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.)
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 here. This 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.