Phenoxyethanol can be found in most of our personal care products we use today. Its safety, however, has been questioned due to its potential negative health and skin effects.
Phenoxyethanol safety concerns in skin care products
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.
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.
Oil-based or anhydrous products like facial oils and balms 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), and will often market their products as paraben-free (since many people know to stay away from parabens).
How It's created
Phenoxyethanol is an ethoxylated compound, which means It's formed by the chemical reaction between 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:
Moisturizers, eyeshadows, mascaras, foundation, sunscreens, shampoos, conditioners, styling gels, lip products, soap, fragrances, or typically any water-based personal care product.
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
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Phenoxyethanol is classified as toxic (for use around the mouth) and an irritant by the European Union.
— Phenoxyethanol may be irritating to skin at low concentrations.
— Phenoxyethanol induces cell death at low concentrations. A 2002 study showed that within a 24-hour period, a one-time application of phenoxyethanol at usage levels up to 1%, induced apoptosis and necrosis (two different forms of cell death).
— 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 phenoxyethanol, saying the ingredient "can depress the central nervous system and may cause vomiting and diarrhea, which can lead to dehydration in infants."
Both the EU and Japan have restricted the usage rate of phenoxyethanol to a maximum of 1% in cosmetic products.
"Natural" companies that use it
Many conventional brands use phenoxyethanol in their products, so I'm focusing this list more on brands that tout themselves as natural.
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 definitely safety concerns.
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.