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Is Phenoxyethanol Safe?

Reviewed by Marta October 15, 2013 41 Comments

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%.

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Concern that phenoxyethanol is a neurotoxin precedes the FDA. German research in 1999, concluded that it had neurotoxin potential.

Phenoxyethanol breaks down to phenol and acetaldehyde, acetaldehyde converts to acetate. Phenol can disable the immune system's primary response mechanism. Given that, it is at best ironic, that phenoxyethanol is used as an anti-bacterial in vaccines. Acetaldehyde occurs during the breakdown of ethanol, (alchohol and 2-phenoxyETHANOL), it is a suspected carcinogen. Inhalation studies have shown irritation of the eyes, skin, and respiratory tract.

I feel that given the wealth of evidence, I'd rather give it a miss even at concentrations of 1% or lower. That, however, is easier said than done. Phenoxyethanol is becoming ubiquitous and it is hard to avoid. But if you do, here is a selection of beauty products that don't contain phenoxyethanol and have found safe preservatives:

Cosmetics without phenoxyethanol

Sevani uses radish root ferment in its products, for example Rapid Renewal Resurfacing Creme, Truth In Aging's first product, formulated for women with thinning hair, Hair Vitality Complex, also uses radish root as a natural, safe preservative as does Avitalin. Oil-based products can avoid preservatives so look out for serum's such as YBF Private Reserve antioxidant oil, La Isha's Breast SOS, or 100% Pure's tinted moisturizer.

Cosmetics with a low concentration of phenoxethanol

For those who take a pragmatic approach, here are some cosmetic recommendations that focus on natural, safe ingredients and have phenoxyethanol at a relatively small concentration at the end of the formula: La Vie Celeste Extra Rich Face Cream, ReLuma's Serum or SenZen's Double Dose Eye Cream.

As far as possible, products in the Truth In Aging shop are chosen for their safety profile as well as effectiveness.

Related articles:

The FDA warning on phenoxyethanol

Natural alternatives to phenoxyethanol

Parabens are they safe?

What is it: Estrogen in my face cream

Sodium benzoate isn't much fun either

Does BHT cause cancer?

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  • July 22, 2016

    by Jade

    Hello. I don't know a whole lot about chemistry, but I do believe that most things on this Earth are good for us in some concentration. However, emphasis on concentration, it is important to note that all things, even those beneficial to us, can be harmful or even kill us in high quantities. I also personally don't believe that the concentration of this chemical or many of the other chemicals people are worried about these days is that high in the products we use, I could be wrong but I know for me I have not had any problem. Butt I'm sure there are people out there who are allergic to something but they hear something about a chemical and it seems they immediately go to the chemical as the culprit for something that they're having without thinking that maybe they are sensitive to it, and maybe the sensitivity or allergy may be quite common, but that doesn't mean everyone has that problem. I hope I'm making sense, I'm not trying to stir up trouble only stir up ideas, I think it is important to question things, so often we become complacent and only believe what people tell us, and I just think it's a good idea to question because that is how you learn. Good day ladies and gentlemen. ☺

  • October 18, 2015

    by Abigail Landsbrook

    I have been suffering with mild nausea and headaches, but had no idea why. I have recently realized that it's from the Phenoxethanol in my Julep Luxe Lip Conditioning Treatment. The nauseousness and headaches disappeared after I stopped using the lip product.
    I appreciate the input from those who are in the chemical/pharmaceutical field (my father is also in the field), however, I believe your opinions may be biased.
    Naturally occurring chemicals interact and affect your body differently than derivatives, extracts or artificially produced ones. That's not to say that just because something is natural, that it isn't harmful or toxic.
    It's probably just a good idea to research what's in your cosmetics, cleaning products, and detergents.

  • September 24, 2015

    by Patrick

    Acetaldehyde is routinely produced in the detoxification of ethanol. Ethanol is a class 1a carcinogen - the highest class possible. Acetaldehyde is a class 2 - this is lower than ethanol.

  • July 27, 2015

    by Renee

    This is one of the ingredients in our baby's Johnson and Johnson no more tears shampoo. Not very happy the company is using this chemical

  • July 21, 2015

    by Angie

    I recently attended a cosmetic's chemistry formulators seminar with other skincare manufacturers which was quite enlightening. One person had based their entire business model on being cruelty free and not tested on animals only to be told that that hadn't happened in the cosmetics industry since the late 1990's.
    As for the toxicity of chemicals - everything is a chemical. Water is a chemical - H20 and if you have too much of it in its pure form, it will kill you by drowning.
    Even something delicous like chocolate will make you sick if you have too much of it .
    As for anecdotal evidence about contact dermatitis with this product I personally have met 5 bakers who can no longer work in their profession because they have developed allergies to the protein in wheat. Does this mean that bread will harm everyone? Clearly not, but it demonstrates that all information must be tempered by the circumstances that a product is used in and the amount of exposure people get.
    Material Data Sheets can be quite terrifying but should be tempered with common sense and read with a base understanding that these are the absolute worse case scenario's.

    A mouldy, bacteria ridden poorly preserved "natural" cosmetics are far more dangerous to your family and friends than a properly preserved and tested product.

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