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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%.
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:
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.
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.