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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