The Great Debate: Phenoxyethanol

Last week we were asked in the comments to explain our stance on phenoxyethanol after it showed up in a product in our Friday Deal. First, full transparency: We didn’t realize that phenoxyethanol was in this product until after the post went up. It was an oversight due to some excitement and haste on our part and being mere mortals, we messed up. It’s not to say we wouldn’t have done the post anyway—but we should have combed the ingredients list first, just like we always do, and included a mention of its presence in the post. At the same time, we’re not losing sleep over it either. In a second we’ll tell you why.

What is phenoxyethanol? It’s an ingredient that is now ubiquitous in cosmetics. It’s often used as an alternative to parabens (there is a great piece—and debate—about it over here, at Truth in Aging), it gets a 4 on Skin Deep, and it’s on our list of 20 ingredients in the book to avoid. The data about its safety is conflicting, because data about these things is always conflicting, but we’re of the mind that in general, the ingredient should be taken out of products. While many clean companies initially thought it was a safe replacement for other preservatives, they later found out it wasn’t so clean after all. So what to do?

In the book we put this ingredient on our black list. But we’d like to quote the book directly here to remind everyone of our philosophy on such matters. Here’s how we prefaced the black-list section:

“We’ve included [this list] here for quick reference, but remember this: not all ingredients are created equal, so use that logical mind of yours. If several of these are showing up on a bottle, you can write the brand off with confidence. If just one appears on an otherwise clean list, then head to Skin Deep for the better picture, or call the company directly to ask them about it.”

One thing we have tried to avoid like the plague is extremism. Another thing we avoid: Picking fights, in-fighting in the natural beauty world, and finger pointing. For us, there’s a gigantic difference between companies that are greenwashing and companies that have one or two questionable ingredients in otherwise clean formulations. Some of our favorite companies still use it in certain formulations—like eye pencils, for instance, or other makeup—but not in other products, and literally all our favorite retailers carry brands that use phenoxyethanol—if not the actual product that contains it (and kudos if you’re being that strict!). But this is to say, the ingredient is still very popular in naturals! But it’s on its way out, and we are very, very happy about that.

So our stance is this: We want ALL clean companies to take it out. We also understand that this can’t happen overnight. Many of these companies have worked really hard to put out clean products, and reformulating is a tall and expensive order. Like we said, we avoid it. But we’re not about to throw the baby (or, um, natural beauty company) out with the bathwater.

As for Juice Beauty, they’ve been actively working with their lab to take it out for some time now, and it’s not in any of their new products. They’re also updating their site to feature full ingredient lists.

Another brand we like, Rare Elements—which uses it in its shampoo, but not in its conditioner, which we do use—is also working on taking it out. Owner John Amato explained to us that when he decided to use it, it was still considered safe, but that he’s spent the last two years now trying to reformulate the shampoo without it.

So for us, for now, we are going to judge its use on a case by case basis. Like we wrote in the book, we think there’s a logical way to approach this stuff that encourages progress. And we are ALL about progress.

So now we want to hear from you: Is phenoxyethanol a deal breaker? Is a company’s transparency enough for you to support a brand that uses it—and there are many more that use it, other than the ones we have named here—or do you look for perfectly clean products?

Let the debate begin!

81 Responses to “The Great Debate: Phenoxyethanol”
  1. Bann says:

    I appreciate the infomation shared on this topic. It seems like its 50 of one and a 1/2 doz. of another. I know of a well know bath and body company that used no preservatives when they started, but they would include an expiration date. Now, that they have blown up tremendously, they are using preservatives in their products. In order to protect themselves and lessen liabilities, they chose to do this. I think many people, especially small crafts people are concerned about this. You can tell your customers not to put the products near water, but lets face it, many of these products end up in the bathroom. I look forward to checking in on this discussion from time to time. I’ve learned a lot. Thanks so much.

  2. Monica says:

    Japen has banned this product and the parabens , well there is not one shread of evidence that it causes cancer. The study which was a false positive. All the petri dishes where possitive. including the blanks. So how is that proof that it is not good. I would stick with parabens.It has been used for 90 years. That means we all woudl be dead. They have done study after study and they can find the link, Just that they are present. They are natural in our foods and I think it is Americans without knowlege once again. People need to do more research, not just a guess at the findings.

  3. Liz says:

    Interesting read on Phenoxyethanol. A brand, Omorovicza uses this in many of their products and although they have lovely skin care formulas-I hesitate to continue purchasing. It seems that each time a reformulation of many products occur, the replacement ingredient soon becomes as bad as the replaced ingredient. Not sure what to do when searching for good tinted moisturizers, concealers all-the-while keeping in mind moisture/hydration is key for aging skin…it’s a jungle out there.

  4. Jane says:

    I’m sorry ladies, but I have to protest – because you do talk so much myth and BS!!

    Look, it’s really very simple.

    For some completely unknown reason, we like lotions and products that contain water. Yes, that includes aloe vera (which is probably about 98% water), for anyone who wasn’t entirely clear on that.

    Anything that contains water is prone to microbial growth. That means that bacteria, viruses, and fungi (moulds and yeasts) can grow in it VERY VERY EASILY. Some only need a bit of sunlight. Some love sugar – enter aloe vera – which is largely made up of polysaccharides – which is actually what’s so beneficial about it – but the bacteria are going to have an eating and growing frenzy.

    We have also been trained by the industrial complex to expect our products to last months at ambient temperatures.

    Well, this leads to a bit of dilemma. Because even water that you keep in your fridge should be thrown out after a couple of days.

    Quite simply, any water based product (including lotions and creams which are simply emulsions of water and oil) needs adequate preservation to inhibit microbial growth. Either that, or you only keep it for a week and keep it in the fridge. Without proper preservation you risk the product developing dangerous levels of bacteria and/or moulds that could make you ill or even blind you. And, as others have mentioned, you won’t necessarily see these microbes, so it’s not as though you can protect yourself by keeping an eye on your products.

    I’d like to contrast this with oils, as so many people seem to be confused about this. Oils do not develop bacterial or mould growth as far as I know. They can, however, oxidise. This is when they “go off” or become “rancid”. They probably won’t do you any harm if rancid, but they certainly won’t do you any good. Oils are most commonly preserved with Vitamin E – it has anti-oxidant properties and extends shelf-life. So, next time you see a product claiming extra benefits from the vitamin E they added, know that they really did it to extend shelf life.

    To summarise – water based product needs a broad-spectrum preservative (aka microbe disrupter) and oil based product just need an anti-oxidant to extend it’s shelf life.

    If you consider that a preservative in this context needs to disrupt cells sufficiently in order to prevent their proliferation (aka kill them), then it’s not that much of a mind-bend to figure that said preservatives are probably not going to be that friendly towards your skin cells. If that logic is true most of the time, then it stands to reason that NO preservative is going to be healthy or good for you. Whether it’s naturally sourced or synthetically made. And by the way, the distinction if probably erroneous anyway – it really doesn’t matter that much whether a chemical is natural or man-made. Everything can be described as a chemical, so how it got here perhaps doesn’t matter so much, unless it’s with other chemicals that add adaptogenic properties or buffering.

    Given all of the above, I have actually avoided making products with water phases for this very reason. No preservative is ever going to be good for you. And, I wouldn’t mind the complaining about phenoxyethanol if anyone had a good substitute. I don’t want to use it either, frankly! But is there anything better?

    At the end of the day, it’s a simple trade-off. If you want water based products, you need a pretty harsh broad spectrum anti-microbial (aka preservative) if you don’t want to get sick OR you need to be prepared to store your products in the fridge. If none of that appeals, then you need to use oil/fats products only.

    I have gone for using oil based products only (plus liquid castile soaps), except for a bit of aloe gel. I don’t like that my aloe gel is laced with weird sounding chemicals, but I’ve tried using raw aloe off my plants and it’s a pain in the butt plus it doesn’t seem to absorb into my skin that well.

    So, let’s take a reasoned and educated approach. :-)

  5. Whispering Wind says:

    Definitely a DEAL BREAKER! I refuse to use ANYTHING that will harm me. Most of the things that harm us are consumed through our skin. If I break my neck to eat healthy, why would I let my skin eat something that might change my dna? If a company is trying to change the ingredient, I’ll stick with the company, but if I see harmful products in a “clean” company, then I usually just start making that product myself without the garbage. I even started making my own makeup! This article actually made me aware of the companies’ dilemma once they realize their product contains poison. For now on I will call the company and speak to a rep first before I boycott them!!!!!

  6. youshouldseewhatitdidtomyface says:

    Until you have dealt with six months of medically tested contact dermatitis on your face (and it’s still not better), steroids injections, steroid shots, immune modulators, topical steroids to try to recover from this, you may not understand. But, it is not safe and horrifyingly for me, it seems to be everywhere.

  7. Lee says:

    So, please tell us of a safer preservative to be used in makeup. What do you suggest? Should there be no preservatives? What about shelf life? What about bacteria? What would protect us from infection?

  8. k says:

    I have to avoid it i am allergic to phenoxyethenol. It not only causes a burning sensation in the sensitive areas of my body but causes my contact dermatitis to flare up to the point where skin flakes off. To make it worse alot of medical creams and washes designed to be used to treat these skin conditions contain it. Avoid a brand called Doublebase because all its products contain it. I found The Body shop the safest products to use if you have skin issues. Hope this helps xx

  9. Janet says:

    I regret that I suffered so long before a stranger told me about Phenoxyethanol! For months I had severe eye discomfort (feels like pink eye), and contact dermatitis…even though I was using all organic products. Turns out it was in all my make-up and hair products. Unfortunately eliminating Phenoxyethanol leaves us very few options.

  10. Joan says:

    I just found this phenoxyethanol in a Redken mascara so I won’t be using it

  11. Rebecca says:

    Phenoxyethanol is injected internally (with ‘antibodies’) in routine vaccinations, as is polysorbate 80 along with aluminium and other chemicals. These chemicals might be bad in cosmetics and skin care, but injected interally? Really?

  12. Rachel says:

    I’ve been doing bunches of research and it seems to me like asking to take it out may be a bit premature after reading this blog post by the Honest Company I noticed BeautyCounter, one of the cleanest companies around also uses phenoxyethanol (ex:… I’d love your thoughts!

  13. WriterDesigner says:

    I’m not positive phenoxythanol is the culprit, but it is the only common ingredient in several face creams I’ve tried that are supposed to be “clean” bought at Whole Foods or Dr. Sears, or Derma-e. I’m trying to get along with only my own blend of what’s on hand in the kitchen (raw coconut oil, olive oil, honey, C, A, E, and so on) but it’s not the same as having an effective cream, though it does keep dryness away. My problem with these creams is that I immediately get severe congestion, and can’t get my breath. One Derma-e product left me gasping for three hours, literally, even after I washed it off. I guess parabens are bad, keep reading it, but I did not have this reaction to them that I’m having now. If it’s used as a preservative, there are many natural ones such as GSE, vitamins E and C, even honey and coconut oil are antimicrobial. So I don’t see why phenoxythanol is necessary in the first place. But believe me, losing your breath is scary.

  14. Gis says:

    All cosmetics that contain water e.g. Creams. lotions, shampoo, underarm deodorant, etc require a preservative. Only products that are all oil or butter do not need preservatives and can have a shelf life of 12-24 months. Use a face oil instead of a face cream, you are paying too much for the up to 70% of cream that is water. Deodorant is terrible for you. The pores under your arms are big, and sensitive to many chemicals. You can make your own very effective deodorant; 1 part baking soda, 2 parts cornstarch and 3 parts coconut oil. Simple effective and completely safe.

    Educate yourself on preservatives, remember preservatives are designed to kill bactiria, mold and other dangerous microbes. And although that is a good thing, we too are living things and so preservatives can hurt us as well. Don’t listen to the cosmetic companies, all they want is money and your health is easily sacrificed by them to achieve this.

  15. yvonne says:

    I just used, for the first time, a lanolin eye cream made by Wild Ferns of New Zealand. Sold as being 100% natural ingredients, with no parabens. However is does contain phenoxyethanol. I have never had an allergic reaction to any skin product and have been using different ones for over 30 years, during that time I’m sure I must have used products containing phenoxyethanol being as it is used in most skin care products.
    However,I’m wondering if these Wild Ferns ‘made from home’ products are going through the proper safety testing channels, and whether they might put too much phenoxyethonol in their products, as when I used their eye cream, for the first time, within 10 minutes, my whole eye area was bright red, stinging, burning and swelling up!!! I removed it immediately and spent at least 24 hours applying lotion from my GP to sooth the area and treat the swelling!!!
    The product does not recommend an allergy test or even hint that it might give an allergic reaction – Well THAT needs to change and they should be MADE to put warnings on their products at the very least!!

  16. Fatima says:


    I’d just like to reply to a few of the comments on here that just seem outrageous. There’s a lot of fear-mongering that goes on in the online communities surrounding preservatives and if I can help clarify, I will!
    1. nothing you put on your skin is going to change your DNA.
    2. It’s completely false to think that a high amount of what is placed on our skin actually makes it into our blood streams. If that was the case, companies would be making a hell of a lot more effective products :) that would be a dream come true for home formulators as well!
    3. preservatives are used in SUPER low concentrations, usually at half a percent. In a 100g tub of cream, that’s less than 1 gram. Less than one gram of a preservative so that you can get the benefits of a cream that will last and probably deliver a lot of benefits.
    4. Tea tree oil, Grapefruit seed oil, coconut oil, vitamin E are NOT preservatives. They will not do anything at all to preserve a product with water in it! There’s a lot to it, but thats the important thing to take from this.
    5. There is actually a lot of evidence that suggests this preservative isn’t actually bad. People having reactions aren’t having reactions because this is a bad chemical (it’s actually found naturally in green tea), they’re reacting because they are allergic to it.

    I hope that clarifies things for people. It’s not worth chucking a perfectly find product away because of this.

  17. Carol says:

    In response to Fatima’s comment about high amounts of things that are put on your skin not being absorbed, this is totally incorrect. Cosmetic companies know that ingredients are absorbed. The reason that they don’t produce products with active ingredients that rely on absorption to be effective is because these products would then be classed as a drug, not a cosmetic product, and the cosmetic company would, by law, not be allowed to market and sell it.
    Many medicines rely on absorption through the skin and many of them are applied in minute amounts, such as drugs that are delivered using small patches, that are very common now. Gels containing drugs such as ibuprofen, for local pain relief, are absorbed systemically (as is everything that we put on our skin) and can cause the same side-effects, such as stomach irritation, as the versions that are taken orally.
    As for products on the skin not changing our DNA, there are many products, particularly used in industry, that have to be prevented from both short and long-term skin exposure as they are known to cause cancer and people who work with them have to wear protective clothing. There is currently some debate as to whether the higher rates of skin cancer that we are seeing is actually due to sun exposure, which is known to lower rates of some cancers elsewhere in the body, or whether it is actually the sun-screens that we apply to our skin that are causing it.

  18. Sandra says:

    Is Phenoxyethanol the same as PEG (for example Copolyol) ???

    Thanks for Info.

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