Phenoxyethanol (fee-no-oxy-ethanol) is part tongue twister, part chemical. Specifically, phenoxyethanol is a preservative used to limit bacterial growth in many cosmetics you know and love.
If you’re wondering about that mysterious ingredient that lingers on the label of your favorite products, we’re here to clear the air. Read on to learn all about what phenoxyethanol is, why its safety is questionable in some products, and why we choose not to use it in ours.
What is Phenoxyethanol?
Phenoxyethanol is a lesser-known skincare ingredient that has flown under the average consumer’s radar for quite some time. Although this preservative is not quite in the danger zone of parabens and formaldehyde releasers, it raises significant safety concerns.
Phenoxyethanol is a chemical preservative used in cosmetics and personal care products to limit bacterial growth and extend shelf life. It is often used as a stabilizer for other ingredients that might otherwise deteriorate, spoil or become less effective too quickly – it is often used with perfumes, soaps and bubble baths.
You probably use this chemical more often than you think; on 23.9% from personal products contain phenoxyethanol, so it is one of the most common preservatives.
Why we choose not to use phenoxyethanol in our products
Chemically, phenoxyethanol is known as a glycol ether – in other words, a solvent. According to the CDC, organic solvents can be carcinogenic, dangerous for reproduction and neurotoxic. Since many solvents or chemicals are toxic, they can impact the skin and alter the properties of the skin. These chemicals and a host of others are commonly found in lotions, moisturizers, liquid foundations and sunscreens.
It goes without saying why we choose not to use phenoxyethanol as it is a chemical preservative. It may be listed on a label under several names: 2-phenoxyethanol, phenoxytol, ethylene glycol monophenyl ether, and 1-hydroxy-2-phenoxyethanol.
We prefer to use more natural preservatives like honeysuckle, tocopherols, and plant-based antioxidants.
The intoxicating scent of these delicate trumpet-shaped beauties has powerful natural preservative properties. It acts as an effective agent against harmful microorganisms which keeps serums, lotions and other beauty potions fresh and safe.
A form of vitamin E, tocopherols are effective natural preservatives that can help maintain the freshness and shelf life of produce. They are a safe and effective solution to protect lipids and prevent oxidation – or loss of a product modification of the formula – which can occur in cosmetics and skin care products, especially cold-pressed oils. This oxidation can affect the shelf life of a product, its freshness and its effectiveness.
The use of antioxidants can also be considered important to maintain the stability of the formulations. In terms of preservation, they are very effective at reducing oxidation: a chemical reaction that often occurs when an ingredient is exposed to oxygen, leading to rancidity and degeneration at the cellular level.
Is phenoxyethanol really that bad?
The short answer with a not-so-short conclusion is that it depends on who you ask. For example, the Skin Deep Database Powered by EWG (the Environmental Working Group) rates the preservative as low risk. But it still has the ability to harm or cause an adverse effect – which is precisely why some brands don’t include the ingredient.
On the other hand, there are companies that use phenoxyethanols BUT only in a small percentage. A well-known family brand, The honest society, uses only a tiny amount of preservative to fight bacteria. Their herbal formulations, when combined with water, can create a breeding ground for fungi – so an effective preservative or stabilizer is in order!
Using an effective preservative is key to ensuring safety – something we know The Honest Company stands for. Phenoxyethanol is only used in their dish and hand soap, laundry detergent, stain remover and surface spray. They consider the quantity not substantial and limit its use to only a few of their products.
But what about the side effects we mentioned earlier?
How phenoxyethanol can affect skin and health
On the surface, these fairly modest preservatives may not seem so bad – but digging a little deeper, there is a conversation questioning its safety for those with certain skin types. Granted the FDA and The Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) and other companies using this preservative can agree on one thing: it is safe when applied topically at concentrations of 1% or less.
Still, questions remain regarding the safety of phenoxyethanol for sensitive skin, with regards to allergic reactions and skin irritation. Several studies have indicated that people with sensitive skin may experience allergic-type reactions, in part due to pre-existing allergies. Some studies simply identify it as a skin irritant which can affect different people at different levels. Symptoms can range from skin rashes to a more severe hives response.
Other effects of phenoxyethanol on your health
If you scratch the surface of phenoxyethanol more, there are additional conversations about its adverse health effects for urinary incontinence. Phenoxyethanol has been associated with partial loss of urgency to urinate, as well as pain attributed to conservative while urinating.
Phenoxyethanol is also often present in baby soaps and bubble baths, which raises the question of their safety for the most delicate skins. Phenoxyethanol is thought to cause central nervous system damage in exposed infants – not to mention the aforementioned risk of urinary tract discomfort and irritation.
As we have pointed out, there are various reasons to accept or reject the use of phenoxyethanol in skin and health applications and products. While there are mixed reviews for the potential adverse effects of this ingredient, know that we will always play it safe when it comes to dangerous preservatives!