Ingredient Spotlight: Phenoxyethanol - What Is It, Is It Safe & Why Is It Used In Personal Care Products?

Ingredient Spotlight: Phenoxyethanol - What Is It, Is It Safe & Why Is It Used In Personal Care Products?

Posted by Angela - Naturally Safe Cosmetics on 24th Sep 2018

A few years back, almost no-one had heard of the ingredient Phenoxyethanol. These days, though, we see it listed quite a lot on various product labels, including skincare, body creams, shampoos and more. So what is it?

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 synthetically created.

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 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 - 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 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 usually refers to the potential dangers for people involved in the handling of this ingredient, for example, during its manufacture. 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 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. 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?


Does 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.  So the question is: how safe is it when used in small concentrations in products? Nothing is 100% certain and unless you use no products whatsoever on your body, there will always be some level of compromise.

The concept of using more naturally derived ingredients is about mitigating the potential damage caused by cosmetics and personal care products wherever possible. Personally, I prefer to avoid Phenoxyethanol, "if possible", and I acknowledge that sometimes it may not be possible. Our range of  natural and organic products does not include products with Phenoxyethanol, apart from one exception - the YES VM Vaginal Moisturising Gel - read more about this product in the blog update below.

When it comes to the safety or otherwise of Phenoxyethanol, although it is approved for use in products at certain concentrations, there is still much debate. Summing up, here's my personal take: 

Do I think Phenoxyethanol is the worst preservative ingredient out there?

No, I don’t.

Do I think Phenoxyethanol is better or worse than parabens?

If I had choose between a product with parabens and a product with Phenoxyethanol, I would choose the one with Phenoxyethanol.

Do I think that all brands using Phenoxyethanol are bad?

No. Certainly, while some 'not so clean' brands use Phenoxyethanol, there are also many other brands whose formulations are predominantly natural and organic that have also chosen to use Phenoxyethanol to preserve their products. After all, it is cost-effective and a viable alternative to Parabens.

What about the cumulative effect?

You may think that using a product with Phenoxyethanol in a concentration of less than 1%, as approved by authorities, is okay. But think about how many products you use in a day. If they all contained Phenoxyethanol, then your exposure would be increased. But if only one or two contained it, and only in the smallest concentration, then it might not be of too much concern. Something to consider if you're using lots of different products every day. It appears the jury is still out on this one.

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

BLOG UPDATE: Whilst my personal opinion of Phenoxyethanol remains the same as stated above, we currently have one product in store which contains this ingredient as one of its preservative ingredients - YES VM Vaginal Moisturiser Gel. We have decided to stock this at the request of many customers who suffer from vaginal dryness and sensitivity and have found that this is the only product that really helps them achieve comfort. So many women have claimed that this product is life-changing for them. We have not yet discovered an alternative similar product that's predominantly natural and provides the same results as YES VM. We acknowledge that Phenoxyethanol forms only a very small component of this product and that the other ingredients in the formula are natural or organically grown.  For all these reasons, we have agreed to offer this item to our female customers who are in need of its hydrating and soothing properties which they have not been able to obtain from other similar products.

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. 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.