Phenoxyethanol in Skin Care: A Look at Safety and Alternatives
by Heather Smith on Mar 27, 2023
Phenoxyethanol has become an increasingly common ingredient in the world of skin care, as it is often used as a preservative. With the clean beauty movement gaining momentum and concerns over the safety of various preservatives in cosmetics, it is essential to understand the role of phenoxyethanol and its safety profile.
This article explores the science behind phenoxyethanol, addresses the concerns raised, and presents some natural alternatives for those who prefer a more eco-conscious and natural approach to skin care.
What is Phenoxyethanol?
Phenoxyethanol is a synthetic compound often used as a preservative in cosmetics and personal care products. Its primary function is to inhibit the growth of bacteria and fungi, thus extending the shelf life of these products. As a glycol ether, phenoxyethanol is known for its stability and low volatility, making it a popular choice for manufacturers.
It is produced through chemical synthesis, primarily from the reaction of ethylene oxide with phenol derivatives.
These uses extend beyond simply preserving these products: Phenoxyethanol can also act as a stabilizer or solvent within specific formulations while providing protection against oxidation or discoloration by neutralizing metal ions.
Addressing the Concerns Raised by the Clean Beauty Movement
The clean beauty movement advocates for transparency in the cosmetic industry and promotes using safe, non-toxic, and eco-friendly ingredients.
Concerns surrounding preservatives like parabens have led to increased concerns about phenoxyethanol, mainly due to its synthetic nature. While phenoxyethanol is considered a safer alternative to parabens, some individuals are still concerned about its safety.
Anti-paraben marketing has cast doubt and fear onto the entire world of cosmetic preservatives. An unnecessary and unfortunate outcome of fear-based marketing.
The primary concern associated with phenoxyethanol is the potential for skin irritation or allergic reactions in individuals with sensitive skin. However, it is essential to note that the risk of irritation is relatively low, as most products contain phenoxyethanol at a concentration of 1% or lower. Moreover, scientific research and regulatory agencies, such as the European Commission's Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS) and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), have deemed phenoxyethanol safe for use in cosmetic products within the recommended concentration range.
Fear-based marketing messages in the skincare industry can be harmful because they often create unnecessary panic and anxiety around certain ingredients or products. Some brands use fear to promote their products by making false or exaggerated claims about the supposed dangers of synthetic ingredients, preservatives, or other commonly used skincare ingredients. This type of marketing can be especially damaging because it can lead consumers to make uninformed choices about their skincare products.
Responsible clean beauty brands prioritize safety, efficacy, and transparency in their formulations. These brands may use natural or naturally derived ingredients. Still, they also rely on science and rigorous testing to ensure the safety and efficacy of their products.
In addition, these brands prioritize sustainability and ethical sourcing practices as well, making them a better choice for those who want to use more natural products while still being responsible and informed consumers.
The Safety Profile of Phenoxyethanol
Phenoxyethanol is considered a safe and effective preservative in skin care products. Its low potential for skin irritation and allergic reactions makes it suitable for a broad range of consumers. There are very few side effects of phenoxyethanol for skin care, however; it is always essential to monitor individual reactions and discontinue use if irritation or sensitivity occurs.
Various regulatory bodies around the world have set guidelines on the safe concentrations of phenoxyethanol in cosmetically produced items, usually at 1% or less.
The fact that it can cause irritation at high levels is not a reason to fear this preservative. It doesn't need to be used at levels that high for preservative effectiveness. And don't forget, skin irritation occurs when ingredients get used at high levels - Vitamin C, retinol, glycolic acid, niacinamide, azelaic acid, kojic acid, etc. etc.
If you have highly sensitive and reactive skin or suffer from conditions like eczema, this is probably an ingredient to avoid, or consider using in wash-off products only. The risk of contact dermatitis is low. Still, thankfully there are a lot of other effective options out there, so you shouldn't be too limited in product choices. Always discuss things with your dermatologist if you're worried.
Concerning the potential for carcinogenesis, the National Toxicology Program's Report on Carcinogens has not classified it as a carcinogen. Studies do not indicate any correlation between exposure to phenoxyethanol and cancer risks.
But what about the known episodes of harm?
There have indeed been case reports published of harm linked to phenoxyethanol use. Most are allergic or irritation related, but the most dramatic one comes from 2008 when a nipple cream was linked to neurologic toxicity in infants. Super scary! The exact details of this incident are hard to find (i.e. what was the concentration used?) but suffice it to say, this is not a preservative safe for internal/edible products!
A second scary report was published in 1990, where 3 people exposed to extremely high doses of phenoxyethanol over many episodes developed neurologic toxicity. This is another super-scary headline, but totally incomparable to the world of cosmetics as it was a high-dose occupational exposure where phenoxyethanol was used much differently.
Scary headlines are capitalized upon by fear-mongering marketers. However, it also gives honest, transparent, clean-beauty brands the ability to say: "yup, we know it's probably safe, but why not choose something more natural if we can?"
Natural Alternatives to Phenoxyethanol
For those who prefer a more natural approach to skincare products, many alternatives to phenoxyethanol are available.
If a skincare product needs to be preserved, then the brand is accountable for ensuring the preservation system is adequate. This means that they have their products microbiologically tested to determine both shelf life and the degree of effectiveness of the chosen preservative. Preservative challenge testing involves intentionally contaminating products with a known quantity of bacteria and waiting to see what degree of growth occurs.
Within the world of preservatives, there is a range of effectiveness. They must be effective against bacteria (gram-negative and gram-positive), yeast, and mould. Some preservatives effectively target only one or two categories, so mixtures are needed. Some will target all categories but aren't that strong at killing growth, so they shouldn't be used alone.
Additionally, some skincare products are more or less prone to bacterial growth and contamination. For example, does it have a wand applicator or a pump dispenser? Is it used near the mouth or nose? Does it contain ingredients that bacteria or mould/yeast love to feast on? What is the pH of the final product?
All those factors determine whether the preservative chosen will be effective. Unfortunately, the world of preservatives is where inexperienced or uninformed skincare formulators can get things wrong. Sometimes the desire to have "natural" over all else leaves consumers with contaminated, mouldy, and potentially dangerous products.
Preservatives considered more natural still sound quite "chemicall-y", but that is just the trade-off you need to have safe, non-contaminated products.
You'll see ingredients like: benzyl alcohol, salicylic acid, sorbic acid, caprylyl glycol, glyceryl caprylate, glyceryl undecylenate, dehydroacetic acid, sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate.
If you are buying a skincare product that contains water as an ingredient and it is labelled as "preservative free" or contains only antioxidants like Vitamin E, thyme, and rosemary; be worried about contamination and keep shopping!
Environmental Impact & Sustainability
Phenoxyethanol is a stable compound and does not react with the open environment under normal conditions. It is considered non-bioaccumulative and readily biodegradable, which means it can break down through natural environmental processes.
The base chemicals used to synthesize phenoxyethanol is typically derived from petrochemical sources, such as benzene or ethylene oxide. However, some manufacturers may use plant-based feedstocks, such as sugar beet or corn, as an alternative to petrochemical feedstocks.
Due to its safety profile and effectiveness, Phenoxyethanol has become a popular choice for preserving skin care products. Scientific research and regulatory agencies support the safe use of phenoxyethanol within the recommended concentration range.
For those who prefer a more natural approach, there are alternative preservatives available. Ultimately, the choice of which preservative to use comes down to individual preferences and priorities and a product's specific formulation.
Consumers are increasingly more and more educated about what they do and do not want included in their products. This evolution, a part of the slow beauty movement, is a good thing for the industry and will hopefully lead to a shift towards more thought and less impulsivity when it comes to consumerism.
bareLUXE is a clean beauty brand. We understand that clean beauty shoppers prefer ingredients as close to nature as possible. In order to create effective and safe products, we need to be 100% sure that contamination and microorganism growth won't occur in our products. As long as we can be confident of this, we will always opt to use plant-derived preservatives that are as natural as possible.
As a physician, I sit in both worlds - my knowledge is grounded in science and research. Still, my decisions are shaped by my personal shopping preferences and ethics. From a purely scientific perspective, phenoxyethanol is a safe and effective preservative with a low risk of irritation as long as appropriate levels are used. However, from a clean-beauty advocacy perspective, if more natural options that are just as effective can be used, there is no reason not to use them.
To me, the most essential part of all of this is how I communicate with my consumers. The relationship between a brand and its consumers needs to be based on trust. Using responsible and ethical marketing principles and open, honest, transparent conversations, we should all be able to find products that match our personal ethos without demonifying the alternatives that aren't right for everyone.
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