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Is Phenoxyethanol Safe?

October 15, 2013 Reviewed by Marta 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.

  • October 21, 2014

    by nima

    Dear Marta
    Im a chemistry student. I need some emergency information on dinitrophenoxy ethanol.
    can you help me?
    Sincerely yours
    Nima

  • September 2, 2014

    by susy

    I really can't believe that these kind of articles still talk about tests on helpless animals, no matter what they are, mice, rabbits, dogs, monkeys etc. It is barbaric. So if a product is going to be checked on animals then I don't need it.

  • August 27, 2014

    by sofhia

    Do people use phenoxyethanol for a type of medicine?

  • July 18, 2014

    by John

    Poison.

  • July 18, 2014

    by John

    If the EU. banned it, it must be bad. The United States FDA and EPA cannot be trusted. They permit toxic chemicals (acetone, etc.) in dryer sheets and laundry detergents/softeners that don't have to be listed on the label. Why hide this info. from the public if these ingredients aren't dangerous?! I have Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, which in essense, is a nervous system and neurological disorder. Why would I risk using Phenoxyethanol, even in low doses, if it is a central nervous system depressant? I'd have to be crazy!! Studies show it's toxicity at low doses according to this article. Glycol esters? These are found in jet fuels. Please, no thanks. Acetal aldehydes (carcinogenic). Again, no thanks. People need to stop being duped by companies who will try to get away with anything for money.

  • May 22, 2014

    by Liza

    Sam - I loved reading your comment, and truly appreciated the perspective. Thanks!

  • September 10, 2013

    by Monique

    Extremely interesting post and comments. You have all put a lot of my concerns into a much healthier and more sensible perspective.

  • August 23, 2013

    by Sam

    Hi Martha,
    I read your site a lot and love it but I am sorry but I have to disagree with you completely on Phenoxyethanol. Its like deja-vu. A few years back everyone was panicking about parabens and then phenoxyethanol was the great saviour. The USDA and similar were falling over themselves to promote the switch from parabens to phenoxyethanol. This FDA warning will one day be clarified I'm sure.

    This whole story is about the FDA treating the Mommy's nipple cream as if it were a food for a baby but without the correct labelling (ie. it was a cosmetic). The ultimate ironically, seemingly missed by everyone, is the FDA approves Phenoxyethanol as a food additive and preservative. If the nipple cream was packed and labelled as a food it would be allowed.

    Phenoxyethanol is predominantly ETHANOL (alcohol) in its chemical construction - this is how it preserves by killing bacteria. Just like beer or wine stays bacteria free. I dont know about you Martha but when i drink a couple of glasses of wine these days, i find my "central nervous system" is very depressed - and i wake up with an "acute intracranial cephalalgial secondary to dilation of cerebral arterial" or in less scary terminology - a headache. If i said that alcohol made you drunk or gave you a hangover would that stop drinking it, and would you stop using alcohol on your skin because it is in thousands of products.

    As for MSDS sheets, my husband works for Dow Corning (where we met 20 years ago next week) and when i go on about chemicals in cosmetics, he told me that everyone at work jokes about MSDS sheets. He told me that these documents were forced on the chemical industry to protect workers in the supply chain, and because of the lawyer culture, the companies who make MSDS sheets simply give the worst case of anything just to offload any liability. Since the sheets goto other chemical companies, it doesnt matter what it says. You can see that MSDS sheets for things like Glycolic Acid say it is irritating if put in the eyes - duhhh. Or water can be fatal is inhaled. Of course it is - its called drowning. The only people that ever seem to quote MSDS sheets are lay-people innocently researching a chemical online and reading it with understandable concern and then using it to back up an argument. I think this is why i have so warmed to your website and EDS because its not filled with anti-science greenwashing. I get to find our what products make my skin look awesome :-)

    I am definitely over-simplifying things and I do genuinely respect your many excellent posts - but on this one, i think you have got it wrong. Phenoxyethanol is totally safe compared with products with untried and untested preservatives or natural concoctions which mean the product goes bad and the user get Salmonella - now that is dangerous. Did you know that Grapefuit Seed Extract is actually filled with Parabens naturally - the only reason GSE (so-called natural preservative) has any preserving effect is because of the parabens contained by the seed naturally. Oh the irony....

    Sam

  • March 20, 2013

    by lynnita

    This is an interesting article as i am considering purchasing a product that states it's ingredients are mild, it is an eyelash/eyebrow strengthening gel. the list of ingredients are as follows:
    Ricinus communis (castor oil)

    Horse mane tissue extract
    Silica
    Parfum
    Phenoxyethanol
    Methylparaben
    Ethylparaben
    Propylparaben
    Butylparaben

    Is this a good choice?

  • December 1, 2012

    by Ged

    It seems that phenoxyethanol is suffering from a common paradox in cosmetics: once a safe, effective ingredient is found (and make no mistake, a preservative is not like a perfume - it is absolutely necessary and must be effective) it becomes widely used in products. As more people buy products with the ingredient, it is inevitable that there will be an increase of adverse reactions to the product (there are people who are allergic to water). The adverse reactions are written up, scare stories follow, consumers call for a boycott and cosmetics companies have to scramble around to find a new ("more natural") ingredient, which by its very nature will not have as long a safety history as the original ingredient!

    I should be please - makes more work for formulators!

  • October 27, 2012

    by 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.

  • December 7, 2011

    by Kooky

    This s a fluke, I read another website that said this product was only harmful if used on it's own. When it is used with another two chemicals it is safe and affective. If you don't believe me, then here is the website: http://truthinaging.com/ingredient-spotlight/what-is-it-phenoxyethanol-and-is-it-safe

  • November 19, 2011

    by Ekayani Chamberlin

    Thanks for this information as someone recently asked me my opinion on Glymed whose Intense Peptide Complex contains phenoxenanol. After reading this I am glad I did not apply it. Full disclosure: I use Sense skin care line that is not manufactured with parabens and phylates. I have been using it for two years now and am very pleased and the more I read the happier I am. To validate Marta, YES there is a way to preserve without this harmful ingredients and bottling is key. It seems so many of these skin care lines are pushed for a kind of instant result. Tonight after trying some of this new product on one side of my face I did feel irritation (Skin recovery Mist that you ae supposed to use all day long!) and behold paraben on the label.
    No thank you! Beauty without poison please.

  • November 8, 2011

    by Carol

    No one is ever going to be happy with any preservative. I have my own cosmetic company and you NEED something on any product that has moisture. Otherwise it becomes a focal point for infection. How would you like it if your lipstick would grow tons of bacteria and you just use it until one day you lose your lip for an infection. Then who are you going to sue? People will always fault in everything, otherwise they're not happy.

  • October 6, 2011

    by Marta

    Good catch Jen

  • October 6, 2011

    by Jen

    I found this preservative listed as "natural" in the NCN proskincare line. It was hidden under the name "Optiphen". Important to note that companies are being somewhat misleading about it.

  • August 16, 2011

    by Coconut-Lime Vegan Body Butta by Sol Food Natural Soaps | Product Junkies Rehab

    [...] score on EWG.  I found a good article debating the potential concerns with this preservative on Truth in Aging, which I urge you to check out if this ingredient concerns you at all.  While I wish there was a [...]

  • July 15, 2011

    by Week 9: Things the Skin Drinks | One Green Thing

    [...]  I’m in a bit of a conundrum now, as I had some good recommendations from friends which I planned on following up with… until I continued a bit further down the rabbit hole of label reading neurosis and found that these newly lauded products, while paraben free, are turning towards phenoxyethanal, which also seems problematic. You can learn more about that here [7/15 update... the link's working now!]. [...]

  • June 4, 2011

    by monika hilson

    I HAVE NEVER HAD A SKIN PROBLEM BOUGHT A SHAMPOO BEEHIVE BONTANICALS THEN I ACQUIRED CRADLE CAP IT IS SO ITCHY AND LEAVES FLAKES AROUND MY HAIR LINE THE NEXT DAY. SO WENT BACK TO ANOTHER SHAMPOO BUT CAME BACK AGAIN. THEN I TRIED BEEHIVE AGAIN AND LOOKED UP THE INGREDIENTS PHENOXETHANOL AND SURE ENOUGH I GOT MY CONDITION AGAIN SO THE ONLY THING I CAN CONTRIBUTE MY SKIN CONDITION TO IS THAT.

  • May 8, 2011

    by nelly

    I have a really sensitive skin. I don't have many allegies,but cosmetics usually irritate my skin(especially blushes and eyeliners) I'm pretty sure I'm reacting to parabens, I knew it befroe ı read aboıt all the awful stuff abıut parabens. I've never heard of phenoxyethanol,just recently I wanted to buy a blush and read its ingredients and it is in there. of course no info about the percent of it in the product. I searched it on ewg and it was 3-4. is it really bad?? I'll be checking out for more info,thank you for sharing.

  • March 30, 2011

    by The Great Debate: Phenoxyethanol : No More Dirty Looks

    [...] often used as an alternative to parabens (there is a great piece—and debate—about it over here, at Truth in Aging), it gets a 4 on Skin Deep, and it’s on our list of 20 ingredients in the [...]

  • January 28, 2011

    by Tarina La Rue- Buckley

    I've had eczema for 8 years, finally my dermatologist has told me I'm allergic to Phenoxethanol. I'm astonished at how many beauty products and even baby care products contain this dreadful substance.

  • January 5, 2011

    by jo

    i have eczema and have had to avoid everything with this in it has made me ill avoid at all costs!!!

  • June 28, 2010

    by chris

    I have to ask a question. After checking the "about" pages for everyone on this site, not a single contributor noted any background in either chemistry, or any applicable field. I did notice a few mentions of journalism backgrounds, but that most certainly does not qualify someone as knowledgable in this area. Why should I trust the opinions of writers on this subject as opposed to scientists?

  • May 13, 2010

    by 22 Weeks 7 days – Phenoxyethanol, the new paraben (Part 4) – My Journey to being healthy, pregnant and toxin free.

    [...] does when it enters our body (this reiterates what the MSDS states to be true): “Phenoxyethanol breaks down to phenol and acetaldehyde, acetaldehyde converts to acetate. Phenol can disable the [...]

  • January 26, 2010

    by marta

    Here are some alternative preservatives: http://www.truthinaging.com/hair/what-is-it-natural-preservative-alternatives-to-phenoxyethanol-and-parabens

  • January 26, 2010

    by Djdascool

    I've been doing some research of my own on a specific Conditioner I purchased on ebay. It was listed as 92% organic ingredients. I thought to myself..."I wonder what other ingredients they're adding?" I picked apart every ingredient in the product & PHENOXYETHANOL was the only one I found to be substantially harmful to humans.

    When we're using Shampoos, Conditioners, Body washes & soaps in the shower, the products that go on are skin are also partially being inhaled when they mix & evaporate with hot water. One thing that stood out to me with PHENOXYETHANOL was the damage to DNA & the possibility of respiratory problems(Acute pulmonary edema).

    Also PHENOXYETHANOL is linked to cause dermatitis(inflamation of the skin). I'd prefer my skin, shampoo & conditioner products to not cause irritation at all.

    What healthy alternative to Phenoxyethanol can I use if I start making my own conditioners? Or is it not realy needed at all in haircare products?

  • April 29, 2009

    by Concerned reader

    First I would like to address the comment I would rather use products that are dubbed "safe to eat". Well your natural bacteria on your face that is there to protect you, might not agree with food bacteria that could carry a more serious problem for you than a safe chemical ingredient that does not cause any health issues, but most likely is more safe for you than some natural ingredients. Many of those are called "Natural Moisturizing Factors" that are the same as your own.

    My second comment is we must remember that irritating ingredients (Essential volatile oils) harm your skin even if you do not see it or feel it, the damage is on going just the same. When you have more than one in a product and you use several products a day from Deodorants to face and body products, you are putting many, many irritating ingredients on your skin day after day, after day. That all adds up to serious skin issues. The job of the consumer is to learn both sides of the cosmetic ingredient issue, Natural ingredients and Safe chemical ingredients.
    Not all Naturals are good, nor are all Chemicals bad!

  • October 3, 2008

    by mmztcass

    <p>I think with all the allergens and toxins out there in the world and with what will work for one person, may not work for the next person; people need to be aware of what ingredients that may cause reactions for them.</p>

    <p>I find the two supposedly healthy products I used had Phenoxyethanol in. I'd been having reactions since using the products and I couldn't figure out why. So I discontinued the products (now for a week) and I feel so much better and no reactions!</p>

    <p>I opt to look for products with the least amount of ingredients in them and that are dubbed 'safe-to-eat', to use on my body.</p>

  • September 21, 2008

    by Marta

    <p>I think we are violently agreeing. Generally, we take the view that we should question the use of these chemicals. But scientists are divided and I am merely pointing out the question of marine life is one where there seems to be a consensus.</p>

  • September 21, 2008

    by S.G.

    <p>Thanks to Ken for the clarification. While this article contains some vital information, it's very important to tell the entire story-- not just one side of it. I'd also like to add that the statement on parabens is also misleading. The toxicity and potential danger level of parabens is disputed among scientists. Dismissing the arguments against paraben use (which ARE valid) and merely pointing out that parabens "irritate marine life" is extremely problematic.<br />
    The truth is cancer, developmental diseases, and birth defects are all on the rise, among many other illnesses. This is a result of many things, including the use of various chemicals in personal care products and cosmetics. Phenoxyethanol, parabens, and other preservatives fall into this category, and every single one of them should be questioned-- equally, and in an objective and rational manner.</p>

  • August 22, 2008

    by marta

    <p>You are right about it being an ether , not an ester; a typo that has now been corrected. </p>

  • August 22, 2008

    by marta

    <p>For the record, this is what the FDA said about phenoxyethanol in relation to Mommy's Bliss: "Phenoxyethanol is a preservative that is primarily used in cosmetics and medications. It also can depress the central nervous system and may cause vomiting and diarrhea, which can lead to dehydration in infants."<br />
    I agree that dosage is key. Is it too much to ask that manufacturers tell us how much of a potentially toxic product they use?</p>

  • August 22, 2008

    by Ken

    <p>Marta's comments are somewhat misleading. The real problem with the Mommy's Bliss cream was chlorphenesin, which is not supposed to be used in products that may be injested.<br />
    Phenoxyethanol is NOT a glycol ester. It is an ether.<br />
    Japan and Europe only allow approved preservatives and they place a limit on ALL approved preservatives, so the fact that they have a limit on phenoxyethanol does not imply it is dangerous.<br />
    Phenoxyethanol will only break down to phenol in the presence of VERY strong acids.</p>

    <p>It it important to remember that DOSAGE is everything when it comes to toxicity. Many vital nutrients are toxic at high doses. Many poisons are totally harmless at low doses.</p>

    <p>The wealth of evidence on phenoxyethanol is that it is safe. It even occurs naturally in green tea (see reference).</p>

    <p> YAMAGUCHI, K. and SHIBAMOTO, T. (1981). Volatile constituents of green tea, Gyokuro (Camellia<br />
    sinensis L. var Yabukita). J. Agric. Food Chem. 29, 366-70.</p>

  • August 7, 2008

    by marta

    <p>Good suggestion. I'll put together a list of safe and non-irritating preservatives over the next few weeks.</p>

  • August 6, 2008

    by Mike626

    <p>Are there any preservatives that are safe? I'd like to get a list of preservatives that I can safely use. </p>

    <p>The alternative is either to purchase products that contain no water (which mold and bacteria need to thrive) or to only buy or make enough product to be used during the days or weeks of shelf-life that a preservative free product has. </p>

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