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.
In this post:
- Is Phenoxyethanol Safe?
- Does phenoxyethanol cause allergic reactions?
- Can phenoxyethanol contain contaminants?
- Are Preservatives Necessary?
- The danger of bacteria in cosmetic products
- The alarming problem of substitutive preservation
- What Preservatives are Safer than Phenoxyethanol?
- Conclusion about Phenoxyethanol in Skin Care
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.