them?

There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about the use of Retinol and Retinyl Palmitate in skin care and cosmetic products. Most of that talk centres around the safety of those ingredients, with arguments both for and against put forward by government bodies, researchers and health industry organisations.Once upon a time, Retinol and Retinyl Palmitate were found mainly [...]

Read More »

Get Your Ultimate Skin With Clemence Organics

Ultimate [uhl-tuh-mit] 1.  Adjectivea. last; furthest or farthest; ending a process or series (e.g. the ultimate point in a journey; the ultimate style in hats)b. maximum; decisive; conclusive (e.g. the ultimate authority; the ultimate weapon)c. highest; not subsidiary (e.g. ultimate goal in life) 2.  NounThe best achievable or imaginable of its kind(e.g. the ultimate in luxury)1In the English language, “ultimate” is a powerful word. When [...]

Read More »

4 Reasons To Grab a JOCO Reusable Cup Today

Coffee is one of the most popular beverages in the world today. Apparently, worldwide, humans consume almost 10 million tons of coffee per year.1 And, whilst a lot of that coffee is consumed in the home, a large percentage is enjoyed in restaurants and cafes and a significant further amount is savoured in the form of takeaway coffee. [...]

Read More »

How to replace those Winter woes with skin that glows

With Summer leaving us behind and winter taking up residence, breezy winds, dry air and chilly temperatures can wreak havoc on our skin. Winter’s here to stay for a while so now is the time to take extra care of your skin and embark on some naturally safe skincare routines (see what we did there?). Conquer those chapped lips, [...]

Read More »

5 Stunning Winter Makeup Looks That You Simply Cannot Miss

Winter brings chillier (and much darker) mornings, hence prioritising that snooze time over perfecting your daily makeup look.With that being said . . . Winter is the possibly the best season to play in the face department – whether that be working with warm hues or opting for a simple natural glow.Taking inspiration from the catwalks of Paris, New York [...]

Read More »

5 Natural Skin Care Tips for Autumn

So the beautiful (but often intensely hot) Summer has come and gone and Autumn has arrived, which means a change in your natural skin care routine should now take place in order for your skin to thrive in the cooler temperatures and less humid conditions.With that thought in mind, here are 5 natural skin care tips to ensure your [...]

Read More »

BB Creams - Please Explain?!!!

It's OK Pauline, you're not the only who's not sure about BB creams. One of the most common questions I get asked in my job is: "What's a BB cream?" While most of us have heard of the term 'BB cream', a lot of people just aren't sure what a BB cream is and what [...]

Read More »

View Cart Go To Checkout