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Phenoxyethanol is the new darling of the chemical industry and it is increasingly turning up in cosmetics as a preservative as an alternative to parabens. It only recently came to public attention in the US when the FDA issued a warning about its use in a cream, called Mommy Bliss, for nursing mothers. The FDA warned that phenoxyethanol can cause shut down of the central nervous system, vomiting and contact dermatitis.
So what is phenoxyethanol, is it is really safer than parabens or should we try to avoid it?
Phenoxyethanol is a glycol ether. Glycols are a series of chemicals that find their way into all sorts of things: paint, lacquer, jet fuel..... Phenoxyethanol is used as an anti-bacterial in cosmetics as well as a stabilizer in perfume.
The product's Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) says that it phenoxyethanol is harmful if swallowed, inhaled or absorbed through the skin and that it can cause reproductive damage. The MSDS refers to 100% concentrations, so is it safe at lower doses? In cosmetics the concentrations are typically 0.5% to 1%.
There are several animal studies that demonstrate that it is toxic - with effects on the brain and the nervous system - at moderate concentrations. In Japan, there is a concentration limit for its use in cosmetics. In Europe, the European Union classifies it as an irritant and there are various studies (on rabbit skin, for example) that demonstrate reactions at low doses. The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) data sheets show chromosomal changes and genetic mutation effects in testing as well as testicular atrophy and interference with reproductivity in mice.
I also came across a report written by a medical professional who contracted allergies after coming into contact with phenoxyethanol in a detergent used for cleaning lab equipment. It seems he wasn't a fluke. There are over 3,000 known allergans and they were studied, along with the data from 9,948 patients, by a research team in Germany. Phenoxyethanol was in the top 10. An Italian study also determined that phenoxyethanol is a contact allergan. However, a 1990 article in the Journal of the American College of Toxicology said that it was only a mild irritant to rabbit skin at 2%.