Remember when parabens were the devil?
Well, when they were phased out (due to public backlash), cosmetic companies replaced them with phenoxyethanol, another popular preservative.
Now I’m not here to tell you that either of these preservatives (parabens or phenoxyethanol) are evil—this isn’t that type of blog. Instead, I’m going to go over some of its facts and features from a science-based perspective.
Spoiler alert: Phenoxyethanol is really effective at killing bacteria. Plus, it’s considered nontoxic at low concentrations.
What is phenoxyethanol?
Phenoxyethanol, also known as ethylene glycol monophenyl ether, is a clear, oily liquid with a faint floral odor. Because of its antimicrobial properties, it’s primarily used as a preservative in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. As a glycol ether, it can also be used as a solvent in a wider range of products (like dyes and inks).
Fun fact: After analyzing 4,737 skincare products, The Contact Allergen Management Program found that almost 24% of those products contained phenoxyethanol (source).
What is it made from?
Although phenoxyethanol is found naturally in green tea, manufacturers use a synthetically-derived version of it in their products. They do this by “treating phenol with ethylene oxide in an alkaline medium” (source).
I’m not going to pretend like I know what that means. But after doing some Googling, I know that phenols are used in disinfectants, ethylene oxides are used as sterilizers, and alkaline mediums have something to do with the pH scale.
What is phenoxyethanol used for in skin care?
Basically, there are three ways to use phenoxyethanol in cosmetics:
- Primarily, phenoxyethanol is used as a preservative. It inhibits the growth of bacteria, yeast, and mold in cosmetics. Although it offers a broad spectrum of antibacterial activity, it’s weaker at inhibiting gram-positive bacteria (like Staphylococcus aureus). So it’s often paired with other preservatives (like Ethylhexylglycerin) for a full range of protection.
- As a glycol ether, it can also be used as a solvent. Meaning it helps mix and dissolve ingredients. Ultimately, this can keep cosmetic formulations from “separating.”
- It’s used as a fragrance. Phenoxyethanol is a part of the aryl alkyl alcohol (AAA) family—a diverse group of fragrance ingredients. Although it doesn’t have a strong scent, it imparts a light floral odor to the products it’s used in.
What kind of products is it used in?
While writing this article, I decided to check my own bathroom vanity for phenoxyethanol.
All my toners, essences, moisturizers, and sunscreens contained it. But surprisingly enough, my cleansers, shampoos, and conditioners didn’t.
Here’s a list of products that are likely to contain phenoxyethanol:
- Moisturizers, toners, serums
- Shampoos, conditioners, body washes
- Eye makeup
- Insect repellents
- Hair removal products (like shaving balms and waxes)
- Antibiotic ointments
Is it dangerous?
According to the European Commission’s 2016 consumer report, phenoxyethanol is “safe for use as a preservative with a maximum concentration of 1.0%” (source). Since most products contain less than 1%, dermally incorporating phenoxyethanol into your skin care routine shouldn’t pose a problem for most people.
So why’s everyone making a fuss over phenoxyethanol?
Yes, that’s scary. But it’s important to remember that the lab animals in these studies were exposed to extremely large amounts of phenoxyethanol. And in most cases, phenoxyethanol was administered orally.
Again, the amount of phenoxyethanol used in these studies doesn’t reflect the amount used in cosmetics. So unless you’re going to ingest a thousand moisturizers, you don’t have to worry about these types of severe reactions.
Side note: While phenoxyethanol is safe to use in cosmetics, it can pose problems when its found in the workplace. For example, when 3 women were exposed to large quantities of phenoxyethanol (~500 milliliters) semi-daily in a fish hatchery, they exhibited signs of cognitive impairments (like forgetfulness and irritability) after being on the job for 1 to 2 years (source).
The Nipple Cream Debacle
In 2008, the FDA issued a warning against Mommy’s Bliss Nipple Cream. Although no adverse reactions were reported, the FDA was concerned that two of the cream’s ingredients—phenoxyethanol and chlorphenesin—could depress the central nervous system and the respiratory system if ingested by infants (source).
Because I couldn’t find any studies on the matter, I can’t really comment on how the oral intake of phenoxyethanol can affect infants.
Here’s what I can comment on:
Combining phenoxyethanol with chlorphenesin highly increases the irritation potential of cosmetics (source). So if you find both these ingredients in the same formulation, you should pass on that product, especially when you’re using it on your baby.
Phenoxyethanol and Contact Dermatitis (Eczema)
Phenoxyethanol is one of the least irritating preservatives on the market.
But just because it’s among the least irritating, it doesn’t mean that it can’t be irritating to some people. After all, everyone’s skin is different. So what works for one person might not work for another person.
According to a 2001 research study, it caused eczema in 2 people—an 18-month old boy after a vaccination and a 53-year-old man after a cream application (source). This study also found that it caused hives in a 24-year-old woman—a reaction that’s been documented in other studies as well (source 1, source 2).
On top of this, there have been a lot of Reddit posts that describe allergic reactions and breakouts when products containing phenoxyethanol were applied to skin.
Side note: While phenoxyethanol isn’t a common allergen by itself, a related compound called methyldibromoglutaronitrile/phenoxyethanol is—a study found that 3.4% of its participants were allergic to it (source).
Here are some of phenoxyethanol’s aliases:
- Ethyene glycol monophenyl ether
- Phenyl cellosolve
- Beta-Hydroxyethyl phenyl ether
- Rose ether
- Glycol monophenyl ether
Phenoxyethanol in Skin Care: Summary
Phenoxyethanol has a lot of uses in skin care. It can act as a preservative (to prevent bacterial contamination), a solvent (to prevent ingredients from separating), and a fragrance (to impart a light floral odor). In 1% concentrations, it’s considered safe. That being said, it can be irritating in certain formulations, it shouldn’t be ingested by infants, and it can cause contact allergies in some people.
If you think you’re sensitive to phenoxyethanol, you might want to check out this article I wrote about phenoxyethanol-free skincare products. FYI: It’s super long and super detailed.