Phenoxyethanol is a synthetic preservative used in cosmetics to extend their shelf-life. You’ll find it increasingly being used in both leave-on and wash-off formulations. Its use has increased as companies look for alternatives to paraben-based preservatives – with many consumers are now aware of health issues linked to paraben ingredients.

But the evidence is far from conclusive that phenoxyethanol itself is safe.

Here is what we know…

  • In high doses it is without doubt very toxic and can cause damage to brain cells and the nervous system
  • In 2008 it caused severe reactions in infants (respiratory distress and vomiting) when used in a nipple cream. The FDA issued a warning about its use as a result.
  • Side effects from lower doses include skin irritations, respiratory problems, dermatitis and possibly cancer.
  • It is thought to be safe in concentrations of less than 1% but research is ongoing.
  • European regulations classify it as an irritant and restrict its use. Many brands there are now promoting that they do not contain it.
  • Organic certification organisations such as ECOCERT have removed it from their list of safe ingredients.

The main reason we avoid it that while small exposure might be safe for most of us, cosmetic and household products that contain them are generally products we use everyday – and we know that in high doses it is unsafe – so accumulated daily use could cause problems in the long-term.

If you are wondering why companies continue to use the ingredients we choose to avoid – the appeal lies in their price. Synthetic ingredients like phenoxyethanol are simply cheaper than the more natural alternatives.

Note than it can be listed under other names such as 2-hydroxyethyl phenyl ether and 2-phenoxy-ethanol. It can also hidden in listings within the term ‘fragrance’.  Understanding the ingredients and reading the back labels of products is really the only way to work out which products are safe and which aren’t.

Some credible information on the research behind phenoxyethanol….