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Phenoxyethanol in Skin Care: Consider This!

Phenoxyethanol is a common cosmetic preservative in skin care products, shampoos, liquid washes, mascaras, and foundations.  I call it a “middle of the road” preservative meaning that it is not the worst one.  But nowadays you can also find products with more natural preservatives.  Since I first wrote about this ingredient, it has become easier to avoid it.  Yet, some of my clients use products with it, as it is a safer option for them considering other factors, explained below.

The Skin Deep database powered by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) rates phenoxyethanol toxicity 2-4, depending on usage, on a ten-point scale, with 10 being the most toxic.  The EWG has only recently rated it as high as 4.  (By the way, if you rely on the EWG Skin database for your product research, please read my Skin Deep database post.  There, you will learn how to avoid common mistakes people make while using this database.) 

Phenoxyethanol as a cosmetic preservative in Skin Care. A picture of daisies and green leaves.

Phenoxyethanol safety

This cosmetic preservative is much better than some of its alternatives.  They include formaldehyde-releasing preservatives, parabens (which can disrupt the endocrine system) and methylisothiazolinone, a common allergen.  In 2013, many European cosmetics companies agreed to remove methylisothiazolinone from leave-on skin products, including cosmetic wet wipes.

Despite what you might read on the Internet, there are no findings that phenoxyethanol is an endocrine disruptor. It means that it does not mimic or block essential hormones.  Neither does it fall under the classification of a carcinogen or mutagen.

Allergy to phenoxyethanol

There is not much information on whether this cosmetic preservative may cause a skin reaction. A skin reaction may be anything from a simple rash to a full-blown allergic reaction.  It is important to note something about the symptoms of contact allergy, though.  They can start either right after you use a new product, or after years of using a product with no problems (which is called sensitization).

The American Society of Contact Dermatitis lists phenoxyethanol as one of its core allergens. Even in concentrations as low as 1%.

An article on the WebMD website lists it as one of the preservatives linked to skin allergies.  The article recommends doctors employ a patch test before use.  But remember that patch tests only detect allergies that manifest immediately, not overtime.

This study lists the top 10 allergens out of 3,000 and methyldibromoglutaronitrile/ phenoxyethanol is one of them.  However, it is unclear whether the former or the latter is the culprit.  (Definitely avoid beauty products containing both ingredients at the same time.)

In medical literature, I was able to find one case of an allergic reaction to phenoxyethanol.  So, despite its widespread use over many years, contact allergy to this preservative has been very rarely described.

But again, not many of us report allergic reactions to our doctors.  Besides, our doctors may have no training at reading product ingredients.  So the problem might be more widespread than has been reported to date.

Contaminants in this cosmetic preservative

One of the main reasons I do not promote products with phenoxyethanol on my blog is its manufacturing process.  Also known as 2-phenoxyethanol, it is a member of the glycol ether family and is the product of the reaction of carcinogenic ethylene oxide with highly corrosive phenol.  All forms of phenol may cause irritation.  Even highly diluted solutions (1% to 2%) may cause severe burns in case of prolonged contact.

Yet, according to the Cosmetic Ingredient Review report, free unreacted phenol remains in this cosmetic preservative at 1% or less.  It may also contain the residue of carcinogenic ethylene oxide.  Cosmetic grade phenoxyethanol is normally 98% pure.

In addition, I don’t like the idea of exposure to carcinogenic and dangerous substances of the workers and the environment.  Its derivation process makes me wonder. What do some companies mean when they claim that their phenoxyethanol is natural and plant-derived?

A broad-spectrum cosmetic preservative

With what you know now, do you think you want to use products with phenoxyethanol?  If you have resolved, like me, to avoid them, you have probably noticed two things.  First, your skin looks better when you use products without this cosmetic preservative.  Second, it is sometimes challenging to find products with sufficient preservation.

There is an alarming problem with many manufacturers. They either do not disclose the broad-spectrum preservatives they use or do not use a sufficient preservation system.

Remember I said phenoxyethanol was a preservative?  In fact, it is a “broad-spectrum” preservative.  This means that it is effective to protect a product from yeast, mold, and all types of bacteria. The latter include antibiotic-resistant ones such as gram-negative bacteria.  When there is water in a cosmetic product, it needs a broad-spectrum preservation system.  When you hear that products with water in them contain no preservatives, you should probably run!  Bacteria are dangerous, especially for people with compromised immune systems and for babies whose immune systems have not matured yet.

The danger of bacteria in cosmetic products

There is a lot of research about bacteria in general and in cosmetic products in particular.  I’m going to give you the gist of some studies in this field.

This article talks about how to prevent contamination in cosmetic products and describes the most common cosmetic preservatives.  Here you can read about a study that compared the level of microbial contaminants and their type in two kinds of products – commercial cosmetics and a laboratory prepared aqueous cream.  The study concluded that the commercial products did not meet the standards for microbial limits and the products can negatively impact the health of consumers.  

The American Journal of Infection Control describes the possible connection of a contaminated hand lotion to an infection outbreak in a neonatal intensive care unit. The Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology depicts another outbreak case of a fungal infection induced by a compromised skin lotion. Chemotherapy had suppressed the patients’ immune system. One patient had lesions in the eye and kidney as a result of the infection and two patients sadly died.  The Journal of Hospital Infection describes an infection outbreak among babies caused by a contaminated baby shampoo. One baby died from meningitis and septicaemia infections.  All infections were linked to a contaminated baby shampoo.

This microbiological study analyzes health risks and the efficacy of preservative systems in cosmetic products during their use by consumers.  To get a profound review of legislation, usage, infections, and contact allergy associated with contamination and preservation of cosmetics, head over hereThis study compared the microbial qualities and the antibiotic sensitivity patterns of 15 random cosmetic products.  It revealed that most of the evaluated creams and lotions did not meet the official requirements.  Thus, they may be a potential health hazard to unsuspecting consumers.  

In the case of mascaras especially, with a choice between phenoxyethanol and no apparent preservative, I would choose a mascara with this cosmetic preservative because eye infections are no fun at all! 

The alarming problem of substitutive preservation

Despite the dangers of bacteria, not all companies disclose what preservatives they use instead of phenoxyethanol.  They claim that this information is a “trade secret” or “proprietary information.”   Alternatively, they claim that they do not need any preservatives.  One newly emerged skincare company, for instance, even told me they do not need a cosmetic preservative because they use Miron glass bottles.  Yes, opaque glass is a good way to protect a product from sunlight and oxidation.  But, in my humble opinion, it does not protect from bacteria, especially after you have opened the bottle.  Watch out!

By the way, in all my rating lists, I mark with asterisks the products that in my opinion do not have sufficient preservation systems so you can make an informed decision.

More natural preservatives to the rescue

Luckily, there are more and more products on the market that do not contain phenoxyethanol, and yet contain preservatives.  The common substitutes for phenoxyethanol are sodium benzoate, ethylhexylglycerin, or leuconostoc/radish root ferment filtrate.  If you have concerns in regards to sodium benzoate and ascorbic acid interaction, please check out my Sodium Benzoate & Citric Acid Myth post.  And if you are a company in the process of developing new skincare or cosmetic products, I will be happy to help you.  Together, we can choose a cosmetic preservative that will agree with your brand promise and work well with other ingredients you use in your products.

Conclusion about phenoxyethanol in skin care

My recommendation is as follows.  If you are not allergic to phenoxyethanol, you might be better off using products with it over those that either do not list broad-spectrum preservatives or do not use them at all.

I whole-heartedly believe that we can make beauty product formulators listen to us if we ask them the right questions.  Knowledge is a great power!  Moreover, it is the first step that leads to a market full of safe beauty products.

To check out products that do not contain phenoxyethanol and yet their preservation system is robust, please visit my Shop.  On top of that, you can have a list of preservatives to avoid at all times if you get my Superpower Cheat Sheet.

Your Superpower To Read Ingredients

Imagine looking at the ingredients of any shampoo, conditioner, lotion, or cream and in a matter of seconds being able to decide if it is safe to use!

With this easy unprecendented method, you will be able to spot potentially harmful personal care or skincare products that may cause irritation, an allergic reaction, or increase the risk of endocrine disruption or cancer.

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24 thoughts on “Phenoxyethanol in Skin Care: Consider This!”

  1. Here’s what I use for Hyaluronic Acid:
    internally: Hyalogic Hyaluronic Acid Synthovial Seven
    externally, on my face: Hyalogic Pure Hyaluronic Acid Serum
    I get both of them from my naturopath… Looking forward to your opinion

    1. Hi Julia, thank you for your suggestions! Is it this one, you are using? I looked at it and there are preservatives listed… a common problem. It is either potentially harmful preservatives or no preservatives at all are listed. I actually found hyaluronic acid with a safe preservative and no other additives. I got it today and am very excited to try it. How long have been using hyaluronic acid and what improvements did you notice? What other skin care products do you use? I am looking forward to hear from you! ~Irina

  2. Hello Irina:
    After reading this I became a bit concerned about a liquid castile soap that I purchased recently, which does not contain any preservatives. I asked the manufacturer about this and was assured that the soap was safe due to the type of water used to create it (distilled water) and because the ph of the soap is over 9. Would this be considered safe or should I be concerned?

    Thank you so much for all your valuable research!

  3. I have a very irritable scalp and never know which shampoo or conditioner will make it angry. Recent patch testing showed an allergy to phenoxyethanol. Have you discovered a color safe hair care line that is safely free of this ingredient?

  4. Just came across your article after googling “skin care without phenoxyethanol”, because I happen to VERY allergic to it! It’s often replaced (in skincare and hair care) with iodopropynyl butylcarbamate. I, unfortunately, happen to be even more highly allergic to that one. (Think persistent rash that takes WEEKS to clear up without steroids -even if I only come in contact with it for a couple of minutes and rinse it off). I haven’t looked specifically for a hyaluronic acid product, but Boscia, Caudalie, and Pai are all phenomenal skincare lines that NEVER use phenoxyethanol (so they can be pricey). As for haircare, the struggle is real. Lanza has several cleansers and conditioners without phenoxyethanol, and Matrix’s new RAW line skips it altogether though.

    1. Hi, Katie: look around my website. You are here for a treat because 99% of products I recommend here do not contain phenoxyethanol and 100% of products do not contain iodopropynyl butylcarbamate. ~Irina

  5. Cara Zimmerman

    I’m trying to eliminate all products containing petroleum as I’ve been told it could be a link to my migraines, especially hormone related. I’m a bit confused after doing a bunch of reading. Is Phenoxyethanol petroleum based? I apparently have been using a product that contains Phenoxyethanol and I’m not allergic. If Phenoxyethanol is petroleum based, can you recommend a body lotion and conditioner that doesn’t contain Phenoxyethanol?

  6. Im highly sensitive to phenoxyethanol, my hands and feet are so sore, peeling and covered in blisters. Im yet to find a moisturiser in my price range without phenoxyethanol. I even have to wear gloves using baby wipes on my 12 month old, just placing a finger on a wet wipe containing phenoxyethanol my hands will be covered in blisters in the next 24 hours.. I think this ingredient should be banned!

    1. Hi, Jess: thank you for letting me know. That sounds awful. You are at the right place! On my blog, you will find only formaldehyde-free product suggestions. Let me know if you need any help. ~Irina

  7. I, too, am not a huge fan of phenoxyethanol or just about anything else that even sounds chemical; however, I do know how just a minor cut or open pimple can be dangerous if one is using an “all natural” skin product that has not been preserved safely. People have sued manufacturers because this exact thing has happened and caused them to have a very serious skin infection. Add to that the fact that many women use their skincare products way past the expiration date (if one is even listed on the product) — the possibility for a bacterial infection or yeast and mold exposure goes way up. I learned the following info not too long about about how the EWG (Environmental Working Group) ratings work.

    Despite what we may read on the Internet (blogs, personal opinions, etc.) phenoxyethanol has not been found to be an endocrine disruptor, meaning that it does not mimic or block essential hormones. And it has not been classified a carcinogen.

    Why is phenoxyethanol is perceived so negatively? One big reason is because it sounds like a chemical and we have been told that all chemicals are toxic. The FDA and other agencies state that phenols are bad (as a side note, phenol is prohibited in the EU). Although phenoxyethanol starts with phenol, phenol has almost no use in cosmetics. Phenoxyethanol (PE) is made from the reaction of 1 mole of ethylene oxide on 1 mole of phenol. The purity of the PE is 95% (fragrance use is 99%) with the diether as the major other part. There is no free phenol in PE. So when you read a negative review of phenoxyethanol and they specifically call out “phenol”, you can assume the author does not understand the science and facts involved in the basic chemistry.

    A look at phenoxyethanol from EWG’s Skin Deep standpoint. If a company really wants to be qualified for EWG Verified for skin care products, please know that products can still contain phenoxyethanol and score at a 1 on the EWG Skin Deep rating. Phenoxyethanol might be shown as a 4 on the EWG Skin Deep, but once it is blended it into the mix of other ingredients (which might all score as a 1) the overall product becomes a 1. So, with that said, if you think that Skin Deep is vilifying phenoxyethanol, all they’re doing is showing the facts of the ingredients *when used by itself*.

    Looking at phenoxyethanol on EWG Skin Deep, we see it’s getting a score of 4 – but it’s getting that rating because as a stand-alone ingredient, it’s an irritant to skin, eyes and lungs. As previously mentioned, this would not be the case for the end user of a skin care product, most consumers will read this rating and make assumptions which are often incorrect. It would be nice if Skin Deep would do a better job of explaining that their scores are related to the stand-alone ingredient.

    As far as many people being allergic to phenoxethanol, it could be that some formulators are using more of the preservative than is acceptable. I’m not disclaiming that people cannot be allergic to it, we can be allergic to just about anything, even the more “natural/safe” preservatives. And, of course, if one is allergic to phenoxethanol, they definitely should not use any products that have it in the ingredient list.

    I would much rather use a safely preserved product that contains a broad spectrum preservative such as phenoxethanol because of the explanation given above rather than wonder (worry) if a company is telling the truth about using safe “natural/safe” preservatives. Just some things to think about.

    1. Hi, Lori: Since I wrote this post, I became more motivated to avoid phenoxyethanol. I hear from a lot of people that they are allergic to it. Also, the American Society of Contact Dermatitis lists phenoxyethanol as one of its core allergens, even in concentrations as low as 1%: You are right that it is made of 1 mole of ethylene oxide on 1 mole of phenol. And phenoxyethanol may contain trace amounts of both. Ethylene oxide is a carcinogen. May I ask how you became so knowledgeable and what motivates you to spend your time writing such a long comment? ~Irina

    2. I have recently recognized that phenoxethanol is causing contact dermatitis when I layer it using multiple products. From what I am reading, THIS is the issue with most reactions. The total amount applied topically is greater than the minimum safe limit. I think particularly for me, I am reacting to products that absorb better into the skin or are used as direct skin barrier as opposed to make up. I have ruled out all other ingredients since this is the ONLY ingredient that all of the products I react to contain in common (hard as this is to believe). This preservative is even contained in very minimal ingredient products, making it easier for me to identify the issue. Nowadays I am reacting to less and less exposure (sensitization). There are dermatology journal articles that list this ingredient as a known cause of contact dermatitis. I am certainly more than understanding of the use of preservatives vs raw ingredients. I’m just not sure we have all the solutions yet. Fortunately there are paraben free products that don’t contain phonoxethanol either.

  8. if Phenoxyethanol is made with this: “Phenoxyethanol (aka 2-phenoxyethanol) is a member of the glycol ether family and is the product of the reaction of ethylene oxide with phenol, both of which are carcinogens.” Then how can it not be classified as a carcingoten? Thanks for the great info!

  9. Hi Irina! Thank you for your work! I am a budding Herbal Apprentice and am in the midst of creating a product, similar to one already made—without all of the awful stuff. I have been on EWG a good deal and I feel like the risks are not super clear when listed ingredient by ingredient -vs- combination so I found your site super helpful. Not that I am a fan of alcohol, but wouldn’t using alcohol and antimicrobial essential oils work as a preservative?
    Thank you!!

  10. This past year I’ve noticed a few more of my contact dermatitis group members report phenoxyethanol allergies. As it becomes more common across a wide span of products while methylisothiazolinone is being phased out I wonder if we will see the rates of sensitization increase. My daughter has multiple contact allergies and I avoid phenoxyethanol in our products.

  11. Stace Rierson

    I also have a phenoxyethanol sensitivity, especially around the eyes (Burning!! Aaaa!). Even when rinsed off immediately, I’ll have 2 weeks of hyper-sensitivity. I noticed through the years I couldn’t use certain products within the Burts Bees, Kiel’s, and Aveeno lines. A few months ago I bought products from the outrageously expensive Alastin and SkinMedica lines and experienced the same…so I lined up the ingredients from all “bad” products and noticed phenoxyethanol for all and disodium EDTA for most…makes sense that together, the increased absorption (Helped by dis. EDTA) of a product I’m already sensitive to would be worse. I spent 3 hours at Ulta with a awesome and knowledgeable salesperson who helped me find every skin care product without the 2 chemicals. It was really *really* interesting. I can use some products by The Ordinary, La Roche-Posay, Acure, Oil of Olay, Wild Carrot (locally made in Eastern Oregon), and all of Jane Iredale, who intentionally is phenoxyethanol-free.

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