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Last updated on November 26th, 2018
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:
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.
Your Superpower To Read Ingredients
Imagine picking up any shampoo, conditioner, lotion, cream, or liquid foundation and in a matter of seconds being able to decide if you need to put it back on the shelf.
With this easy 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.