Phenoxyethanol at a Glance

  • Popular synthetic preservative that’s been globally approved for use in cosmetics in up to 1%.
  • Protects formulas from broad-spectrum pathogenic activity.
  • Backed by decades of research and safety assessments.
  • Versatile in that it is compatible in a large range of formulas/pH ranges.
  • Considered gentle on skin (incidence of a sensitised reaction to phenoxyethanol is rare).

Phenoxyethanol Description

Phenoxyethanol is a widely used synthetic preservative with global approval for use in rinse-off or leave-on cosmetic products in concentrations up to 1%. It’s often used in even lower amounts, especially when combined with other preservatives.

Phenoxyethanol is incredibly versatile in that it works in a large range of formulas and pH ranges and offers broad-spectrum activity against many pathogens. It is both water and oil soluble and is compatible with many other preservatives used in cosmetics.

While phenoxyethanol has gotten a bad rap in recent years, the controversial research behind this movement is not about the cosmetics-grade phenoxyethanol, and that’s important to keep in mind. Think of it this way: even plant extracts have to be purified when they are removed from the ground and put into skin care products. No one wants worms and dirt in their products. Phenoxyethanol is similar in that it’s purified before it’s used in cosmetic formulations, and it in that form it’s safe, backed by decades of safety assessments.

Concentration also matters. A 100% concentration of phenoxyethanol comes with some scary warnings. For example, the Safety Data Sheet on this preservative describes it as harmful if it contacts skin, is inhaled, or gets into the eyes—but this doesn’t apply to the 1% concentration used in cosmetics. Animal studies where mice were fed large doses of this preservative have also sparked concern. However this is not indicative of how phenoxyethanol is used on skin.

Research shows that compared to many other preservatives, the incidence of a sensitised or allergic reaction to phenoxyethanol applied as used in cosmetics is rare. But the truth is all preservatives, even the natural ones, carry some risk of sensitising skin because preservatives of any kind are meant to kill fungus, bacteria, and mold and that may negatively impact skin. The risk to your skin from such pathogens is far greater than the risk any preservative could present. Ironically, for natural preservatives to be effective, they must be used in much higher amounts than synthetic preservatives, typically up to 10%. Higher amounts may irritate or sensitise skin, so natural preservatives aren’t even close to a slam-dunk replacement for synthetics.

An interesting factoid: Although the phenoxyethanol used in skin care products is synthetic, this chemical occurs naturally in green tea.

Phenoxyethanol References

Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology, October 2019, pages 15-24
Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology, December 2016, page 156
PLOS One, October 2016, ePublication
Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology, June 2015, pages 1,071-1,081
Cosmetics & Toiletries, 2014, pages 24-27
International Journal of Cosmetic Science, April 2011, pages 190-196

See preservatives

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About the Experts

Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books about skincare and makeup. She is known worldwide as The Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula’s Choice Skincare. Paula’s expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international radio, print, and television including:

The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to busting beauty myths and providing expert advice that solves your skincare frustrations so you can have the best skin of your life!