A Closer Look at Phenoxyethanol

Phenoxyethynol is created by treating phenol with ethylene oxide in an alkaline medium.  Each ingredient individually does not sound great, but when they react it creates a safe and effective preservative.

Individually many chemicals may harm you, but together they create a beneficial product.  For instance, lye alone is extremely dangerous, but after it reacts with oil and water to create castile soap it is harmless and useful.  The MSDS for a pure ingredient can cause undo alarm.

As you consider other ingredients that are widely used and safe in cosmetics you will find that the MSDS sounds alarming for them as well.  For instance commonly used ingredients like glycolic acid, lye, citric acid, potassium sorbate and even essential oils have MSDS warnings that could be misunderstood and deemed as too dangerous to use in cosmetics.  However, we all know that these ingredients are commonly used and safe in cosmetics.  The MSDS sheet is designed to inform the end user of how to handle the ingredient properly in an undiluted form.

Some companies claim that phenoxyethynol is derived from rose oil, sage oil, minerals, plant derivatives and even coconut.  But honestly, phenoxyethynol is not even remotely related to these ingredients.  It is, however, very safe.  It is not pH dependant and not a formaldehyde releasing agent.  It is paraben free.  It does not react with other ingredients, air or light.  It is very stable.According to the CIR Expert Panel it is safe as a cosmetic ingredient as it is currently used.  It has been tested on the skin and eyes and it is non-irritating and non-sensitizing at levels of 2.2% or lower.  At Essential Wholesale we use phenoxyethynol at 1% or less.  You may have seen phenoxyethynol used in cosmetics in conjunction with other preservatives, such as parabens.  This is because phenoxyethynol is not a broad spectrum preservative by itself.  Through extensive research and testing, we have found success in combining it with another commonly used and completely safe cosmetic ingredient, EDTA.

  • http://www.sterlingminerals.com/ Katherine

    Thanks Kayla,

    Always keeping us up to date! I have seen what you describe around the internet claiming the natural source, but as you show in your article it isn't remotely close to those sources.

    I believe it is expressed this way to try to support the positive aspect of using it in place of those not wishing to use parabens, and in keeping with the natural philosophy of their product line.

    Although I also believe it to be quite safe, it is also apparent that this is the problem with many watchdog groups who wish to dissect the ingredient the way you demonstrated, and then place the emphasis on the composition instead of the completed ingredient after the synthesis process.

    This is a misnomer to be sure!

  • Pam Keller

    I need clarification since this post contradicts one of your earlier posts that states:” Phenoxyethanol ~ Offers a universal higly effective broad spectrum protection for gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria, mold, yeast and fungi.” on June 9th Facebook.

  • http://twitter.com/essentialU Kayla Fioravanti

    I can't find a facebook comment of me saying that? Are you sure it was me? We have always used phenoxethanol in combination with another preservative.

  • http://www.sterlingminerals.com/ Katherine

    If I may interject here….Hi Pam, what you may be referring to is the article I wrote about preservatives ~ synthetic vs natural and in there I make the reference to which I believe is relevant to your comment.

    What I should clarify is there are different viewpoints on efficacy of different preservatives, it may also be based on individual testing of how someone may formulate their products. Tetrasodium EDTA is a known compatible ingredient for stabilizing phenoxyethanol all the more, but it doesn't negate the fact it still remains a highly effective broad spectrum preservative.

    This a word document put out by a manufacturer of Phenoxyethanol with their own data as to its' efficacy…I hope this has clarified the mistake for what you might have been referring to in your question. Thanks


  • http://www.honunaturals.com Heather Walls

    Why would you want to take the individual reactants separately? It is a chemical reaction in which you put two things together and get something completely new. Like the reaction of the highly reactive sodium with poisonous chlorine, you get sodium chloride, which just makes dinner time better!

    Is the problem a general lack of knowledge in basic chemistry? Do you think that these watchdog groups use this to intentionally misconstrue the facts or do they lack the same chemistry skills?

  • LPaige

    Nice article but it doesn't really contain a lot of information on phenoxyethanol.

  • http://greenskincareblog.com/ Kristin Fraser Cotte

    Heather, that would be a fabulous question to ask these groups! From the statement they print on banners “don't use it if you can't pronounce it” I'd have to interpret that as both lacking basic knowledge and misconstruing facts.

  • http://greenskincareblog.com/ Kristin Fraser Cotte

    Heather, that would be a fabulous question to ask these groups! From the statement they print on banners “don't use it if you can't pronounce it” I'd have to interpret that as both lacking basic knowledge and misconstruing facts.

  • Scott

    Phenoxyethanol can be derived from plant sources, but in commercial applications, it is not. The problem with it is that it is a skin irritant – a strong one and there are indications that it possesses endocrine toxicity and negative effects on the nervous system according to the FDA and several jurisdictions regulate its use because it is a known mutagen. It is not a natural product (commercial supplies) but I see it in a lot of so-called natural products – too bad IMO.

  • Dene Godfrey

    Scott, if by your comment, you mean that phenoxyethanol exists in nature, I would be very interested to see the referencews to this, as I have never before heard this claim. In neat form, phenoxyethanol is certainly a skin irritant, as with many preservatives (stress – IN THE NEAT FORM), but at use concentrations irritation is rarely an issue. If you look at dermatological studies compiled on the number of reactions to preservatives, phneoxyethanol will always show a low percentage score. By being ” a known mutagen”, I suspect that you refer to the Ames Test result for the compound. This test does not neccesarily reflect problems in actual use. Phenoxyethanol is considered safe for use in cosmetics at up to 1%, by the independent expert panel of dermatologists and toxicologists that advise the European Commission on cosmetic ingredients. That's good enough for me!

    I agree that it is not a natural product, however, but I would rather see a well-preserved (and legal) product that is safe, than a totally natural product that is not!

  • Anonymous

    Hello Kayla, just read your write up. Must point out a typo error at the beginning of your sentence. You wrote “Can cause undo harm”, just to correct this, it should be ‘Undue’.

  • Anonymous

    Hello Kayla, just read your write up. Must point out a typo error at the beginning of your sentence. You wrote “Can cause undo harm”, just to correct this, it should be ‘Undue’.

  • AshD

    Hi! I read that disodium EDTA forms benzene when in contact with citric acid. is this true? Would this be the case also for tetrasodium EDTA and trisodium EDTA? I am concerned because many cosmetic formultions have one of these EDTAs with citric acid in the formula. Also, I think when women layer cosmetics (for instance putting on a moisturizer then a sunscreen then a foundation) we could be combining EDTA with Vit C without realizing it – and I also like to use vitamin C serums. Should I be concerned about this? I keep fearing I am forming benzene on my fac

    • Dene62

      Someone seems to have decided to start spreading this ridiculous story very recently. There is no possibility of EDTA (or any sodium salts of EDTA) forming benzene in combination with ANY other substance. Nor is there any possiblity of citric acid forming benzene by reacting with ANY other substance. Whoever started this story clearly has no grasp of even basic chemistry and is simply trying to cause mischief. I suggest that you ignore all information from whatever source this came from. Out of interest, where exactly did you read this? 
      You seem to be confusing citric acid with vitamin C in your second point. They are very different substances. Oddly enough, exactly the same mistake was made the last time I was asked this question – a fact that I find rather suspicious. However, there is no danger of EDTA reacting with vitamin C to form benzene either. Your concerns are groundless. I also wonder why anyone would put on a moisturiser, then a sunscreen, then a foundation. Putting a foundation over a sunscreen renders the sunscreen virtually redundant, in my opinion. You would not be combining those ingredients without realising it, because you would read the INCI listing if you really have this level of concern, and these claimed reactions can’t take place anyway.

      • Rich Summers

        I think this might be a confused version of the Benzoic acid/vitamin C in drinks story ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benzene_in_soft_drinks ). 

        • Philippe Papadimitriou

          Could be, yes.
          The more similarities the existance between two stories, the more probable the appearance of a rumor.

          But still..
          From the same link then: “Calcium disodium EDTA and sugars have been shown to inhibit benzene production in soft drinks.[2]”

    • Philippe Papadimitriou

      Hello Ash D,

      If you google [images] EDTA and then benzene, I think it becomes obvious that these are not chemically linked in any way. This may not look very rigorous scientifically speaking, but could eventually help lessen your fears.
      EDTA is a very poorly degradable substance, because it is highly stable and because its chemical reactivity is almost limited to binding ligands (such as calcium, sodium and many other ions towards which it shows different affinities). If any common acid or molecule had the power to react with EDTA at usual temperatures and pressure conditions to produce a new component that is more degradable, it would be great in terms of environmental safety (but of course benzene would not be the panacea).

      If this is not deliberately made up to add paranoia on cosmetics, I don’t know what to call it.
      Don’t be worried, this won’t happen.

      PS: Vitamin C is also termed “ascorbic” acid.

  • Dene62

    Thanks AshD – that clears up a little suspicion! It was beginning to look like a conspiracy! :-) I will check out that link, but I suggest that you treat almost ALL websites with suspicion – I have seen some appalling inaccuracies on apparently credible sites.
    I have to confess that I may have got it wrong about the use of sunscreen + foundation, I should have made it more clear that I was expressing my opinion, and I am certainly no expert in that area. I expressed my opinion confident in the knowledge that a fellow contributor would, step in with a correction if I was wrong and, from what you say, it would seem that I AM wrong! So ignore that bit! (But the rest is correct – honest!).
    Just to confirm – there is no possibility of citric acid and EDTA producing benzene – there is no cyclic structure in either substance, nor other grouping that would allow the formation of the special structure that comprises the benzene ring. When benzoic acid reacts with ascorbic acid, the benzene is produced from the benzoic acid – without that part of the structure, benzene can’t be produced.

    After writing the above, I checked out that link and, to put it concisely, I recommend that you avoid ever using that web site again (and be sure to tell your friends)! The chemistry is completely wrong and, just to make sure this was one a total one-off, I checked the information they have given on methylparaben. Rather than understate the situation, I can honestly say that this site contains the most ridiculous nonsense I have ever seen written about methylparaben. They don’t just repeat the usual internet myths, they have made up quite a few new ones of their own! DO NOT TRUST A SINGLE ARTICLE ON THAT SITE. The articles are obviously written by people with absolutely no knowledge of the subject. Sorry to go on so much about this, but it really is appallingly bad!

  • http://twitter.com/LizzieHawn Mary Hawn

    This was very helpful! I want to make lotion but am leery of preservatives and anti- microbial ingredients. I finally found one I am comfortable with!

  • Dianne

    This is not what I read about Phenoxyethanol. The FDA has Given a warning on this product that it depresses the central nervous system, and causes vomiting and diarrhea. I certainly don’t want to use it. What cosmetic company do you work for.?

    • Colin

      I have handled phenoxyethanol for nearly 30 years in quantities considerably higher than any consumer would come into contact with. I have never experienced any health issues, certainly not vomiting and diarrhea. I think you may be taking an FDA warning out of context.

    • Dene Godfrey

      Dianne – the FDA did not give a warning about phenoxyethanol – it gave a warning about a specific type of product containing a combination of phenoxyethanol and chlorphensin. http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm049301.htm

      Despite claims of various adverse health effects for phenoxyethanol, these effects are the result of much higher exposure than is ever experienced in cosmetic products. The EU’s Scientific Committee for Consumer Safety (SCCS) carries out a thorough risk assessment on all preservatives and determines a Margin of Safety (MoS) of at least 100 times the level of the lowest dose found not to cause an adverse effect out of all the studies considered. The maximum permitted concentration of phenoxyethanol in the EU is 1%. Given that few cosmetic products actually use this maximum level, the MoS is far greater than 100 in most cases.

      You will NEVER experience vomiting etc. from exposure to phenoyethanol via a cosmetic, unless you try to eat it (then it won’t be phenoxyethanol causing the problems anyway!)