What Is It?
Phenoxyethanol is an oily, slightly sticky liquid with a faint rose-like scent. It is used as a preservative in a wide variety of both leave-on and rinse-off cosmetics and personal care products, including skin care, eye makeup, fragrances, blushers, foundations, lipstick, bath soaps, and detergents, among others. Phenoxyethanol has been reviewed by experts worldwide who have concluded it is safe as used in these products.
Why is it used in cosmetics and personal care products?
Phenoxyethanol has been used safely since the 1950s as a preservative in cosmetics and personal care products. It is highly effective in preventing the growth of fungi, bacteria, and yeast that could cause products to spoil, just like food. The use of preservatives enhances products’ shelf life and safety.
Products that contain water are susceptible to mold, discoloration, or unpleasant odors caused by the bacteria and fungi naturally present in the environment. As cosmetics are used, they come in contact with the skin and applicators that contact the skin, thus potentially exposing the product to these harmful microorganisms.
Under certain conditions, an inadequately preserved product can become contaminated, which could cause health problems such as irritation or infection. Products contaminated by microorganisms may also negatively impact how the product performs, looks, feels, and smells. Preservatives like phenoxyethanol help prevent such problems.
The Importance of Preservatives
Phenoxyethanol is usually synthesized for commercial use but it can also be found naturally in materials such as green tea, which is often used to preserve products labeled as “natural.”
The safety profile of 2-phenoxyethanol has been extensively investigated in laboratory studies assessing the endpoints of single and repeated dose toxicity; genotoxicity (i.e., potential for damage to the genetic material of cells); reproductive toxicity; developmental toxicity (i.e., potential harm to developing fetus); skin irritation and sensitization (allergic skin reactions); skin penetration; and metabolism in the body. In addition, human clinical trials have evaluated its potential for irritation, sensitization, and phototoxicity. The following are summaries of some such assessments.
Phenoxyethanol was shown to be neither a primary nor cumulative skin irritant; it was neither classified as a skin sensitizer nor phototoxic. Test data showed phenoxyethanol was not genotoxic nor of concern for systemic toxicity. Therefore, it was concluded to be “safe as a cosmetic ingredient in the present practices of use and concentration,” generally < 1%.
In a 2007 review of phenoxyethanol, conducted to consider available new data, CIR reaffirmed the original “safe as used” conclusion.
European Union (EU)
Regulation (EC) No. 1223/2009 of the European Union names phenoxyethanol in the list of preservatives allowed in cosmetic products (Annex V, entry 29). The maximum concentration in ready-for-use preparations is 1.0%.
Myths and Facts
MYTH: The use of phenoxyethanol in cosmetics and personal care products can be harmful to babies.
FACT: The safety of phenoxyethanol, as used in cosmetics and personal care products, has been affirmed by authoritative scientific experts in both the United States and Europe. It is true, however, in 2008, the FDA warned consumers not to use or purchase one specific product because two of its ingredients (chlorphenesin and phenoxyethanol) reportedly could cause respiratory distress or vomiting and diarrhea in infants who might be exposed to it when nursing. While FDA had not received any reports of illness linked to the product, it was nevertheless removed voluntarily from the market.