The Skinny on Phenoxyethanol (and How to Pronounce It)
Dec 21, 2018
You’ve probably heard of parabens. But have you heard of phenoxyethanol (fee-no-oxy-ethanol)? It’s being touted as parabens’ cleaner alternative and is a super buzzy topic in the clean beauty world right now. But is it safe? Are there risks? Here’s what you need to know!
So, what is phenoxyethanol anyway?
In cosmetics, phenoxyethanol is a chemical used mostly as a preservative to prevent bacterial growth, and fixative. It’s found in makeup like mascara, lipstick, eyeshadow, eyeliner, lip gloss, concealer, and BB cream, to name a few. You can also find it in other settings used as an insect repellent, antiseptic, and solvent.
Phenoxyethanol has gained popularity recently as a response to fears about parabens, which are also used as preservatives. Phenoxyethanol doubles as a highly effective and affordable alternative, which means it’s an attractive solution especially for less expensive formulations. It’s also biodegradable, so it doesn’t build up in the environment and harm nature and wildlife like some other chemicals .
Like many chemicals, it occurs naturally in the environment (including in green tea!), but the ingredient used in cosmetics is made synthetically in a lab  by treating the chemical phenol with ethylene oxide. 🤓
Can phenoxyethanol affect my health?
There’s been extensive research into whether phenoxyethanol is safe for human health – and the main emerging concern is that it can cause skin irritation for those sensitive to it . Skin irritation doesn’t pose a long-term health concern, but it definitely is uncomfortable! This can be an especially significant issue if you’re using several products with phenoxyethanol instead of just one or two.
If you’ve learned about phenoxyethanol from other sources, you might’ve noticed some people worried it causes bigger problems, like neurological issues and nervous system damage. While it’s true that in large doses, phenoxyethanol has had those effects in some animal studies, plenty of ingredients – including vitamins and minerals – can cause serious harm in big quantities.
The Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR), an expert panel on cosmetic ingredient safety, issued a final report on the safety of phenoxyethanol concluding that it’s safe in concentrations of 1% or less, which is how it’s used in most cases these days.
How do I get exposed? How much exposure is harmful?
There are three main ways to get exposed when using products with phenoxyethanol:
- Skin absorption – when you apply makeup topically
- Inhalation – for example, in the case of applying a perfume that uses phenoxyethanol as a fixative
- Ingestion – when you consume a product like a lipstick or lip gloss, for example
In terms of how much exposure might be harmful, the CIR has concluded that phenoxyethanol is safe for long-term use in concentrations of 1% or less. In 2006, the FDA conducted a voluntary survey looking into how much phenoxyethanol is being used in formulations, and of the 2,550 products surveyed, 100% included phenoxyethanol in concentrations of 1% or less . So, your overall exposure over time will likely be pretty low.
Does the FDA regulate the use of phenoxyethanol in cosmetics?
FDA research has found that companies are already using phenoxyethanol in a safe way (in levels under 1%). And because of the chemical structure of phenoxyethanol and how it interacts with other compounds, it works best in formulations under 1% regardless.
The E.U. and Japan both limit how much phenoxyethanol can be used in makeup.
NakedPoppy bottom line: while the vast majority of our products don’t contain phenoxyethanol, we don’t ban it
As you know, we’re obsessed with bringing you the cleanest, most fabulous makeup out there – and after in-depth conversations with our very picky PhD scientists, we’ve concluded that phenoxyethanol is safe for use in concentrations under 1%.
Also, since it’s so important for makeup to be well-preserved, this isn’t one of those ingredients we’d ban simply because there’s been public debate about it. As always, we constantly monitor the latest science – so if anything changes on this front, which we don’t expect, we’ll keep you posted.
Very few NakedPoppy products contain phenoxyethanol, so when you wear NakedPoppy makeup you can be confident that you probably won’t be exposed to very much of it.
Let us know in the comments: what are your reactions to this information about phenoxyethanol?
- Detergents ingredients database – EU Ecolabel: http://ec.europa.eu/environment/ecolabel/documents/DID%20List%20PART%20A%202016%20FINAL.pdf
- PubChem compound summary for phenoxyethanol: https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/2-phenoxyethanol#section=Top
- Final report on the safety of phenoxyethanol: http://www.nononsensecosmethic.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/phenoxyethanol-cir-final-report.pdf
- 2006 CIR review of products that contain phenoxyethanol: https://online.personalcarecouncil.org/ctfa-static/online/lists/cir-pdfs/PR609.pdf