16.6.14

Should we be concerned about Phenoxyethanol?



Should we be concerned about Phenoxyethanol

For some people within the Green Community, Phenoxyethanol is a dirty word and I do include it on my list of “ingredients to avoid”. I was recently asked for my viewpoint and to be honest, it’s an ingredient I am still undecided about it. You will notice from my reviews that I have not completely eliminated it from my skincare routine but I do make a conscious effort to limit my exposure. I have read that Phenoxyethanol can occur naturally but as a cosmetic ingredient it is synthetically produced. Skincare that contains water needs to incorporate ingredients which prohibit the growth of bacteria. Sadly, from a green viewpoint there are flaws with most preserving ingredients and perhaps you could loosely argue it's a case of choosing the best from a bad bunch. Phenoxyethanol will give a longer shelf life compared to natural alternatives so it’s easy to see why Green cosmetic manufacturers find it attractive. Also, it is not suspected to be carcinogenic but considered harmful in products used around mouth or on lips and an eye irritant. 

Should we be concerned about Phenoxyethanol? The truth is there is no simple answer as viewpoints and scientific research are conflicting. The following extract is from Toxic Beauty – How hidden chemicals in cosmetics harm you by Dawn Mellowship - “Phenoxyethanol can cause skin and respiratory irritation. In animal studies, reactions to this substance have included reduced body weight, increased kidney, liver and thyroid weights, development toxicity, brain and nervous system effects and endocrine disruption at high doses. Occupational exposure to Phenoxyethanol has resulted in damaged to the nervous system in several cases. It is classified by the European Commission as harmful if swallowed and irritating to the eyes. Phenoxyethanol caused slight irritation in rabbit skin at 2.2 per cent” 


In doing my research, I came across an FDA warning about Phenoxyethanol dating back to 2008 which often gets quoted. It is even referenced in No More Dirty Looks by Siobhan O'Connor & Alexandra Spunt. Personally, I do feel that the FDA warning may have been twisted out of perspective. Concerns were raised over a nipple balm. As with many ingredients, natural or otherwise, Phenoxyethanol should not be ingested so it makes perfect sense that a warning was issued, babies would be swallowing via breastfeeding. The press announcement makes no mention to Phenoxyethanol being harmful for the mother applying on their skin. 

Phenoxyethanol was accepted by ECOCERT and The Soil Association but it has since been disallowed (in 2008 & 2012) in certified organic products. It would appear that the change arose because of guidelines issued in France on the level of Phenoxyethanol in products for children. As a result EU regulations limits its use and set the level to up to a maximum of 1% for kids. I see many sites mention Phenoxyethanol is banned in Japan, this is not true, its use is restricted to 1% same as the EU.

From my viewpoint, I have concerns because there appears to be a link to contact dermatitis and eczema. However, it would seem to me that irritation has been shown when the percentage is greater than the EU limits. In a safety assessment report from International Journal of Toxicology (link), it states undiluted Phenoxyethanol was shown to be non irritating when tested at 2.2%. Check the report and you will notice that Dawn Mellowship (quoted above) hasn't quite got the facts straight when mentioning percentages. I am more inclined to avoid this ingredient, for example, in a body cream rather than in shower gel which washes off. If I see Phenoxyethanol high on the ingredients list, I would avoid because that would indicate it is being used at greater than 1%. I also consider the other ingredients, if Phenoxyethanol is the only one I’m concerned about, I am likely to overlook it. However, if the products contains more than this one suspect ingredient, I will dismiss them.

It is really hard to decide where to draw the line with ingredients. Often you can tie yourself up in knots with worry. Many of us rely on the internet for information but it is not always accurate. Some companies are striving to remove Phenoxyethanol but it does not happen overnight and is likely to be costly.

If you would like further reading, I would recommend an article from No More Dirty Looks (link), they got caught out between the advice they offered in their book and reviewing for their blog. It offers an interesting perspective not too dissimilar to my own. What are your thoughts on Phenoxyethanol? If you can recommend further reading on this subject, please do share a link in the comment section below.

Sarah x

20 comments:

  1. I have been looking forward to this post since the weekend! Personally I have not had reactions to products containing phenoxyethanol, but as it is a synthetic ingredient I do want to limit my exposure overall. So as body care products would contribute to most exposure, I make sure none of them have phenoxyethanol. It's not that hard since I use soap in the shower, and oil or butter for moisturiser, no water no need for strong preservatives. The only products I have that might contain it are face washes, face creams or makeup. In that case I try to use one product at a time e.g. If I used a face wash, I won't follow it with a face cream that has phenoxyethanol. But again I think I only have about 2-3 things with phenoxyethanol in them, mainly because the brands that I like most don't use it. Xx

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    1. You and I pretty much have the same ideas about this ingredient. I don't think I react to it but I want to limit potential eczema triggers. I also avoid in face cream (I've probably had a few slip ups here & there) as it is a known eye irritant & that's going near my mouth. I'm same as you, few products in my collection that contain it, I think it tends to be the more budget brands where you find this questionable ingredient.

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  2. I'd say I avoid phenoxyethanol 98% of the time. I don't buy products that contain it, but if I have a sample with it, I may or may not choose to use the product that one time. And like you, I'm much more likely to give it a try if it's something that gets washed off vs. a moisturizer that stays on the skin. In fact, just recently I was gifted a hair oil with phenoxyethanol and I've been debating whether to use it or pass it on to someone else. On the one hand, the ends of your hair don't really absorb much, but on the other, it'll still get on your hands when you use it and body when you wash your hair. Hmm...

    I think the bottom line is education. Whether you choose to use an ingredient like phenoxyethanol or not, being able to make an informed decision is key.

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    1. Totally agree with you Caitie, education is important and I hope I have been able to do that for my readers. I understand the dilemma with the hair oil, I had similar worries when I was offered one containing a food allergen, it might not penetrate my hair but I was coming in contact with my skin.

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  3. Great post! I mostly try to avoid it, but if it's at the bottom of the list of a product that looks promising, I might make an exception. I read that the effects of phenoyethanol were similar to parabens, so I'm wary, but there needs to be more solid studies available.

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    1. There are a couple of similarities but it's my understanding that there are no cancer links with Phenoxyethanol unlike Parabens. As you say there needs to be more studies not just for this ingredient but for many others.

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  4. A really balanced post! Like Tamara, I've been looking forward to this one. It's toughie...I generally try to aoid it, but then some stand out products I've used contain it. I think everything in moderation! Probably not worth exposing yourself to it if you know a product that does a better job that doesn't use it, but if it's the only option it's not so bad. It's good to read up and have an understanding of the ingredient, so I'm glad you've done the leg work for me ;)

    I also feel some peace of mind that the EU has restricted concentrations to 1% - good to know!

    Mayah x

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    1. I think everyone has the same feelings, avoid where you can but allow for some depending on product, our love for that product or whether there is a better alternative. The EU 1% limit is just kids products, I can't quite get to the bottom of whether there is an overall limitation for adults

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  5. I too am undecided on this ingredient. I actively try to avoid it but will allow exceptions. I've been using a few mascaras that contain it and honestly, if it keeps me from developing an eye infection from contaminated mascara then I'm cool with it! It's unfortunate that Canada has no real standards like the EU does, it would probably put me more at ease. As long as most of the other products that I use are fairly clean, I'm okay with the odd questionable ingredient :). Great post lovely! xo

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    1. Looks like everyone feels the same about this ingredient. Mascara is a tricky one because you need it to prevent bacteria. I respect your choices but if I used eye makeup I'd want it to be free from Phenoxyethanol and use different preservatives, as Phenoxyethanol has been proven as an eye irritant.

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  6. Very well written & balanced post! I have a toner that contains phenoxyethanol in it and as its worked wonders for my skin, I'll continue to use that until I find another one that works just as good - I've never been allergic to anything in my life or had any irritations so I do limit my use but I'm not really that bothered by it at the minute :)

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    1. It's all about balance & what works for you as an individual and I can't argue with that :-)

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  7. Another balanced and informative post thanks Sarah. I take a similar stance to you and try and avoid it as much as possible but wouldn't discount a product with otherwise good natural ingredients, providing phenoxyethanol was pretty much at the end of the list. I'd certainly choose it as a preservative over methylisothiazolinone, which I think carries far more risk as an irritant.

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    1. thanks Annie, I agree I would choose this preservative over others, from what I read if I stick to 1% it should be relatively risk free as an irritant

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  8. Another great post Sarah! I tend to avoid it, especially in face and body creams and products that stay longer on my body than for example face mask or shampoo :) If I'm not mistaken my stash is curently free from phenoxyethanol :) xx

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    1. That seems to be the general consensus to avoid where you can :-)

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  9. Great article Sarah, thanks! I was researching almost the same things as you were, when trying to decide whether to buy products with this ingredient or not. At the moment, I am still quite undecided about this ingredient but I believe that in really small quantities it shouldn't really harm you. I would love all my natural beauty products to be 100% natural but I accept it's difficult to do this for many brands, however I am always on the lookout for new brands which would meet my standards.

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    1. Thanks for your comment Petra, sorry for not replying sooner. It's all about balance and I feel same as you, in small quantities I think the risk is minimal for the majority of people

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  10. And I'm another one who feel similarly- avoid where possible but if it's close to bottom of ingredients list and only in certain products I own then I can live with it. I remember when I discovered Antipodes using this in their avocado and pear night cream which I was in love with at the time and since then they've apparently taken it out? Another great article written with a good amount of objectivity! X

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    1. I love Antipodes Rejoice and I do recall a while back people asking me about Phenoxyethanol in it but I was scratching my head because it wasn't there so I think they must have reformulated at some point.

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