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Phenoxyethanol: Beauty's New Baddie or Last Hope?

Published November 12, 2021
Published November 12, 2021
Girl with red hat via Unsplash

It’s slightly ironic that a preservative, meant for enduring stability, could find itself in shaky territory. But alas, after parabens and palm oil, phenoxyethanol is the next p-ingredient under scrutiny.

Introduced in the 1950s, this clear liquid with a faint rose odor is used in everything from personal care to certain laundry detergents. It occurs naturally in green tea and chicory, but the lab-created version is a pH-balanced concoction of phenol and ethylene oxide, mixed in an alkaline medium. A 2017 study of personal care products found that 23.9% contained the ingredient. It’s listed in the Handbook of Green Chemicals, albeit a 2004 publication.

However, not all enterprises feel the same way. EWG gave it a 2-4 rating, putting it in the low-to-moderate hazard category. There have been reports of allergic reactions, irritation, and infant oral exposure proving particularly risky, with a warning issued for Mommy’s Bliss Nipple Cream. Beauty Heroes banned the use of the ingredient from the get-go. “It’s an ethoxylated ingredient, which means it goes through a chemical process that potentially could result in traces of 1.4 dioxane, a carcinogen, being present in it, so it’s a no-go for us. Also, phenoxyethanol is restricted in Japan and the EU for its use in cosmetics, which made it a clear ingredient we would avoid,“ the retailer’s founder, Jeannie Jarnot, tells Well Insiders. Clean beauty retailer Follain also followed suit. Sephora’s Clean + Planet Positive initiative restricts the use of the ingredient to 1% or less of the total formula (the same as used in EU formulations). “Increasing consumer desire for natural and organic products is being driven by several factors including a heightened focus on health and hygiene as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, an increased awareness of how product choices can impact the health of the environment, and tremendous advancements in the industry, so that consumers no longer must compromise on product performance or texture when choosing to go natural,” Monica Advani, Senior R&D Scientist at Cleanyst, and Reaghan Roche, Product Marketing Manager at Cleanyst, tell BeautyMatter.

“Preservative free is the worst thing you can do because you risk skin and eye infections. Clean beauty very quickly becomes dirty if you get fungus, mold, and bacteria in your product.”
By Dr. Ken Marenus, President, Independent Beauty Association

The US market for natural and organic personal care products is predicted to reach $23.6 billion by 2027, and for many of these brands the term preservative free is worn as a badge of honor. Science tells another story. “Preservative free is the worst thing you can do because you risk skin and eye infections. Clean beauty very quickly becomes dirty if you get fungus, mold, and bacteria in your product,” comments Dr. Ken Marenus, President at Independent Beauty Association, who previously served as Senior Vice President Regulatory Affairs / Product Integrity at Estée Lauder. “Phenoxyethanol is probably our last, best preservative. There aren't a lot of others on the horizon, mainly because commercially the ingredient manufacturers don't want to go through the trouble of getting them all approved in the United States.”

While there are slim pickings when it comes to alternatives, product developers have found a workaround in some instances. Cleanyst uses plant-based preservative boosters to complement and reduce the level of traditional preservatives required in its products. The company also discloses ingredient purposes, sources, and feedstock for increased transparency. All products and packaging are USDA Certified Biobased. “As a chemist, I do love this material [phenoxyethanol] as it is easy to use. As a consumer, I err on the side of caution, as the last thing you want is product liability and the possibility of needing to reformulate anything,” comments Ginger King, product developer and CEO of Grace Kingdom Beauty. She uses Geoguard Ultra (a blend of gluconolactone and sodium benzoate) as an alternative in clean beauty formulation.

Ensuring a safe product doesn’t end with the ingredients. “Preservatives are 'system’ dependent. If you have more yummy stuff like proteins or lots of available water content, your products are more likely to be attacked with microbials,” King explains. “One misconception a lot of people, especially the DIY beauty makers have, is that they put in a preservative and call it a day. It is not enough. The formulation must be sent for a micro challenge test.” Preservative efficacy tests, whereby a preservative-filled formula is infected with bacteria like staph, E. coli, and other strains to see how fast the formulation can kill them, are a crucial step.

It is wise to skip the heavy artillery though: more isn’t always better when it comes to preservatives. High levels of preservatives can sting or burn the skin, or form little crystals within the product. “It's always a case of using the least amount of preservative you possibly can. With a 1% limit, usually the formulas contain 0.1% or 0.2%. Because there is such low concentration, even if you use multiple products a day, you aren’t going to reach the limits that are set for these products,” Dr. Marenus explains, in reference to studies which state that product chemicals can enter the bloodstream. “If you use 10 products a day in the same spot, maybe you’re going to reach that limit, but probably not. The limits are set by the governments, based on the toxicological and safety data they've collected over the years. And those limits are well beyond what's normally used,” he adds. One also needs to take into consideration the risks of chemical absorption versus the application of bacteria-infested products.

Nonetheless, in 2014, the use of isopropylparaben, isobutylparaben, phenylparaben, benzylparaben, and pentylparaben were banned by the EU. But not all members of the paraben family should be painted with the same brush. “The parabens story got some bad press because of the public outcry, what we call toxicology by mob,” Dr. Marenus explained. Still, the ingredients had to be replaced in new formulations, which is where the two alternatives of Kathon CG and phenoxyethanol came into play. The former, a combination of methylchloroisothiazolinone and methylisothiazolinone with a maximum use level of 0.1%, is a biodegradable preservative predominantly used in shampoos, conditioners, and shower gels. Unfortunately, Kathon CG had not been tested on a wide spectrum of leave-on products. “Sometimes there's a threshold where things just don't show up until it gets in broad circulation,” Dr. Marenus explains. While the preservative caused no issue in rinse-off products, other applications produced allergic contact dermatitis, resulting in Kathon CG being pulled from shelves and replaced with phenoxyethanol shortly thereafter.

With no identical preservative on the horizon, although product developers are finding alternative routes of ensuring safe products, it’s safe to say we haven’t seen the last of phenoxyethanol. “Beauty is like fashion, so when there are extremes, they turn the other way. Everything is natural-driven until people start to complain about products not working. Then they will go back to synthetic materials with guaranteed product performance, as when it comes to nature, you can not predict the level of quality of each crop,” King states. High safety standards, adequate studies and research, as well as debunking common myths, remain crucial. Perhaps a cosmetic chemist may be working on a phenoxyethanol alternative at this very moment. But until said release, product developers and lab technicians need to work with the tools at their disposal. For consumers and brand owners, the decision of including or banning the ingredient from their products remains a personal choice—but in order to create an atmosphere of fair judgement, clear cases need to be presented from both sides.


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