With “clean beauty” being all the rage lately, you’ve most likely seen a laundry list or two of skin care ingredients to avoid. We even have our own here on the Cleure blog. While there are ingredients that are justifiably vilified by dermatologists, estheticians, skin care gurus, and skinfluencers alike, not every “toxic” ingredient that the skin care industry has sworn off is actually all that bad.
One ingredient that has succumbed to the scrutiny of “clean” skin care consumers (be they experts or not) is phenoxyethanol.
While it is not on any nationally banned ingredients lists worldwide, phenoxyethanol does pop up on a lot of “bad” or “toxic” ingredient lists mocked up by skin care bloggers and influencers, or cosmetics retailers that focus on ingredient quality. It seems that sometimes brands and retailers are looking for problems with ingredients to whittle down their product offerings in a marketable way. But is phenoxyethanol actually bad for your skin and your health? Let’s break it down.
What is phenoxyethanol?
Phenoxyethanol is a synthetically produced ingredient, mainly used as a preservative. It has an oily, slightly sticky liquid texture and a faint rose scent. It has been used as a cosmetic preservative in makeup, skin care, perfumes, soaps, and detergents since the 1950s, and is also commonly found in vaccines and textiles. It limits bacteria growth of gram negative bacteria, gram positive bacteria, and yeast in water-based products.
You may also see it on ingredients labels as it’s pseudonyms: Phenoxyethanol, 2-Phenoxyethanol, Euxyl K® 400 (mixture of Phenoxyethanol and 1,2-dibromo-2,4-dicyanobutane), and PhE.
It also occurs naturally in green tea, but it’s the synthetic version that has people on edge. About 23.9% of personal care products contain the synthetic phenoxyethanol, so if it’s so dangerous why aren’t 23.9% of cosmetic consumers suffering adverse effects?
Is phenoxyethanol safe? Common misconceptions
So where did the phenoxyethanol fear start? Studies have pointed to phenoxyethanol being harmful when it comes into contact with skin or eyes, or is inhaled. On top of that it was shown to cause neurological, reproductive, and developmental problems. Aha! So phenoxyethanol really is awful!
Well...no. What the anti-phenoxyethanol community tends to skirt around is the nature of these studies. To start, many of these studies were done on mice and rabbits, not humans, and they were ingesting large doses of phenoxyethanol, not applying a weak concentration of it topically like humans do. Another study involved large concentrations being inhaled by women working in a fish hatchery who suffered from headaches after exposure, but no neurological or hormonal tests were administered. So the results remained inconclusive.
The key to the safety of phenoxyethanol in cosmetics is the concentration in the product. Most if not all cosmetic goods that use phenoxyethanol contain a concentration of 1% or less. According to the European Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety, “phenoxyethanol is safe for all consumers – including children of all ages – when used as a preservative in cosmetic products at a maximum concentration of 1%” Any adverse effects of phenoxyethanol (which were observed in animals not humans), were the result of an exposure of about 200 times what humans are typically exposed to in a product that uses phenoxyethanol as a preservative. That’s like the difference between the weight you gain from eating one donut and the weight you gain from eating 200 donuts. Well... not exactly, but the point is the amount/concentration makes all the difference.
Phenoxyethanol is also approved by the EU and Japan (who have stricter regulations on their cosmetics products), as long as it is in concentrations under 1%, and it’s included in Handbook of Green Chemicals which was curated by a wide panel of scientists.
To sum it all up, yes, if you directly inhale a vat of synthetically produced phenoxyethanol, you may suffer some health consequences, but if you are using the refined, less than 1% concentration found in cosmetic products, you don’t have much to worry about. Anything in excess can be harmful (even the Cleure blog’s best friend: good ol’ H2O) so as long as you’re not downing phenoxyethanol with every meal, you have nothing to worry about. Truth be told, most of the controversy around phenoxyethanol just is not as nuanced as it should be and is just misinformation or fear mongering for the purpose of greenwashing marketing.
Will phenoxyethanol irritate my sensitive skin?
In a 1990 safety review in by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR), phenoxyethanol was shown to be neither a primary nor cumulative skin irritant; it was neither classified as a skin sensitizer (a chemical that will lead to an allergic response following skin contact) nor phototoxic (sensitive to sunlight). Test data showed phenoxyethanol was not genotoxic (damaging to the genetic information within a cell causing mutations, which may lead to cancer) nor of concern for systemic toxicity. Therefore, it was concluded to be safe, even for sensitive skin, in concentrations less than 1%. In a 2007 review of phenoxyethanol, conducted to consider available new data, CIR reaffirmed the original “safe as used” conclusion.
Potential concerns of phenoxyethanol
So the verdict is you really only need to avoid products that use phenoxyethanol as a preservative if you have a diagnosed allergy to it, and phenoxyethanol allergies are not common. If you have a reaction or irritation from a new product that contains phenoxyethanol we always suggest getting a professional patch test by a dermatologist or doctor to specifically diagnose your allergies.
Preservatives are necessary for shelf stable cosmetic and skin care products, and phenoxyethanol is one of the least irritating options. Unless you’d rather rub bacteria on your face, don’t fret about phenoxyethanol.
Check out this video by certified dermatologist Dr. Dray:
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