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Why do I pause when I don’t see Phenoxyethanol?


Phenoxyethanol is a common preservative used in shampoos, creams, lotions, liquid washes, and cosmetics. With one exception, I managed to stay away from products that contain it because on my blog I only recommend products that do not contain petroleum-based ingredients. However, in my private consultations, sometimes I recommend people use products containing phenoxyethanol based on their health history. I thought you might be interested as to why.


Phenoxyethanol is rated 4 in the Skin Deep database powered by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which puts it in a group of moderate hazard chemicals. And that’s accurate. Phenoxyethanol is much better than some of the alternatives, which include formaldehyde-releasing preservatives, parabens (which can disrupt the endocrine system) and methylisothiazolinone, a registered pesticide that is banned in Europe for health reasons.


The Safety of Phenoxyethanol


Despite what you might read on the Internet, 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.


As for skin irritation, there is not much information on whether phenoxyethanol may cause a skin reaction – anything from a simple rash to a full-blown allergic reaction. By the way, it is important to note that with a contact allergy, symptoms can start 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%.


In an article on the WebMed website, phenoxyethanol is listed as one of the preservatives linked with skin allergies. The article recommends doctors employ a patch test before use (but remember that patch tests only detect allergies that manifest immediately, not over time). This study lists the top 10 allergens out of 3,000 and methyldibromoglutaronitrile/phenoxyethanol is one of them, but it is unclear whether methyldibromoglutaronitrile or phenoxyethanol is the culprit. (Definitely avoid beauty products containing both methyldibromoglutaronitrile and phenoxyethanol.)


In the literature, I was able to find one case of 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 the FDA and our doctors are not trained to read product ingredients. From my blog followers, I hear that some people are allergic to phenoxyethanol. And the blogger Allergista has written anecdotally about a case of allergy to it.


How phenoxyethanol is made


The main reason I am cautious about recommending a product to my blog readers made with phenoxyethanol is because of the way phenoxyethanol is made. Phenoxyethanol (aka 2-phenoxyethanol) is a member of the glycol ether family and is the product of the reaction of carcinogenic ethylene oxide with highly corrosive phenol. All the forms of phenol cause irritation, and acute toxic effects of phenol most often occur through skin contact. Even dilute solutions (1% to 2%) may cause severe burns if contact is prolonged. So I do not like the idea that workers who make phenoxyethanol and the environment may be exposed to carcinogenic and dangerous substances.


The alarming problem of substitutes


So what do you think? With what you know now, do you think you want to use products with phenoxyethanol? If you have decided, like me, to avoid them, you have probably noticed two things. First, your skin looks better when using products that don’t have phenoxyethanol. Second, you have probably found that it’s hard to find products made without it. Because many other people do not like it in their products, many products do not have it anymore. The alarming problem is that a lot of manufacturers either do not disclose what broad-spectrum preservatives they use instead or do not use any preservatives.


Phenoxyethanol is an effective broad spectrum preservative


Remember I said phenoxyethanol is a preservative. In fact, it is a considered to be a “broad-spectrum” preservative – meaning that it is effective to protect a product from yeast, mold, and all types of bacteria, including antibiotic-resistant ones such as gram-negative bacteria. Other non-harmful preservatives are much milder. Some manufacturers also use non-harmful preservation systems. However, a manufacturer who desired to quit phenoxyethanol cold-turkey necessarily have to invest a lot of resources into reformulating their products and multiple challenge tests to make sure their products are not contaminated with dangerous bacteria, and to ensure that the product remains bacteria free when it is exposed over time to sunlight, oxygen, dirty fingers, and moisture.


Bacteria are dangerous


By the way, when you hear that water-based products contain no preservatives, you should probably run because bacteria are dangerous, especially for people with the compromised immune system, and for babies whose immune systems have not yet matured.


If you are not convinced that bacteria can be dangerous, here is a list of readings:


How to Prevent Contamination in Cosmetic Products

Microbial contamination and preservative capacity of some brands of cosmetic creams

Pseudomonas aeruginosa outbreak in a neonatal intensive care unit: A possible link to contaminated hand lotion

Cutaneous manifestations of Paecilomyces lilacinus infection induced by a contaminated skin lotion in patients who are severely immunosuppressed

Microbiological study of cosmetic products during their use by consumers: health risk and efficacy of preservative systems

Contamination versus preservation of cosmetics: a review on legislation, usage, infections, and contact allergy

Bacteriological and Antibiotic Sensitivity Patterns of Bacterial Isolates from Creams and Lotions Hawked in Sagamu, Ogun State

Serratia marcescens-contaminated baby shampoo causing an outbreak among newborns at King Abdulaziz University Hospital, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia


Trade Secret: I am willing to trade secrets with a skin care company.  Call me! 🙂


Not all companies disclose what they use instead of phenoxyethanol, claiming the information is a “trade secret” or “proprietary information.” For example, I have been searching high and low for a beauty product with hyaluronic acid and I can’t find the right product. All products I have seen so far are either preserved with phenoxyethanol or do not have any broad spectrum preservatives listed on the label at all. Let me know if you know of a hyaluronic acid product without phenoxyethanol that is preserved with safer broad-spectrum preservatives instead.


What is the conclusion?


My recommendation is that if you do not have a known allergy to phenoxyethanol you might be better off using products with it over products 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 and the first step that leads to a market full of safe beauty products.


Leave a comment and tell me if you are interested in learning how to read product ingredients to choose products with sufficient preservatives and preservatives that are right for you and your family. Let’s talk. I am excited to hear from you!  Are you shy to say something?  Subscribe to this blog post without commenting so you can silently participate in the discussion.


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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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19 thoughts on “Why do I pause when I don’t see Phenoxyethanol?”

  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!

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