Phenoxyethanol is a widely used synthetic preservative that has global approval for use in all cosmetic products in concentrations up to 1%. It’s often used in even lower amounts, such as when combined with other ingredients like ethylhexylglycerin. In this case, lower amounts of phenoxyethanol can be just as effective as the maximum approved amount.

Phenoxyethanol is incredibly versatile: It works in a large range of formulas and pH ranges, has broad spectrum activity against many pathogens you don’t want multiplying in your skincare products, is stable, and is compatible with many other preservatives used in cosmetics.

Phenoxyethanol has become the new skincare ingredient to be demonized by various retail/natural marketing cosmetic companies and websites. The controversy is similar to the absurdity over paraben preservatives. Parabens were made evil in skincare products because of studies showing they are endocrine disruptors, but parabens don’t have that property when they absorb into skin. Much like parabens, phenoxyethanol being a problem in cosmetics is based on research that has nothing to do with skincare. The negative research about phenoxyethanol is not about the cosmetics-grade version. That’s a big difference. Even plant extracts have to be purified when they are removed from the ground and put into skincare products. No one wants worms, fertilizer, heavy metals, and dirt in their products. Phenoxyethanol is the same situation, it is purified before it is used in cosmetic formulations.

As with many cosmetic ingredients, concentration 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 in to the eyes. Animal studies have shown it causes reproductive and developmental toxicity—no wonder some panic is occurring! As it turns out, the animal studies were about mice being fed large doses of this preservative, not about it being applied to skin, absorbing, and then causing reproductive or developmental harm. If you fed mice mass amounts of lavender or other essential oils, they would suffer terrible consequences.

The rest of the alarming studies are about using phenoxyethanol in full-strength or atypically high concentrations, not the amounts of 1% or less used in cosmetic products. Think of it as the difference between taking one sip of wine versus chugging several bottles at once!

Back to topical use, research has shown that compared to many other preservatives, the incidence of a sensitized 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 sensitizing skin. That’s because preservatives of any kind are meant to kill fungus, bacteria, and mold and that can negatively impact skin. Ironically, in order for natural preservatives to be effective, they have to be used in much higher amounts than synthetic preservatives, typically up to 10%. This higher amount poses irritation and sensitizing problems for skin, so natural preservatives aren’t a slam-dunk replacement for synthetics, not even close.

An interesting factoid: although the phenoxyethanol used in skincare products is synthetic, this chemical occurs naturally in green tea, just like parabens occur naturally in berries and other natural foods.

References for this information:

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, issue 5, pages 24-27

International Journal of Cosmetic Science, April 2011, issue 2, 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!