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Phenoxyethanol in Skin Care: Consider This!

Written by Irina Webb

Are you concerned about phenoxyethanol in skin care? You might have noticed that this cosmetic preservative is common in shampoos, washes, mascaras, and foundations. In this expert ingredient analysis, you will learn more about this preservative and whether there is a reason to worry about it.  Generally speaking, while it is not the worst preservative, there are better and more natural ones out there.  Ultimately, due to our high standards for the safety of skin care product ingredients, I Read Labels for You refuses to promote products that contain phenoxyethanol for the reasons explained below. So, if you are allergic to phenoxyethanol and it is hard for you to find products without it, visit the I Read Labels for You shop for the phenoxyethanol-free skincare options. And to see the full list of ingredients that I Read Labels for You suggests avoiding, go to our Start Here page.

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

Is Phenoxyethanol Safe?

To begin, the Skin Deep database powered by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) rates phenoxyethanol toxicity, depending on usage, 2-4 out of 10 (10 being the most toxic).  (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.) 

True, this cosmetic preservative is much better than some of its alternatives, such as formaldehyde releasers, parabens, and methylisothiazolinone.  Despite what the Internet might say, 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.

Does phenoxyethanol cause allergic reactions?

For starters, there is not much information on whether this cosmetic preservative may cause a skin reaction. To clarify, a skin reaction may be anything from a simple rash to a full-blown allergic reaction.  Moreover, the symptoms can start either right after you have used a new product, or after a prolonged period of using this product with no problems. This is called sensitization, and ingredients that may cause a postponed allergic reaction are called sensitizers.

As for phenoxyethanol, the American Society of Contact Dermatitis lists it as one of its core allergens, even in concentrations as low as 1%. Plus, this article on the WebMD website links it to skin allergies and recommends doctors employ a patch test before use.  Remember, though, that patch tests only detect allergies that manifest immediately, not overtime.

Further, 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.)

So far, I have been able to find one case of an allergic reaction to phenoxyethanol in medical literature.  Thus, despite its common use over many years, contact allergy to this preservative has been very rarely described. Then again, not many of us report allergic reactions to our doctors.  Besides, doctors may have no training at reading product ingredients.  Therefore, the problem might be more widespread than it has been reported to date.

Can phenoxyethanol contain contaminants?

First of all, 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.  As a matter of fact, 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 do not like the idea of exposing the workers and the environment to carcinogenic and dangerous substances.  The derivation process of phenoxyethanol makes me wonder what exactly some companies mean describing it as natural and plant-derived.

Are Preservatives Necessary?

With what you know now, do you think you want to use products with phenoxyethanol?  If you have decided to avoid it, 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.

In fact, 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.

Thus, as a “broad-spectrum” preservative, phenoxyethanol is effective at protecting 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.  If you hear that water-based products have no preservatives, run!  Indeed, bacteria are dangerous, especially for people with compromised immune systems and for babies whose immune systems have not matured yet. (Read more about that in my WaterWipes Baby Wipes blog post.)

The danger of bacteria in cosmetic products

This section presents a gist of numerous research into bacteria contamination.

First, this article discusses how to prevent contamination in cosmetic products and describes the most common cosmetic preservatives. Second, a study described here compared the level of microbial contaminants and their type in 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.  

Next, 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.  And the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology depicts a case of a fungal infection induced by a compromised skin lotion. Further, the Journal of Hospital Infection describes an infection outbreak among babies caused by a contaminated baby shampoo.

Additionally, this microbiological study analyzes health risks and the efficacy of preservation systems in cosmetic products during their use by consumers.  And here you can get a profound review of legislation, usage, infections, and contact allergy associated with contamination and preservation of cosmetics. Also, this study compared the microbial qualities and the antibiotic sensitivity patterns of 15 random cosmetic products and revealed that most of them did not meet the official requirements.   

Thus, preservatives are necessary, especially in mascaras, because eye infections are not fun at all! Therefore, with a choice between phenoxyethanol and no apparent preservative, I would choose a mascara with phenoxyethanol.

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 “proprietary” or a “trade secret.”  Alternatively, they claim that they do not need any preservatives.  For instance, one skincare company 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, I mark with asterisks the products with insufficient preservation (in my opinion) in all my rating lists. This way you can make an informed decision.

What Preservatives are Safer than Phenoxyethanol?

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, and leuconostoc/radish root ferment filtrate.  If you have concerns in regards to sodium benzoate and citric acid or ascorbic acid interaction, read 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

To sum up, I consider phenoxyethanol a “middle-of-the-road” preservative: it is not the worst, but there are safer options. 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.

To find products that do not contain phenoxyethanol and yet their preservation system is robust, please visit the I Read Labels for You Shop.  Also, go to our Start Here page to see the full list of ingredients that I Read Labels for You suggests avoiding. Finally, check out my opinion about Kirkland Signature baby wipes and the preservatives they use.

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.

44 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. I have severe atopic eczema & have been buying moisturisers that are free of all possible irritants (balmonds skincare being one of them) however I have been trying to find hyaluronic acid serums & collagen serums in large quantity (240ml +) & have seen a few that are focused on salons for rf treatments in 1ltr amonts but they all have phenoxyethanol or some other questionable ingredients.
      this has made it very difficult for me since nhs prescription moisturisers do not contain hyaluronic acid or collagen & yet they are incredibly effective for extremely dry atopic skincare. Is there nothing out there that is in large quantities & safe to use. why do salons even consider using products that have such ingredients in them…

  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?

    1. Hi, Cara: I hope you are having a great relaxing weekend! Yes, phenoxyethanol is petroleum-based. All the products I recommend on my blog are free of phenoxyethanol. For a body lotion, you might check out By Valenti Organics or Annmarie. Let me know what you think. ~Irina

  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!!

    1. There are other options, too. Manufacturers hire to help with ingredient selection, including preservatives. I would love to consult with you as well. ~Irina

  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. 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.

  12. What about the CeraVe moisturizer, I have read that is a very good and apparently “clean” moisturizer, but it does contain Phenoxyethanol. What do you think about that one. This blog was very interesting to read. Good night

    1. Hi, Mabel! Thank you for the question! We have recently created a “worst-bad-better-best-best of the best” baby moisturizer review and CeraVe was included in the research. It fell into the “bad” category. You can access this review by subscribing to I Read Labels for You on Instagram: or Facebook: If you want to know the details that are not described in the review, you are more than welcome to book a consultation with Irina:

  13. Thank you for sharing all your knowledge about beauty products! I’m all about less can be so much better for our health. Thanks again!

  14. I’ve tried The Ordinary’s Niacinamide 10% zinc 1% and I’ve wanted to love the product but it burns and stings my cheeks. They will be flushed and then red bumps will appear with itching and stinging. And the sensitivity did not come on first exposure – it got worse with subsequent applications. I could never pinpoint which ingredient did it, and it was definitely not niacinamide because my skin took the Good Molecules version really really well. Subsequently I tried the Eucerin AQUAporin Active moisturiser, and halfway through the jar the same thing happens. Finally I found out this was the culprit. It really takes some pain, time, and money to figure out what triggers my skin but I’m really glad I did!

    I’m still trying to read up more about phenoxyethanol and I’m really glad I came across this article and this website. Thank you for making the important information more accessible for us skincare ingredient geeks!

  15. Hello,
    I have been trying to find natural /organic facial moisturizers without the phenoxyethanol or ethylhexylglycerin but have not had any luck, any suggestions?
    Thank you!

      1. Hi Irina!
        I wish I would have found this site 6 months ago. I am 3 pages in my Excel file and 1 allergist & 2 dermatologists in. Not to mention a lot of $$ that I have add to my dead shelf! I was patch tested by the allergist (80 chemicals), 4 days and I was allergic to 1 item. It was a fragrance-Majantol! I also paid extra to have 10 of my products tested—-Low and behold, 6 PRODUCTS I was currently using I tested positive for.
        So I put them all on the dead shelf and started over. Tried new products….well since I did not “react” to the Phenoxyethanol, Ethylhehyl Glycerin, Disodium EDTA on the patch test, it wasn’t on my radar! Which explains totally the EDTA! Dreft was one!
        I kept having eye problems….little small bumps on my lower lid, A very light veil of red bumps… So it was only water. After a Few days it looked like I waa in the clear and it would flare again. I am one of the lucky ones that it was not a full blown flare up, just eye irritation. I am 57, very conscience and a clean eater. So over the last few months I compiled my spreadsheet and cross referenced everything and all my “irritants” have some type of added preservative. Even Vanicream (highly recommended) has BHT an eye allergic preservative. Her today, 01/04/21, the Dr. prescribed Protopic. I will not use that and wait it out. Going forward I will no longer use products with those ingredients. Now the question is….where do I begin to find tinted moisturizer, mascara, SPF? I live in the US. This has helped me tremendously to vent! Much needed blog therapy.

      2. Hi Irina, I’ve found your super informative and dedicated site to ‘clean’ product lines 🤩. I do know that currently the Neal’s Yard Frankincense NOURISHING cream does have phenoxyethanol 😕. Mostly their products are super clean , one hopes they will address and modify the composition.

        1. Hi, Jane! Thank you for your kind feedback about I Read Labels for You! We appreciate your effort to read ingredients with us! We also hope they will address this issue!

  16. Hi Irena,

    This was a wonderfully informative article. I was wondering if the Preservatives on the list you suggested will work for at home body butters that have something like glycerin and thus require a preservative? Thanks so much!

  17. Hi! I’m allergic to phenoxyethanol. I also didn’t contact with doctor. Some day I started to have allergic reaction around the eyes after I had used cosmetics. I haven’t known long why. I changed cosmetics and I checked ingerdiets in them. Finally, I know, it was phenoxyetanol. Every time I use anything containg this, I have the same symptoms. So, there are more people with this. Not only one case, described officially in medical databases. 🙁

  18. This is a really great article, thanks for sharing a detailed and well- explained article, I follow Iahas for all the great remedies on skincare, but these are unique, and I will try them for sure.

  19. Hi, I am having allergic reactions to a lot of skin care containing preservatives. I tried Avene tolerance line and it seems to e great , however I am not getting afraid as the talk of no preservatives sounds bad. Avene tolerance claims its sterile and comes in sterile tubes . it has certain bacteria that helps the microbiome of skin. My skin is doing well on this, but is it safe to use?
    Please help,
    thank you

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