The Facts about Phenoxyethanol – Revisited

Phenoxyethanol has become a hot topic recently and is an ingredient we are regularly asked about.

When I started formulating Pai back in 2006, I looked at Phenoxyethanol as a preservative for Pai products. However, I discovered I was intolerant to it even in tiny amounts, so quickly ruled it out as an option.

At that time both the Soil Association and ECOCERT allowed Phenoxyethanol in certified organic products.

ECOCERT has since disallowed Phenoxyethanol in cosmetic formulations, and the Soil Association is following their lead in 2012 when it becomes part of the new COSMOS European Organic Certification programme.

As a result, a number of natural and organic cosmetic brands are working hard to remove it from their products. Reformulation is an extremely costly and time-intensive exercise, so these companies are to be applauded.

Some brands won’t bother to reformulate and will either lose their organic certification, or move over to a lax standard such as the Organic Food Federation (UK), which allows Phenoxyethanol and is not part of COSMOS.

So, Phenoxyethanol isn’t just a hot topic for consumers, but one that is proving increasingly controversial and divisive within the natural and organic beauty sector.

What is Phenoxyethanol?

In the cosmetics industry, Phenoxyethanol is used as a stabiliser in perfumes and as a preservative.

For the science-buffs out there, Phenoxyethanol’s chemical name is: 2-phenoaxyethanol; ethylene glycol phenyl ether.

It’s an oily, colourless liquid that belongs to the family of the glycol ether.

Although Phenoxyethanol can be found naturally in green tea and chicory, the cosmetic ingredient is not plant derived. Instead it is synthetically produced in a laboratory.

Why is it so prolific in natural cosmetics?

When the health scare surrounding Parabens surfaced, a raft of cosmetic manufacturers looked for a quick and effective replacement preservative for their formulations.

Phenoxyethanol seemed to fit the bill as a reliable alternative, offering a broad spectrum of anti-microbial activity against bacterias, moulds and yeasts.

Current cosmetic regulation advises that the ingredient only be used in proportions under 1%.

(Note: Ingredients are always listed in proportional order, so if you see Phenoxyethanol referenced high up an ingredient list, then the manufacturer may be using more than 1%).

So why the controversy over Phenoxyethanol?

While existing scientific research on Phenoxyethanol is conflicting, some experts believe it to be a toxic ingredient.

Repeated exposure to the substance over prolonged periods has been linked to contact dermatitis (more info 1 and 2), worsening of eczema (more info), reproductive toxicity (more info) and neurotoxicity (more info 1 and 2).

Before you start worrying, it is important to stress that none of the available research data is conclusive, and it generally applies to exposure to Phenoxyethanol in isolation or products containing high doses of the ingredient.

This is a controversial and complicated topic which I’m sure will continue to be debated at length. To continue your research, take a look at fellow blogger’s No More Dirty Looks post, which I think sums up the topic rather well.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sebastian.pattavina Sebastian Michael Pattavina

    Having read soooooooo many articles on this, no one can suggest a safer preservative. I would take my chances with a preservative over the far more dangerous bacteria that will thrive in the absence of preservatives. Why is no one suggesting an alternative?

  • em

    Whole Foods has a list of 400 unacceptable ingredients on their Premium Body Care Product list. They left phenoxyethanol off their list. Many of their products (365 brand) contain this ingredient. I emailed them on this, but never got a reply.

  • Liesbeth van Eerten

    Creating a synthetic preservative free product line is a huge challenge and takes years of research and expense to find natural safe plant ingredients that are cosmeceutical, yet bacteriocidal and bacteriostatic. One company has pioneered this creating a natural self preserving system with a 2 year shelf life – USANA Health Sciences

  • Racy ruby

    Love your skin 3 in 1 cleansing wipes under the co-operative brand contains phenoxyethanol which is listed third out of 12 ingredients behind water and aloe Vera. I wouldn’t be surprised then this is greater than the legal 1% of ingredients. When using these wipes to remove make up, my skin on my face becomes dry and very itchy in places, and in one area the mark becomes red and blustery. This has been happening for 5 months, initially thinking my make up has caused this irritation. As a final experiment I used the 3 in 1 wipes at the end of the night. By the morning the irritation had flared up.

  • Bharat Sharan Garg

    simple and sound explanation…really liked it

  • Anonymous

    Thank you!

  • Irene

    Bees Wax seems to be a good preservative in organic products.

  • May

    I read that if Phenoxyethanol content is less than 1% is not dangerous (I mean not highly toxic. I have lately read a lot of about the controversy of this ingredient . FDA approve this ingredient in food too. But how we know that content is less than 1% ? I know that ingredients are listed in proportional order but still difficult to define percentages

  • Anonymous

    Hi May – you’re right. The ingredients are listed in descending order in terms of quantity. However, this descending order is abandoned from 1% and below so there is no way of determining the percentages. Pretty difficult! I hope that helps. x

  • Carole

    “Phenoxyethanol” is a poison if ingested in the skin and is also in both baby and hypoallergenic products. It has given me scars on both face and neck from the red eruptions that itch profusely. It took years for me to realsie the cause. Thankfully I identified the ingredient and can avoid it by scrutinising every label. If only “tocopheryl acetate” that burns the skin around my eyes and “sodium laureth sulfate” that gives me a fine rash around my hairline could be abolished – I would then be free of all these irritants and shop freely to buy whatever I wanted and save me the hours I take in sourcing products. Incidentally Fairy washing up liquid has recently added Phenoxyethanol!!! It was not there before.

  • Anonymous

    What a relief that you’ve discovered the roots of the reactions! Thanks for the info about fairy – we weren’t aware it had been added. x

  • SUPRA luca

    Potassium Sorbate, essential oils, neem oil, rosemary extract, propolis, citric acid, alpha tocopherol, sodium chloride, etc. Some alcohols. Organic formulations have to be very intelligent.

    Yes, I would take the Phenoxyethanol over the bacterias as well. But my experience with organic/natural products has been wonderful till date, I have nothing to complain about.

  • Nova

    Honey. It’s excellent at preventing bacteria and it never goes bad.

  • Juliana Beckett

    One problem with this post – ingredients are not always listed in descending order. In fact, if a preservative or other ingredient is less than 1% it can go anywhere, so manufacturers are now “hiding” it near the top where consumers don’t look for preservatives. So a preservative near the top of the deck does not mean there is a lot of it in the formula.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Juliana, ingredients are always listed in descending order until you reach the ingredients which are present in quantities below 1%. Every ingredient that is below 1% can then be listed in any order, so there is no way of determining the exact percentages! Hope that helps. x

  • Debbie Sellers Starr

    I am so glad to hear that you realize the irritant. I formulate and manufacture SKINaturals, a 2-step organic skincare system that really works. I hope you’ll check us out.

  • Debbie Sellers Starr

    I tried that as well but found my product degraded once bottled, binding capacity is low and if you use enough to correct that, the product is “waxy”.

  • Anna

    Fermented radish root is a popular one just new on the market. Grapefruit seed extract, tea tree oil, neem oil, vitamin E, aspen bark, etc. are a few others.

  • Anonymous

    Agreed, in the states there are no real natural alternatives for things like lotion that contain water and oil. Sure, you can get away with some natural items, but no for resale with FDA approval

  • Anonymous

    But in the end, the ingredient usage is less than 1%, logically you CAN deduce this, which is what was important in the article, right?

  • Marnie Boyers

    After landing in the emergency room twice after my face, arms and legs swelled up, I finally figured out what the problem was. I cross checked and analyzed the products I was using and discovered that Phenoxyethanol was the culprit! After another incident of facial swelling, I discovered the ingredient again in a bug spray. Items that did not contain the ingredient gave me no problems. I have to be very diligent in my label reading now and never take for granted a product I have used for years as it has recently crept into many products on my safe list..

  • Anonymous

    That’s awful to hear Marnie – poor you! At least you’ve found the culprit now. Phenoxyethanol is used in such a wide range of products nowadays, so thoroughly reading your ingredients lists is exactly the right thing to do! x

  • Deb

    Its not just 1% if you use several products, several times a day. The accumulation of those 1%s over time will add up. If you lok up the chemical name, methyldibromoglutaronitrile, you’ll see it has other names and can watch for those on labels. Like I do.

  • Joe

    There is a line of skin care products that is chemical free and contains a Patented Self-Preserving Technology. We have been using it for 2 1/2 years and it has completely changed our skin. It’s USANA Health Sciences Sense` skin care products. Best you can find!

  • shannon

    Why is this being used in our childrens vaccines? On average your child gets 3-4 shots when they go to doctors. Im pretty sure that equals more than 1%.

  • Anonymous

    Good question – your guess is as good as mine. One for the medical bodies to look into. x

  • Sara

    I wouldn’t say that. It can haror botulism which is why kids under the age if one should never have it.

  • Sara

    *harbor, *of (Sorry..phone typing!)

  • SR

    The same…two products gave me a horrid, persistent case of contact dermatitis on my eyelid. Tarte amazonian clay eyeliner and Sephora’s sens-eye makeup remover. Phenoxyethanol is the only ingredient they seem to have in common.

    Does anyone know of a list of cosmetics that do not contain this, or parabens?

  • Anonymous

    The skin surrounding the eye area is thinnest on the entire body, meaning reactions and irritations are common in this area. You might want to look into mineral makeup – it’s usually a good option for sensitive souls to explore. As for eye makeup remover, our Cleanser is fantastic for removing eye makeup whilst cleanser, or separately with cotton wool. x

  • Oivia

    Could you drop a list of those “other names” I’d really like to avoid those too!

  • sasi

    Why not making smaller batch, without preservatives, sterile packed, with a short expiration date on it? I. Isn’t what we put on our skin potentially harmful as what we eat? It might be more costly, but ‘m sure we all trash most of the product we buy, because it gets old in our cabinet anyway.

  • Anonymous

    Good point Sasi! All Pai products are made in small batches and have an expiration date listed on the bottle and, of course, we don’t use any harsh preservatives. x

  • jk

    I am very upset that tarte & loreal have added Phenoxyethanol to some of their products. Tarte changed their formula of lights, camera, lashes mascara to include Phenoxyethanol, and what is even worse, is that the new packaging specifically says “Same great formula!” while adding a known allergen. I had to eliminate Phenoxyethanol from all products about a year ago & I choose tarte because of its all natural & sensitive reputation. I am very disappointed to see they have taken a step backwards by adding this ingredient & infuriated that their deceptive marketing could easily trick someone into buying a harmful product. I hope they consider going back to the true original formula.

  • Penguin

    Tocopheryl acetate is vitamin E. It’s not generally considered an irritant.

  • LaffyTaffy

    ;-) Thank you.

  • Vicki

    You are absolutely right! The small percentage that is used as a preservative is MUCH safer than having bacteria in the product. I don’t believe there is a natural preservative that can do the job. At least one hasn’t been found.

  • Nima

    Dear Sarah
    Im a chemistry student, Ineed some information on dinitroohenoxy ethanol, can you help me?

    Sincerely yours
    Nima

  • Rose

    Tocopheryl acetate and tocopherol is a synthetic form / more stable form of Vit E usually used in cosmetics and it CAN cause irritation to some people, including me, even though it is not generally considered an irritant. Sadly, nowadays more and more products contain tocopheryl acetate =(