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Monday
Feb282011

Phenoxyethanol

Today's Chemical:

Phenoxyethanol

EWG Risk Score:

4

What is it:

Phenoxyethanol is an aromatic ether alcohol. What does this mean? This ingredient starts out as phenol, a toxic white crystalline powder that's created from benzene (a known carcinogen) and then is treated with ethylene oxide (also a known carcinogen) and an alkalai.

What's its job as an ingredient:

Phenoxyethanol is commonly used in the ingredient listed as "fragrance" and also used as a preservative.

What Type of Products is it in:

Sunscreen, facial products, scrubs, moisturizers, body wash, mascara

Safety/Hazard Info:

  • This animal study found phenoxyethanol to be a reproductive toxin.  (Source)
  • This study found it to be the cause of contact dermatitis (skin allergen/irritant.)  (Source)
  • This review confirms phenoxyethanol as a reproductive toxin.  (Source)
  • This also confirms phenoxyethanol as an ovarian toxin not just for the original animal exposed to it, but shown to effect the development of its offspring.  (Source)
  • This study found it to be a significant contact allergen.  (Source)

Steph's Opinion:

Made out of carcinogenic and toxic compounds, phenoxyethanol is an ingredient that I would suggest avoiding. Oftentimes it's found in "natural" products. They'll use phenoxyethanol as the preservative and then tout that they're "paraben-free." In addition it's commonly used as a fragrance ingredient. Many of the natural companies still use synthetic fragrance. They'll tout that they're "phthalate-free" but still contain phenoxyethanol. So, just because something's "phlalate-free" or "paraben-free" doesn't mean it's safe. Any time you see "fragrance" listed, phenoxyethanol could be present, along with any number of harmful synthetic chemicals. Phenoxyethanol is structurally similar to parabens on a chemical level, so its toxicity to the reproductive system is not surprising.  

Also note: some companies may claim that their phenoxyethanol is extracted from natural sources.  So, while this is better because it lessens the risk for ethylene oxide contamination, it is still the same chemical structurally, and would pose the same risks. 


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Reader Comments (76)

PS--I see you have a line of your own. You have quite a few products; you must be busy! I commend you for your entrepreneurial spirit. Just a word of caution--there is a strong movement right now to push the USDA to crack down on companies that misuse the term "organic." While you do use a number of organic ingredients, you're not USDA certified, and many of your products contain chemicals that wouldn't be allow in a certified organic product. I would think about doing a label redesign to use the word "natural" instead http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_20127.cfm

Wed, February 3, 2010 | Registered Commenter[Stephanie Greenwood]

Hi there,

my 2 year old son caught chicken pox and I applied aqueous calamine cream to the affected areas and he has swollen up in these areas (very frightening at the time!) I`m currently going through the list of ingredients to establish what has caused this allergic reaction. I realise this wasn`t what you guys were talking about but just wondered if you could tell me if phenoxyethanol is something that is commonly known to cause this reaction? many thanks.

Mon, March 1, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterchristina

Yes, there is strong evidence that it can be a skin irritant. http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/ingredient/704811/PHENOXYETHANOL/

Fri, March 5, 2010 | Registered Commenter[Stephanie Greenwood]

Hi Stephanie,

I enjoy reading your posts. You have posted quite a bit of informative and interesting information. What is your opinion of the preservative Gluconolactone (and) Sodium Benzoate? It is accepted by ECOCERT as a preservative in certified organic cosmetics and is supposedly made from natural ingredients. Many of the natural products I have seen for sale contain Phenoxyethanol, which from what I have read is not something I want to personally use. The Gluconolactone (and) Sodium Benzoate, however, looks like something that would be acceptable.

Sonsa

Sun, May 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSonsa

I Sonsa,

I haven't done an analysis of gluconolactone, but you can read about my article on sodium benzoate here.

Mon, May 10, 2010 | Registered Commenter[Stephanie Greenwood]

Yes, I read that. That's what prompted me to ask the question. Let me know what you think after you've had time to look into it. Thank you!

Mon, May 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSonsa

Stephanie-
It's interesting what a heated debate the use of chemical preservatives can cause! I really appreciate the research you've done and the knowledge you share on this webiste for consumers who are interested in erring on the side of caution. The bottom line is, we are all responsible for our own health, and because the FDA doesn't regulate what ingredients are safe in personal care products, each of us has a right to decide what we feel comfortable using on our bodies. Since there are now products (such as yours) that are just as effective (if not MORE so) than those with questionable chemicals, why not be safe than sorry? We could live in a society where we have few options or the power to choose, but since we are so fortunate to have a variety of options, I say go for the pure stuff! My body is worth it! :)

Sun, August 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCadie

Couldn't agree with you more Stephanie

I'm very concerned what the FDA approves.
I'm not seduced by marketing companies, I do my own research,what's happening to our food and beauty products is outrageous.

Stay away from chemicals as much as you can,the more you know the more basic and simple products you will use and eat. It's very simple.

Sat, October 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTina

I have been suffering for 2 years with an unknown contact allergy. I have been patch tested locally. I was finally sent to UCSF for more extensive patch testing and came back with a strong positive with an allergy to Phenoxyethanol. I do not know if this is what is causing my severe flaring of my eyelids but so far I have identified more than 30 products in my house containing this chemical.

It is in my eye shadows, mascaras, shampoos, conditioners, hair color, Dawn dish soap & lotions.

I have not even finished going through all my products and I am just amazed at how many have this chemical.

Some of the brands I found it in: Giovani, Bumble & Bumble, Stilla, Burts Bees, Aveda, Milani, Bath & Body Works, Physicians Formula, Almay, Mac, Curl Junkie, The Body Shop & Beauty Without Cruelty & Dawn Dish Soap.

I am relieved to find a possible cause of my condition but am just now realizing how hard it is going to be avoiding Phenoxyethanol.

Thu, October 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLisa

Lisa---that must be so wonderful to find out what you're finally allergic to! Phenoxyethanol is in SO many places! Companies make "paraben-free" formulas, but use phenoxyethanol instead as a preservative! Good luck in your journey!

Sun, October 17, 2010 | Registered Commenter[Stephanie Greenwood]

You seem to be under a misapprehension regarding creams manufacture and margins Stephanie.
Creams do contain 60-80% water, but that doesn't mean:
"there's a lot more margin on a product that's 80% water"

Firstly, purified water, whether double distilled or of a purer grade can be more expensive than an ingredient such as Shea Butter when both are bought at wholesale prices.

Many brands use floral waters, like Rose Water, or ingredients that are mostly water, such as Aloe Vera - and again these are expensive, not free, to purchase.

Then there is the additional costs of ingredients to make the creams, such as emulsifiers and the preservatives necessary to keep the products free of bacteria.

Further, there is the substantial costs in professional equipment such as industrial mixers, heating and cooling apparatus in order to make stable and consistent emulsions.

Companies that manufacture balms have few if any of these costs - indeed most can be made with standard kitchen equipment.

The labor time required to make a cream is usually greater than for a balm, and the people making creams need greater expertise than those making balms.

This is of course why most natural companies do not make their own moisturizers - they cannot justify the expense to invest in the equipment or train their staff to make them, so they use contract manufacturers instead.

I have not addressed the issue of whether a cream is better or inferior to a balm as a cosmetic product - the forum of a balm manufacturer is not I think the appropriate place to discuss this.

What I can say is that in my experience, working with a number of companies, the margins on balms tend to be similar to those of creams (in fact I am afraid that balms are often much cheaper to make), and that excludes the additional costs mentioned above incurred when working with water based products.

While the proportion of the margin for skin care products of the balm and cream varieties may be similar, the size of the margin is governed by branding and marketing, with the cost of ingredients largely irrelevant to the retail price of any product. You only have to look at the ingredients of Creme De La Mer to see that the cost of the final products has little to do with the cost of the ingredients.

Wed, March 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSimon

This is such a hard subject as phenoxyethanol is used in MANY natural products and really, what IS a safe preservative? Parabens are not safe, despite what Violet said, Methylisothiazolinone is a danger to wildlife and our skin according to MSDS and EPA...so what do we use?

Moderation is key I suppose, and anything that does not accumulate in our body tissue is necessary. Violets comment was 2 years ago and in Dec 2010, Denmark banned parabens from kids' products so that tells you something. With parabens detected in breast tissue samples and present in the urine of all test subjects....I don't believe they are the way to go.

But = we can't have mold and bacteria growth in our products either....so what do we do? Knowledge can be harmful sometimes I think as consumers are now looking for the "perfect" product without harmful chemicals, and that just does not exist I think! But - it's all about the lesser of the evils and doing what we can.

Fri, March 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTamara Laschinsky

Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Tamara. It is true--it's a tough thing. We can't have mold or bacteria growing, but many preservatives are harmful. There are safer options, though. Or companies can choose to not add water to their products--then you lessen or eliminate the need for a preservative.

Fri, March 25, 2011 | Registered Commenter[Stephanie Greenwood]

Important question - would you say that these are more harmful than parabens?? I have thrown all my paraben-ridden products, out, and replaced them with ones containing phenoxyethanol. I just can't find a foundation and sunscreen with no preservatives. what to do? I have to wear foundation and sunscreen. I don't need body lotion - for that I do use just oils, but for other things, what are the safe options? thanks!

Mon, May 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAshD

Phenoxyethanol has not been studied as extensively as parabens, so I would say it is too early to say if it is more harmful or not. I personally do avoid it as much as I do parabens, however.

One Most of these daily SPF creams not only contain preservatives, but contain the chemical sunscreen compounds that are either estrogen mimickers or create free-radicals on the skin (or both.) [like octinoxate] Also keep in mind that the use of sunscreen has not been proven to reduce skin cancer.

I don't actually believe in using a daily SPF moisturizer. I believe it does more harm than good. Light is energy, and when these chemicals "block" the light from your skin, they absorb this energy. And since this energy has to go somewhere, it ends up forming compounds that act as free-radicals to your skin. The only active ingredient that I approve of in a sunblock is zinc oxide...and unfortunately, it creates a white hue on your skin, unless it's a nanoparticle--which we don't want either. So, it's great for days at the beach, but for everyday use, not as appropriate.

Some makeups, like Lauren Brooke, contain zinc oxide but also other compounds like iron oxide that give a tint to the product. These makeups would give adequate SPF coverage for daily use and you wouldn't have to use another SPF moisturizer beneath it. You can find Lauren Brooke's foundation here: http://www.naturaljoybeauty.com/servlet/the-198/Lauren-Brooke-Cosmetiques-Creme/Detail and even order samples.

Fri, May 20, 2011 | Registered Commenter[Stephanie Greenwood]

I've heard a lot about this ingredient, I think the blog "No More Dirty Looks" has suggested avoiding it.

Sat, July 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMary

California baby uses Phenoxyenthanol, and does not claim on their product, nor on ewg... I once saw it on a article printed in the Korea consumers reports test. It was a high precentage. The founder seems very untruthful about the their product. How can any customers trust their products. I'm glad you are training your customers about such preservative. Does EWG have a monitoring system about manufaturers lying about their ingredients.? I belive the precentage was over 0.65%, Is there a standard to an amount that can be put in?

Sun, September 18, 2011 | Unregistered Commentersandy

I have found phenoxyethanol in Alba moisturizing Shave Cream for men. it is supposed to be paraben free. Which it is, but substitutes this and ethylhexylglycerin. Both ingredients do not pass my natural test. Which is: can't grow it, can't eat it, God didn't make it. I'll just make my own shave cream thanks. Thank you for taking the time to keep us updated on the chemicals in cosmetics. I know it's not easy to information that is accurate and easy to understand.

Sat, January 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLara

Who can tell me which plant phenoxyethanol is extracted from ?

Wed, June 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPeter

Ah yes.... Looking through my new "Giovanni smooth as silk shampoo" and "deeper moisture conditioner...." It's 100% vegetarian, etc.

Sad to say... This chemical is in the conditioner....

I seriously wish everything was honestly natural.... Is it really that difficult?

Sun, July 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSarah T

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