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Phenoxyethanol in Beauty Products: Is It Safe?

February 10, 2014

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More and more manufacturers are advertising that their beauty products are paraben-free--you've probably seen the phrase splashed across packaging at the drug store. What you may not realize is that many of these products, including natural and organic brands, are using an alternative preservative called phenoxyethanol.

What Is Phenoxyethanol?

Phenoxyethanol is a synthetic preservative that's manufactured using a complex process where phenol is treated with ethylene oxide. Phenol is a mildly acidic white crystalline solid that can be obtained from natural or chemical sources. Ethylene oxide, also known as carbolic acid, is a colorless gas or liquid that is considered carcinogenic. Combined during manufacture, the two chemicals are claimed by some to form a safe, non-toxic synthetic preservative.

The Discussion on the Safety of Phenoxyethanol 

The Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) on phenoxyethanol states that it can cause skin and lung irritation. It's also toxic to the kidneys, nervous system, and liver, and repeated, long-term exposure can cause organ damage. It notes that toxic effects can occur through inhalation, skin exposure, and ingestion. The toxicity effects listed in the MSDS are based on exposure to the preservative when it's undiluted, and scientists agree that in high doses phenoxyethanol is toxic. 

The debate comes in regards to the low dosages found in cosmetics and other common products you may use. A study in the International Journal of Toxicology claims that the low percentage of phenoxyethanol used in cosmetic products (generally two percent or below) is safe and non-toxic. However, the European Commission on cosmetic ingredients stipulates that phenoxyethanol is toxic when applied to the lips or around the mouth, which is concerning. In addition, the FDA placed a warning to nursing mothers about using a brand of nipple cream that contained phenoxyethanol, stating that it could cause vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, and central nervous system problems in infants. 

What Is the Bottom Line on Phenoxyethanol Safety in Beauty Products?

More research needs to be conducted about the long-term effects of using beauty products containing phenoxyethanol. In the meantime, due to the European Commission and the FDA's concerns about oral exposure to phenoxyethanol, it is reasonable for you to be skeptical about its safety. It's especially concerning when you consider that most beauty products you may use that contain phenoxyethanol are often applied to the lips or around the mouth. 

Spotting Beauty Products Containing Phenoxyethanol

If you choose to avoid products that contain phenoxyethanol, you'll have to be a shrewd shopper, because it goes by many names. Some of the names will be easy to spot because they'll appear similar, such as 2-hydroxyethyl phenyl ether and 2-phenoxy-ethanol. Other names, however, could be a bit trickier to spot, such as rose ether. To make matters more confusing, some manufacturers don't even disclose the preservative on their product labels. Phenoxyethanol can also be used as a fragrance, and in some cases, manufacturers simply list it as "fragrance" on the product label. So, if a label states it contains "fragrance" but does not specify what kind, be aware that it may be phenoxyethanol. 

Preservatives like phenoxyethanol may be necessary to give beauty products a long shelf-life. The question is whether the longer shelf life is worth the potential health risks? As we learn more about the effects of phenoxyethanol, it may be necessary to turn towards beauty products that may not last as long, but will leave you with lasting peace of mind. 

Would you use a product containing phenoxyethanol? what natural alternatives have you explored?