Phenoxyethanol is a synthetic preservative that can be found in most of the skin care products we use today.
Its safety, however, has been questioned due to emerging data which has shed a light on its potential toxicity to our skin and bodies.
Here, you're going to learn everything you need to know about phenoxyethanol — why It's so prevalent in skin care products, how It's created, and how applying it to our skin can effect us.
The safety concerns and toxicity of phenoxyethanol in skin care
What is phenoxyethanol?
Phenoxyethanol is one of the most commonly used synthetic preservatives in skin care and cosmetic products, and is also used as a fixative for perfumes, insect repellent, and as a solvent.
As a preservative, its function is to prevent microbial growth in skin care formulations. You'll typically find it in water-based products or products where water may be introduced, as this provides a perfect environment for microorganisms to grow.
Believe me, you do not want to apply a contaminated product onto your skin. This is where phenoxyethanol is highly useful.
Oil-based or anhydrous products like facial oils and balms, on the other hand, usually don't require preservatives at all since microbes can't grow in these environments.
Companies use phenoxyethanol as a "safer" alternative to parabens (a synthetic class of broad-spectrum preservatives). Products containing phenoxyethanol will often be marketed as paraben-free as well since parabens have been gotten a bad rap over the years.
How It's created
Phenoxyethanol is an aromatic ether alcohol and has a scent similar to rose.
But, don't let that fool you. It's also an ethoxylated compound, which means It's formed by the chemical reaction between the known-carcinogen ethylene oxide, and phenol (a corrosive and toxic compound, from either natural or synthetic sources).
It may be contaminated with carcinogenic toxin 1,4-dioxane (Diethylene Oxide) which is generated by ethylene oxide as a by-product.
Contamination of 1,4-dioxane in products is not uncommon among conventional cosmetic brands, and even "natural" and "organic" ones either.
Products it can be found in
Phenoxyethanol can be found in a variety of rinse-off and leave-on products:
- Styling gels
- Lip products
Other names for phenoxyethanol listed on product labels
- Fragrance or parfum: synthetic fragrances can contain one or more of around 3,000 allowed chemicals, which includes phenoxyethanol
- Optiphen™: a mixture of phenoxyethanol and caprylyl glycol
- Rose ether 2-phenoxy-ethanol
- 2-hydroxyethyl phenyl ether
- Ethylene glycol monophenyl ether
How phenoxyethanol effects the skin
Many people believe phenoxyethanol is safe. While there is merit to this, this also isn't entirely true.
Phenoxyethanol may be irritating to skin at low concentrations, and it has been classified as toxic for use around the mouth and as an irritant by the European Union.
Both the EU and Japan have restricted the usage rate of phenoxyethanol to a maximum of 1% in cosmetic products.
Through a study that followed 243 people, it was found that about 25% of them (60 participants) had a skin burning or itching sensation after applying a 1% phenoxyethanol formula. This level of skin irritation was comparable to application of capsaicin — the active ingredient in chili peppers.
Usage levels up to 1% of phenoxyethanol has been shown to induce cell death within a 24-hour period after a one-time application. It can also cause eye irritation due to its ability to induce cell death.
But, It's not just solely phenoxyethanol that can cause these effects. When used in combination with other preservatives like chlorphenesin or ethylhexylglycerin, its irritation potential significantly increases.
On top of this, the preservative may kill certain bacteria that are part of the skin microbiome.
Residing on the surface of the epidermis (the layer of skin visible to the naked eye), the skin microbiome consists of 1.5 trillion microorganisms and is highly important for the healthy functioning of human skin. It communicates with the immune system, helping to ward off pathogenic invasion and inflammation.
For anyone with sensitive skin, phenoxyethanol should definitely be avoided.
Additional safety data around phenoxyethanol
EWG hazard rating: 2-4 (learn more here)
Here's some of the most prominent safety data for phenoxyethanol:
While the following data is technically unrelated to skin, It's still important to know exactly how this preservative effects the body.
- It was shown in a 1997 animal study that phenoxyethanol is a reproductive toxin.
- Phenoxyethanol was shown to be toxic towards not only ovarian function, but the development of offspring as well, in a 2010 animal study.
- Phenoxyethanol is potentially neurotoxic.
- Since phenoxyethanol can be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, this may have carcinogenic effects. Prolonged exposure to 1,4-dioxane causes cancer in animals.
The FDA issued a warning to consumers in 2008 about a nipple cream for nursing mothers that contains both phenoxyethanol and chlorphenesin, saying the ingredient "can depress the central nervous system and may cause vomiting and diarrhea, which can lead to dehydration in infants."
Can you guess what else was in this formula alongside phenoxyethanol? Chlorphenesin — showing that phenoxyethanol used with other ingredients can exacerbate its effects.
The bottom line
Many companies and organizations will have you believe phenoxyethanol is "non-toxic" at low concentrations, but studies have shown that there are at the very least concerns over its safety and potential to cause skin irritation.
As an ethoxylated compound, phenoxyethanol can contain trace amounts of 1,4-dioxane which is a known carcinogen.
While ingredients like phenoxyethanol are necessary to give water-based products protection against microbial growth, it would be better to use oil-based products instead to completely avoid preservatives, emulsifiers, and other potentially harmful ingredients.
What is phenoxyethanol’s EWG rating?
Rating: 2-4 (depending on dosage)
Skin Deep’s Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a massive database of cosmetic ingredients that utilizes scientific research to asses the safety of ingredients.
Is phenoxyethanol safe for pregnancy?
Phenoxyethanol’s safety for topical use has been questioned due to studies pointing out its toxicity. It’s been shown to be a reproductive toxin in animals, as it directly affects ovarian function and the development of offspring.
Will phenoxyethanol cause an allergy?
While anecdotal reports have seen reactions, phenoxyethanol hasn’t been studied as causing allergies in large groups of people.
Studies have, however, confirmed phenoxyethanol can be irritating to the skin, and it has been classified as a skin irritant by the European Union.