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A Chemist Takes Stephanie to Task on Phenoxyethanol

Recently one of our Chemical of the Day articles was featured in Utah Stories Magazine as a "Chemical of the Month" feature.  After a local chemist read the article, he challenged Stephanie's stance on phenoxyethanol and wrote in to the magazine.

I have just yesterday become acquainted with Utah Stories - what a great idea! In harmony with your stated objective of telling the undistorted truth, I'd like to make a few comments about one of the articles in your October 2009 edition. As a professional chemist, the article "Chemical of the Month," discussing a cosmetic additive called phenoxyethanol is a near-perfect example of distorting the truth to fit a pre-conceived idea.

The author's very first paragraph points out that phenoxyethanol is made from phenol, which itself is made from benzene, a known carcinogen. Phenol is then treated with ethylene oxide, another known carcinogen, then with an alkali. She is technically correct, but it makes as much sense to describe a very common compound around the house as being made from the reaction of a poison gas used in World War I with a substance that spontaneously bursts into flame if it comes in contact with air. That common substance is of course sodium chloride - table salt. That phenoxyethanol is made from rather scary ingredients does NOT necessarily mean that the material itself shares any of the adverse properties of its constituents, any more than table salt is a poisonous gas.

She also gives the following: "EWG Risk Score: 4" without defining where the EWG Risk Score comes from or what it means. It turns out that the Environmental Working Group is a non-profit organization that searches available databases of ingredients in cosmetics to determine the risks associated with each ingredient. The results of that search are published on line, and also used to lobby Congress to pass legislation making cosmetics safer. A look at the actual EWG report (see here) on phenoxyethanol is most enlightening. Note that the EWG is very careful to define the differences between the ingredient itself and the products in which it is used. Here is their statement:

Research studies have found that exposure to this ingredient -- not the products containing it -- caused the indicated health effect(s) in the studies reviewed by Skin Deep researchers. Actual health risks, if any, will vary based on the level of exposure to the ingredient and individual susceptibility -- information not available in Skin Deep.

The author of your article states that phenoxyethanol's use is limited in Japan, but somehow does not mention what the EWG documents: the chemical's use is restricted to cosmetics - the very area in which the material is generally used in the US. What a surprise!

By the way, EWG defines their risk score of 4 (on a 1-10 scale) as meaning "moderate hazard." Now remember that the score is for the chemical itself in its most concentrated form, not for products using that chemical. Since toxicity correlates to dosage, using such a material at the very low levels common for preservatives (phenoxyethanol's function in cosmetics) means that the actual risks presented by this material are very, very low.

The author's obvious goal in her article is to tout her 'chemical-free' product line. Yes, phenoxyethanol is a chemical, no doubt about it. But it's a far more benign material than one would think if your only information came from Stephanie Greenwood! If she wants to sell a truly synthetic-chemical-free product line, she will have to quit using virtually all commercially-available fragrances, eschew purchasing glycerine, and go back to lard, olive oil, fireplace ashes, and herbs to make her soaps, creams, and potions.

Now, it's clear that there are some very dangerous synthetic chemicals around, and that prudence demands caution - but to insist that we go back to the 17th century technologically in order to escape all those terrible materials is not only silly but unnecessary. If you would be interested, I would be pleased to write a short article on some of the fallacies inherent in so-called 'chemical-free' materials.

Finally, I'd like to point out that I'm not an industry shill: my company, GreenFire Energy, is engaged in production of energy using advanced geothermal techniques, including a novel process that creates energy while at the same time sequestering CO2! Life is fun--and good technology is good for our planet and all of us who live on it.


Alan D. Eastman, PhD
Vice-President, Technical Development
GreenFire Energy
5698 Park Place East
Salt Lake City, UT 84121

Stephanie's Rebuttal 


Dear Alan,

Well, it looks like I've succeeded--I live to stir up a good debate about chemicals!

Thank you so much for offering your perspective on phenoxyethanol. I think it's wonderful that you've challenged my perspective in a thoughtful manner. First I have to say that I'm not an employee or paid by Utah Stories, so my opinion does not necessarily reflect that of the publication. Chemical of the Day is a blog that I run, and due to the popularity of a previously published excerpt, Utah Stories asked me to offer one of my chemicals to their readers as a Chemical of the Month. And while I carefully research my information and believe everything to be true, Chemical of the Month is more of an opinion piece than the other hard-hitting journalism found in the publication. We will make this more clear for future pieces. That said, I'll be happy to delve deeper in substantiating my claims against the chemical. I hold fast to my claims.

Your point about table salt is not lost on me. I'm assuming you're talking about the classic textbook reaction of hydrochloric acid (the poisonous gas) and sodium hydroxide (the substance that can burst in to flame). However, on a chemical level, it's not a fully accurate analogy. HCl plus NaOH is a simple reaction dealing with only four elements. When measured precisely, we know that these two chemicals will combine to solely create water (H2O) and NaCl (table salt). This is simple inorganic chemistry. All original bonds are broken and reformed to create new compounds.

The creation of phenoxyethanol is a much more complex process involving more than one chemical reaction. Not all of the chemical bonds of the original compounds are broken down and re-formed as in your table salt analogy. (For our non-chemist readers I'm going to offer some explanations). Phenoxyethanol starts out as phenol. Phenol is an aromatic hydrocarbon, meaning that it contains a benzene ring. A benzene ring is basically a chemical ring made out of carbon and hydrogen. The chemical benzene is a simple ring of six hydrogen atoms and six carbon atoms hooked together in a hexagon style shape like this:

Benzene is a  known carcinogen.





Phenol is created when you take a benzene ring and substitute one of the hydrogen atoms with a hydroxyl group (an oxygen and a hydrogen):


As you can see, it still retains the hexagon structure of the benzene ring. When a compound contains a benzene ring, it's called an "aromatic hydrocarbon." Because it is only one atom away from benzene, phenol still has many negative health effects. According to the World Health Organization, phenol "may cause effects on the central nervous system, heart and kidneys, resulting in convulsions, coma, cardiac disorders respiratory failure, collapse." It's also classified as a suspected carcinogen.

So, to make phenoxyethanol, you take phenol and you add ethylene oxide and an alkali. This reaction doesn't break down the benzene ring of the phenol, but just adds a longer "tail" to the structure.


Phenoxyethanol too is an aromatic hydrocarbon containing a benzene ring. In very simplified terms, this heavy tail makes phenoxyethanol less reactive than phenol or benzene, however it is still problematic. When ingested, phenoxyethanol is broken down in to glycolic acid, which is then broken down in to oxalic acid, which is toxic. In fact, the FDA recently recalled a nipple cream containing phenoxyethanol because of its toxic effects stating that phenoxyethanol can "depress the central nervous system and may cause vomiting and diarrhea, which can lead to dehydration in infants."

But the risk isn't limited to infants. Any time you have a benzene ring in a synthetic compound like this one, you have the risk of disrupting reproductive health. All three forms of estrogen (estrone, estradiol, and estriol) are made up of complex benzene rings. Estrogen receptors in the body are designed to react to these particular benzene rings. But when a synthetic chemical containing benzene rings enters the body, it binds to estrogen receptors and stimulates cells incorrectly or disrupts the biometabolic pathways. Each variation is going to interfere in different ways, some more strongly than others. Phenoxyethanol has been studied and it has been found to affect reproductive health (see here).

Getting back to the table salt analogy, I have one more point to make. Yes, theoretically, if you do combine hydrochloric acid with lye, you do get table salt. However, this probably isn't table salt you'd want to eat. The measurements and concentration of the two chemicals would have to be quite precise, otherwise you'd end up with salt contaminated with acid or lye. The same thing is true with phenoxyethanol. When you have phenol being treated with ethylene oxide, there is the risk that the end product is contaminated with ethylene oxide. In fact, many cosmetic ingredients are tainted with ethylene oxide (and subsequent byproduct, 1,4-dioxane).

One may argue that the exposure to phenoxyethanol and (subsequent dioxane contamination) is too small in cosmetic applications to affect health. You may say that you'd have to ingest gallons of the stuff to see the negative effects. Yes, perhaps using a lotion with a small amount of phenoxyethanol one time isn't going to make your body go haywire. But with cosmetic items we're looking at repeated multiple daily exposure. From the lotions, perfumes, makeups, deodorants, soaps, aftershaves, hairsprays, shampoos, conditioners, and other personal care items, we're exposing ourselves to gallons and gallons of chemicals every day, after day, after day. Not to mention the plastics around us like PVC, BPA and phlalates that are suspected to mimic estrogen, as well as pesticide residues from our foods. Perhaps isolated, exposing oneself to one chemical may not have terrible side effects. But over time these trace amounts do enter our bodies and do affect our health. If we can limit the toxic load that we're exposing ourselves to, why wouldn't we? For the most part, I do come from a "17th century" mindset. I don't use commercially-produced fragrances because most of them are aromatic hydrocarbons. I don't use synthetic preservatives or emulsifiers. I do, for the large majority, only use natural and organic herbs and oils in my products. The closer I am to making something the old-fashioned way, the better.

Perhaps my article was one-sided. But I feel it's not inappropriate. Billions of marketing dollars are spent every year by multi-national corporations to argue otherwise.

Perhaps my article was oversimplified. I simply did not have the room in a one page article to get down to the molecular level in an explanation, nor do most readers want a lesson in organic chemistry. So, I've written my blog and this article in an easy-to-digest format for readers' easy reference.

I apologize for not explaining what the EWG Risk Score was. This was an excerpt from my blog, and my blog readers are already familiar with the resource and look to this resource as a baseline for making decisions. I'll correct this for any future articles.

Alan, I applaud your efforts at GreenFire Energies. I am for technologies that clean our world and make it a better place. I would welcome an article explaining the fallacies of "chemical-free" products, as most of them that claim to be "natural" or "organic" still contain synthetic chemicals.


Stephanie Greenwood


Reader Comments (25)

Bravo Stephanie. Thank you for shedding light on these chemicals and for your thoughtful responses to these chemists.

Wed, November 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterStephan

Good Job Stephanie. I was intrigued to read both articles and congratulate you on the great job you are doing for your customers. We appreciate your intense efforts, knowledge and abilities. John

Wed, November 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJohn P

I find the emails interesting here and would suggest that the difference in opinion begins with one's perspective.

Stephanie, most of us who use your products would prefer to side with authentic natural products.

For someone like Violet, she appears to be a chemist who is "invested" in her work and the discipline. Lots of good has come from such science. However, history has shown that it is what you do not know yet about a chemical (and eventually "discover") is what might just kill you!

Science always seems to be based on a variation of "seeing is believing." When it comes to what I put in my mouth and on my skin, I prefer to trust mother nature and not a chemist test tube.


Wed, November 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGeoff

Good response, Stephanie.

I personally appreciate your thoughtful research regarding cosmetics. Actually, it was your blog that brought to my attention that we cannot just refer to the EWG site (example: vaseline petrolem jelly is ranked "zero" risk, but is not the best choice for my baby)

I am a busy, sleep-deprived mom of three young children. Honestly, I have no interest, or time, to research phenoxyethanol. But I do want the best, chemical-free products for myself and my family. I really appreciate Stephanie's blog and website. Simple, to the point, and I totally trust her advice and products.

Stephanie - thanks for the service that you provide to others like myself -

Wed, November 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNancy


I learned a lot from this. A great read! But what really caught my attention was your very kind and professional manner in reply to being challenged. It would have been easy for you to lash out in defense, but instead you pulled out all the stops with your knowlege and expertise. Knowlege is, indeed, power! But what really matters in the end (because we will all eventually die) is how we treat one another. I've been acquainted with you for a couple of years now, and I've pestered you with questions 'til I think you must be sick of me. But you've always shown kindness and long-suffering. As I read this article, I smiled to myself thinking about how you continue to stick to your principles and you are just plain and simply a really nice person (something that seems to be lacking in today's society - maybe because of too many chemicals.) ;-)

Wed, November 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSheri

Thank you for caring about what people put into their bodies, via their skin and sharing your knowledge. It would be a better planet if everyone who put out a product actually cared about the consumers well-being and not the bottom line. I also commend you and any one who puts out a product that does not test their products on animals. If everyone who put out a product used basic, organic ingredients then animals would not need to have chemicals put on their skin and in their eyes to test its effect. Testing on animals is totally unnecessary and wrong.

Great responses to some hard and confrontational questions. Keep up the great work.

Cheers :)

Wed, November 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJenn

THANK YOU STEPHANIE! I commend you on your detailed research and understanding of the topic at hand. Chemicals in products are not necessarily benign. There are so many factors resulting from chemical combinations, incomplete reactions, and reactions with other items in the environment once used. This is certainly not a straight forward topic. However, your deatiled approach and positive presentation is EXCELLENT!

Just as many health care professionals are biased towards pharmaceutical based treatments versus natural healing, there seems to be a large bias in the chemistry or engineering trades towards using chemicals versus natural products. I guess it comes from narrow college teaching plus a natural bias towards job protection.

Thank you again for your continued fight to get the word out, your great products, and your positive outlook!

Wed, November 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJim C

Oh my goodness! I just logged in and saw all these comments! Thank you SO much everyone. This really warms my heart.

Wed, November 18, 2009 | Registered Commenter[Stephanie Greenwood]

You go girl! And thank you! You make it easier for a lot of people to make educated choices and keep their families safe!

Wed, November 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSharee

Thanks for standing up for what is pure, and making products that are good for people!

My daughter recently asked for her first deodorant, saying her neighbor friend has Dial, and it smells go good. So we went to, and my daugher found your deodorant. We ordered one, and she loves it, keeping it in a special place on her bookshelf. She also likes the free lip balm.

Hearing how you stand firm, makes me want to buy your products again in the future.

Wed, November 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMaria

Bravo! I am thoroughly impressed by your meticulous research and thoughtful replies to those who question your stance on this subject. I applaud you for making pure products! Keep up the good work, Stephanie!

p.s. I just blogged about and linked to this post :)

Wed, November 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterStancie @ Fig+Sage

Great job Stephanie!! I am currently a student of pharmacy and loved reading your chemical explanation!! The worst part about those who seek to discredit you is they dont appear to realize that until scientific studies have been done on a large enough control group that you cannot promise a certain ingredient, mixed with all the other chemicals/plastics and such out there that we are exposed to (mixed with how well our immune system is functioning that day to repair any cellular damage), will not affect the biochemistry of the body. Everyone's different, and a one size fits all mentality is arrogant and dangerous. For example, it's well documented that everyone's bodies react differently to medications (no one seems to have a problem agreeing to the fact that some people have side effects while some don't), as well as allergies (penicillin in fatal to those allergic to it but for me it doesn't bother me a bit, while sulfa drugs make me nauseated). So if we can all agree that medications (aka chemicals) react differently in different people, why then do people fight so hard against the notion that a chemical that is ingested through the skin is any different? In fact the skin doesn't have the same enzymes to break down the compound as our digestive systems do, so it goes directly to our bloodstreams. So great job fighting against those who don't have open minds. I had science teachers as an undergrad who instilled in me that science is ever changing, something we think we know today could be found to be false tomorrow, and I was always taught the most important thing is to always be open to the fact that this could happen. For those chemists out there who are trying to discredit Stephanie, I ask you to go back to day one of your science education, remember the scientific theory? Isn't it true the even though something may be proven over and over again (and even becomes a theory, and maybe even later a law) that EVEN THEN we can't say 100% that we know it to be true, that the scientific theory demands we keep open minds because someday in the future it may be proven false?

Wed, November 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSara

Stephanie, after reading the above material, all I can say is thank you so much for all your hard work, knowledge and research, your wonderful products, your amazing customer service, as well as your amazing "grace under fire!" I cannot state it any better than the above comments made by those more articulate than I! All I can say is, Stephanie, You Rock!!

Wed, November 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDonna

Chemicals in our personal care products is a HUGE discussion with so many variables. The answers are not simple. (Thank you, Stephanie, for pointing out the exponential exposure when we use a number of products in combination daily over the course of years, combined with all of the other chemicals in our food, homes, work places, etc.)

It is a challenge to decipher all the information and make a "good" choice for my family and myself. I appreciate Stephanie's commitment and enthusiasm. Please keep the conversation, and education, going.

Wed, November 18, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterg

I believe this is a telltale comment from the "industry chemist":

"That phenoxyethanol is made from rather scary ingredients does NOT necessarily mean that the material itself shares any of the adverse properties of its constituents..."

Personally, I believe the avoidance of eating, drinking or using any personal care or cleaning products that have any scary ingredients is a positive thing. I don't think there is a scenario when scary ingredients, known to cause health problems or environmental concerns, would be an intelligent choice to incorporate into one's everyday life.

Avoid scary. Avoid phenoxyethanol . Thanks Stephanie!

Wed, November 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMurphy N

I believe this is a telltale comment from the "industry chemist":

"That phenoxyethanol is made from rather scary ingredients does NOT necessarily mean that the material itself shares any of the adverse properties of its constituents..."

Personally, I believe the avoidance of eating, drinking or using any personal care or cleaning products that have any scary ingredients is a positive thing. I don't think there is a scenario when scary ingredients, known to cause health problems or environmental concerns, would be an intelligent choice to incorporate into one's everyday life.

Avoid scary. Avoid phenoxyethanol . Thanks Stephanie!

Wed, November 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMurphy N

Way to go Stephanie! Other cosmetic companies should be shaking in their boots. How dare they manufacture, market and sell products that that are at risk to us. I'm sure they know some things about these toxicities that are in their products. They must know something. They can't possibly be that ignorant.

Wed, November 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJen

I first became aware of the thought of toxins in our body while reading "Natural Cures: What they don't want you to know". Since then I have been making a conscious effort to minimize the amount of chemicals that I introduce into my body externally and internal, as well as my families. It is a constant job to read and understand labels. All labels should be clear so that we can make an informed decision about the risks involved. I appreciate your blog and your products. The labels are easy to read and understand and the products are outstanding.

Wed, November 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJohn

Stephanie, this is great debate. Thank you so much I learned a lot by reading it as well as all of your blog entries. I want you to know how much I appreciate your research and sharing this valuable information with us.
Kind regards,

Wed, November 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLori Jone

Wow, I'm impressed with your knowledge and the way you responded. Keep up the good work!!! By the way I Love your products.

Thu, November 19, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMary

Stephanie I applaud your article. Information is power. i fully agree that it is very important to do your own research and gather information for your self, to confirm information we read in other articles. From my own experience with the chemical world I will go organic. i now have developed allergic reactions to chemical preservatives. There is a serious problem of cancer in my family. People often wonder where all the different forms of cance are coming from. I think that is our exposure to the mutliple chemicals in the numerous products we use and consume. For myself and my family We are going back to the basics. My health is of great importance to me. Thank you Stephanie. I appeciate your hard work and sharing yuor knowledge with us. Anne Dosier

Tue, November 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Dosier

Here's an update: "Phenoxyethanol found to be unsafe for children by French ANSM." now declared unsafe for any child under the age of 3 in any concentration. 1990 Journal of the American College of Toxicology: phenoxyethanol acts as an endocrine disruptor that also caused damage to bladder, acute pulmonary edema in animals' U.S. Federal Drug Agency, “Phenoxyethanol is a preservative that is primarily used in cosmetics and  medications. It also can depress the central nervous system and may cause vomiting and diarrhea, which can lead to dehydration in infants.” The FDA knew phenoxyethanol was toxic to animals (in large doses) as far back as 1984, when 100% of test subjects died; 1980s studies showed it casued DNA mutations in animals and FDA warned nursing mothers to avoid products that contained it because of danger to infants that might come in contact with it inadvertently. Lastly Phenoxyethanol has been banned for use by ECOCERT.

Not a chemist, just a formulator with a lowly background in physics

Wed, May 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoan Torres-Saez

Good for you Stephanie! Your intelligence far exceeds that of your critics. I'm just a regular person with no degrees, but my common sense alone, when reading the ludicrous defense put up be these 'chemists' as opposed to your exceptional explanation, allows me to see it for what it is. How glutted they are with their own blind opinions. How keen they are to poison humanity!

Thu, August 6, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAlana

Wow I just discovered your blog today and I am forever grateful. I was looking for information on the lists of ingredients in products that I use on or near my body daily. I know nothing about chemistry but I find that all your articles are comprehensible. I agree that the more old fashioned my method for making things the better! Its not really uncommon knowledge that once the market takes over an industry, that industry becomes corrupted somehow. I am in the process of making most of my own products, detergent, deodorant, toothpaste, and while at the moment it may be time consuming, I know with practice it will be effortless. Also my sister in law is a chemist, who dismisses my reasons for not using products like conventional shampoos and creams, so reading this blog gives me such satisfaction. Thank you.

Mon, August 8, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRaquel

I am new at attempting to make soaps and lotions, and have been searching for vegan options, which are so difficult to find; which was brought me to Stephanie's blog. But more so than the great information for a beginner like me to learn from; I learned a great lesson in how to "respond graciously" when challenged. I am so impressed and will continue to follow. Thank you for more than one lesson Stephanie.

Tue, August 8, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNicki

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