6 ½ minute read - updated 4 Nov 2022
A few years back, almost no-one had heard of the ingredient Phenoxyethanol. These days, though, we see it listed quite often on various product labels, including cosmetics and personal care products. So what is it?
What is Phenoxyethanol?
Phenoxyethanol is known as 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 synthetically created.
What other synonyms for Phenoxyethanol can be found on labels?
2-HYDROXYETHYL PHENYL ETHER; 2-PHENOXY- ETHANOL; 2-PHENOXYETHANOL; 2-PHENOXYETHYL ALCOHOL; ETHANOL, 2-PHENOXY-; ETHANOL, 2PHENOXY; ETHYLENE GLYCOL MONOPHENYL ETHER; PHENOXYTOL; 1-HYDROXY-2-PHENOXYETHANE; 2-FENOXYETHANOL (CZECH); 2-PHENOXYETHANOL
What is the purpose of Phenoxyethanol?
Phenoxyethanol is commonly used as a preservative in cosmetic products to limit the growth of bacteria. As stated above, it can be found in a wide range of products including skin care products, makeup and personal care items, 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, especially with the decline in popularity of Parabens - remember them? Parabens are 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 (and is considered to be safe) in concentrations up to 1.0%.
Some of the general safety concerns for Phenoxyethanol 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
However, it should be noted that the MSDS refers to dangers involving inhalation, skin exposure and ingestion . It also relates to Phenoxyethanol in its undiluted state and usually refers to the potential dangers for people involved in the handling of this ingredient, for example, during its manufacture. Naturally, the risk is lower for cosmetic products where the concentration of Phenoxyethanol used is limited.
- The European Union has classified Phenoxyethanol as toxic or harmful for products for use around the mouth and on the lips , presumably due to the risk of ingestion.3
- Past studies have also linked Phenoxyethanol to endocrine disruption, bladder damage and acute pulmonary oedema (abnormal accumulation of fluid) in animals.4
In relation to endocrine disruption, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined in 2015 that Phenoxyethanol has no oestrogenic activity.5
- Another concern is that Phenoxyethanol may be contaminated with 1,4-Dioxane – a carcinogenic impurit y 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.6
- Some studies have linked Phenoxyethanol with eczema and allergic reactions.
The Cosmetics Ingredient Review (CIR) Expert Panel assessed Phenoxyethanol to be "safe at the present practices of use and concentrations". According to the CIR report, Phenoxyethanol "showed no primary irritation or sensitization and it was not phototoxic in clinical studies".7
According to another publication: "Phenoxyethanol is a rare sensitizer. It can be considered as one of the most well-tolerated preservatives used in cosmetic products” .8
- Some bodies consider the dangers associated with exposure to Phenoxyethanol to be greater for children than adults. It is believed that infant oral exposure can acutely affect nervous system function . Back in 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 breastfeeding infants.
Because of potential reproductive toxicity, in 2012 the French National Agency for the Safety of Medicines and Health Products (ANSM) recommended that Phenoxyethanol not be used in products intended for use on the nappy area of babies and also that the concentration in products for infants under 3 years be reduced to 0.4%. The European Commission Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS) concluded in 2016 that Phenoxyethanol was "safe for use as a preservative with a maximum concentration of 1.0% - whatever the age group.9
- Studies from the early 1980’s linked Phenoxyethanol to DNA mutations in animals.
The Cosmetics Ingredient Review (CIR) Expert Panel In addition, "Phenoxyethanol was not teratogenic, embryotoxic or fetotoxic in dermal studies" and, when tested in an Ames assay, "this ingredient was not mutagenic in the presence or absence of metabolic activation. It was considered practically nontoxic when administered orally or dermally to rats".10
What does Naturally Safe Cosmetics think about Phenoxyethanol?
When it comes to Phenoxyethanol, although it is approved for use in products at certain concentrations, there is still a lot of debate and conflicting opinions among experts as to its safety. This makes it difficult to come to a conclusion. However, based on my research, here's my personal (non-professional) take:
Is Phenoxyethanol is the worst preservative ingredient out there?
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! That scenario could end up being more dangerous than a preservative ingredient! In the words of David Steinberg (Lecturer, UNH College of Life Sciences and Agriculture): “Remember, preservatives are safer than bacteria”.11
(After a recent personal experience, I do believe that preservatives are safer than bacteria. The image below is of a product in my bathroom cabinet had 'turned', you could say. Unfortunately, I only realised after I had sprayed it onto my hair - which I had just washed! So, it was back into the shower for me to re-wash my hair. That image scared me more than the thought of <1% phenoxyethanol would have, especially for a product that was going on my hair as a finishing product and not something to be massaged into my skin, for example.)
Bacteria and mould in a 'preservative free' product. Image source: Naturally Safe Cosmetics
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.
Also, while some preservatives are food grade and generally regarded as safe (GRAS) worldwide, even these are restricted.
But, no, I don't think Phenoxyethanol is the worst choice of preservative for cosmetics.
Which is better: Phenoxyethanol or Parabens?
I feel like the evidence against Parabens has been mounting for a while and is a lot more conclusive at this stage. For this reason, I would personally choose products with Phenoxyethanol over products with Parabens.
Are all brands that use Phenoxyethanol bad?
No. While some 'not so clean' brands use Phenoxyethanol, there are also many other reputable 'natural' brands that choose to use it. These include brands with product formulations that use predominantly natural and organic ingredients but they have chosen Phenoxyethanol to preserve their products. After all, it works well in a low concentration and is a cost-effective and viable alternative to Parabens.
What about the cumulative effect?
Using a product containing Phenoxyethanol in a concentration of less than 1%, as approved by authorities, appears to be safe. But consider how many products you use in a day. For example, how many skincare products do you layer onto your skin? If they all contain Phenoxyethanol, then surely your exposure will be increased. But if only one or two contain it, and only in the approved concentration, then it might not be of too much concern.
EWG's Skin Deep Cosmetics Database
The Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep® cosmetics safety database gives Phenoxyethanol a 2-4 rating on a scale of 1 (best) through to 10 (worst), classifying it as a Low to Moderate hazard (depending on usage). The EWG also notes that data availability is limited.
Type of product
Another consideration is the type of product. You might be more strict with products that are designed to stay on your skin, like a moisturiser, compared to products that are rinsed off, like a shampoo. And in the case of cleaning products, for example bathroom cleaners or floor cleansers, that 1% Phenoxyethanol preservative ingredient may be of even less concern.
Phenoxyethanol is one of the most popular preservatives to be found in personal care products on the market today. In fact, it is becoming more and more difficult to find products that don't have it, unless they have Parabens instead or worse (in my opinion), something like Sodium Hydroxymethylglycinate or Methylisothiazolinone. From everything that I've read about Phenoxyethanol, particularly as more information comes to light, the general consensus seems to be that you probably don't need not worry overly much about using products containing it unless you are:
- allergic to it
- using the product on a child under the age of 3 years
1 Environmental Working Group
2 Chemical News
3 Environmental Working Group
4 1990 Journal of the American College of Toxicology
6 Environmental Working Group
11 ascc.com.au (Australian Society of Cosmetic Chemists)
Disclaimer: The author and Naturally Safe Cosmetics are not a health professionals. 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. Any opinions expressed are the personal opinions of the author and should not be relied on. For medical advice regarding your own personal circumstances, it is recommended that you contact your GP or other healthcare professional.