I have spent the majority of my career fighting for public health and making the case against toxic chemicals. And for the last six years, I’ve used this personal website as a way to educate my friends and family on the opportunities to make their lives a little bit more clean. So today, I am writing in defense of an ingredient that has come under increased public scrutiny.
Phenoxyethanol is a preservative that is commonly used in skin care products and favorite among clean beauty brands. Today I want to share with you why I believe this ingredient—after careful review of the scientific literature, and many discussions with the country’s leading scientists—is still one of the safest preservatives on the market.
Preservatives, of some kind, are necessary for skin care products
Let’s start with the basics just so we are all on the same page. Companies need to preserve their products, whether they are using natural or synthetically derived ingredients, to prevent mold, yeast and bacteria from growing. The only way companies can be truly “preservative-free” is if they are asking their customers to store their skin care products in the refrigerator with clear expiration dates. More on why preservatives are necessary here.
Not all preservatives safe
Preservatives have rightfully gained a bad reputation. Used in food, some preservatives have been shown to cause harm to health, and a few in skin care—namely parabens and formaldehyde releasing ingredients—are a huge cause for concern. In addition, preservatives are unlike other ingredients used in skin care products, they are designed to perform a specific function, which is to kill mold and other yucky stuff. So what this means, is that when even safe preservatives are used, they must be used carefully. In addition, this means that when looking up preservatives in the EWG Skin Deep database, you will find they rank higher in their “hazard” score. Despite all of this, it is possible for companies to use safer preservatives wisely.
The two studies used to make the case against phenoxyethanol is thin, at best
The weight and quality of scientific evidence is incredibly important to me, and the many people working in the environmental health field. There is such a thing as good and bad science. The problem is that flashy news headlines and journalists looking for click bait don’t spend the time they often should understanding what science is applicable or quality enough to report on.
So what kind of scientific evidence is out there that phenoxyethanol is cause for concern? There are essentially two studies, one of which looked at the oral ingestion of very high doses of the ingredient (around 4 fold of what is actually used for most skin care products). This study has not been replicated, and isn’t relevant to the way the ingredient is used by clean beauty brands.
To put this into perspective, there have been thousands of studies on other chemicals of concern like formaldehyde, lead, phthalates, BPA and toxic flame retardants. All of these chemicals listed also have “scientific statements” where hundreds of scientists sign on to a statement showing that there is overwhelming literature to show this ingredient is harmful. While we don’t always need to wait for such scientific statements to be published to be concerned or in some cases act, the two studies around phenoxyethanol isn’t even in the same league.
Second, the latest study that has caused some stir didn’t even test the ingredient itself, but rather a derivative of phenoxyethanol. The methodology used in the study, where human subjects were asked to fill out a subjective survey, is not seen as a credible way to conduct a study. And it hasn’t been replicated, and again, it wasn’t phenoxyethanol that was studied.
MADE SAFE and EWG Verified, Both Approve the Use of Phenoxyethanol
The two leading third party certifications for non-toxic personal care products: MADE SAFE and EWG Verified, both have carefully reviewed the science and deem phenoxyethanol safe when used within the E.U.’s guidance.
E.U. Safety Review Shows Phenoxyethanol Can Be Used Safely
While I’ll be the first to admit that even E.U. regulations have opportunities to be improved, their safety review process is seen as the gold standard. The widely respected E.U.’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety deemed phenoxyethanol as a safely used preservative at less than 1% of the product formulation. To my knowledge, the majority of clean beauty brands on the market are following this guidance and take the use of preservatives (and levels in which they are used) seriously.
So, does this mean that this is the end of the story? Of course not, new research should (and is) be continually happening to help us better understand how the chemicals and ingredients used in the products we use every day may impact our health. There is a dire need in the clean beauty industry for new preservatives to come onto the market, which is why several important initiatives are underway to do just that.
I hope that in a few years I can write more articles about innovative new preservative systems coming on to the market and why they are great for the clean beauty industry. Until then, I am steadfast in my defense of one of the most effective and safest preservatives currently on the market, phenoxyethanol.
I have been doing some research on this ingredient and I appreciate what you shared! I just have one question that you can maybe help me with.
If I use several products that all list phenoxyethanol as an ingredient, wouldn’t it stand to reason that I would quickly be exceeding the recommended amount deemed safe?
Not necessarily. Most brands are using the ingredient at well below 1% of the product formulation and in partnership with other preservatives. I know the clean beauty leaders consider multiple exposure across their product lines (Beautycounter). Hope this helps.
What do you think about the claims that impurities in phenoxyethanol are highly carcinogenic? (Example being 1,4- dioxane)
Companies need to be testing their source of phenoxyethanol for common contaminants like 1,4 dioxane. Any company doing this diligence will share that with you! (ie Beautycounter!)
Thank you for this blog because I grew out of parabens 2 years ago and have been cautious since, but have noticed that phenoxyethanol is used in a lot of things and I’m scared of me and family friends getting cancer. Too many websites are saying it’s carcinogenic or unsafe
I loved this article. While it speaks of scientific terms it’s so easy to read and follow the information. It also brought me to the EWG which I forgot what it was called until reading this article. Thanks so much!