, 2 min reading time
, 2 min reading time
What is phenoxyethanol?
Phenoxyethanol is a preservative used in many cosmetics and personal care products. You may have a cabinet full of products containing this ingredient in your home, whether you know it or not.
Chemically, phenoxyethanol is known as a glycol ether, or in other words, a solvent. CosmeticsInfo.org describes phenoxyethanol as “an oily, slightly sticky liquid with a faint rose-like scent.”
You likely come into contact with this chemical on a regular basis. But is it safe? The evidence is mixed.
Many mainstream and boutique cosmetics products contain phenoxyethanol. It’s often used as a preservative or stabilizer for other ingredients that might otherwise deteriorate, spoil, or become less effective too quickly.
Phenoxyethanol is also used in other industries, including in vaccines and textiles. This article focuses on its role in topical cosmetics.
You might see this ingredient listed in a few ways:
phenoxyethanol, ethylene glycol monophenyl ether, 2-Phenoxyethanol, PhE, dowanol, arosol, phenoxetol, rose ether, phenoxyethyl alcohol, beta-hydroxyethyl phenyl ether, euxyl K® 400, or a mixture of Phenoxyethanol and 1,2-dibromo-2,4-dicyanobutane.
You can find phenoxyethanol as an ingredient in a wide variety of cosmetics and hygiene products, including:
In perfumes, fragrances, soaps, and cleansers, phenoxyethanol works as a stabilizer. In other cosmetics, it’s used as an antibacterial and/or a preservative to prevent products from losing their potency or spoiling.
When combined with another chemical, some evidence indicates that it’s effective at reducing acne. One 2008 study on 30 human subjects with inflammatory acne showed that after six weeks of twice-daily applications, more than half of the subjects saw a 50 percent improvement in their number of pimples.
Manufacturers who want to avoid using parabens, which have recently lost favor among health-conscious consumers, might use phenoxyethanol in their products as a substitute.
But is phenoxyethanol safer than parabens for topical use in humans?
Deciding whether or not you want to use products with this chemical is a complicated decision. There’s conflicting data about its safety. Most of the concern stems from recorded incidents of bad skin reactions and nervous system interaction in infants.
The FDA currently allows the use of this ingredient in cosmetics, and as an indirect food additive.
An expert panel from The Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) first reviewed all available data on this chemical in 1990. They deemed it safe when applied topically in concentrations of 1 percent or lower.
In 2007, the panel reviewed newly available data, then confirmed their former decision that it’s safe for adults to use topically in very low concentrations.
The European Commission on Health and Food Safety also gives this chemical a “safe” rating when used in cosmetics at a 1-percent or less concentration. However, this report notes that using several products all containing a low dose could result in overexposure.
Japan also restricts use in cosmetics to a 1-percent concentration.