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Phenoxyethanol is a widely used synthetic preservative that has global approval for use in all cosmetic products in concentrations up to 1%. Phenoxyethanol has become the new skincare ingredient 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. Still, parabens don’t have that property when they absorb into the 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 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 into 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 the 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 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 mould, which can negatively impact the skin. Ironically, 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 the skin, so natural preservatives aren’t a slam-dunk replacement for synthetics, not even close.