What is Phenoxyethanol? The Real Story
I am occasionally asked why Organic Moon uses phenoxyethanol as a preservative in many of our “natural” products, when phenoxyethanol is a synthetic compound. We are always on the hunt for a better preservative, but it must be as robust as phenoxyethanol; meaning it must have the ability to give a shelf life of longer than 1 year, it must be able to work synergistically with other ingredients, and it must not be odor-offensive. Price is another thing to consider; broad spectrum preserving options generally require a lot higher concentration than the 1% that phenoxyethanol is used at.
What is Phenoxyethanol? Phenoxyethanol can be found naturally in green tea, but the commercial ingredient is synthetically produced in a laboratory creating what’s termed a “nature identical” chemical. Specifically, it’s created by treating phenol with ethylene oxide in an alkaline medium which all reacts to form a pH-balanced ingredient. (See our article Skin pH to understand why pH levels are important.)
What does it do? Fights bacteria. Most personal care products are made with a lot of water and a variety of nutrients (consider all the natural oils and botanicals in Organic Moon products!) without a preservative it would be an incredibly hospitable breeding ground for microorganisms. What’s worse – the product might smell and look just fine but be swarming with bacteria or fungi that are dangerous to your health. Effective preservatives are vital for ensuring safety! (Read more at Bacteria, Mold and Yeast – Oh My!)
Why do we use it? We use phenoxyethanol in a very low concentration as a preservative many of our products because the most accessible alternatives for these types of formulas include parabens and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives, which we will not use as both of those classes of chemicals have demonstrable evidence of potential health risks, whereas phenoxyethanol is very safe at low levels.
I always recommend looking at the science because it is unbiased and based solely on fact. There is so much fear mongering out there on the internet and fear is ofttimes generated from lack of information. Here in the USA, we have the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) council. They state that phenoxyethanol “undiluted, it is a strong eye irritant but not irritating when diluted at 2.2% and that the CIR concludes that it is safe as a cosmetic ingredient as currently used. The European Union and Japan both approve its use up to the 1% level, and our use of it falls within or below the 1%.
Phenoxyethanol doesn’t react with other ingredients, air, or light. This kind of stability makes it an especially effective preservative.
What’s more, it’s included in the Handbook of Green Chemicals and is also Whole Foods Premium Body Care approved. And, their standards, developed by a team of scientists over the course of years, are some of the strictest available. These two credible sources give it a thumbs-up.
Why are we talking about this? There’s quite a bit of online controversy about its safety from those who don’t fully understand the science about it. You’ll find it being mentioned as everything from a developmental and reproductive toxicant to being linked to cancer. Fundamentally, it’s poorly interpreted science.
Here’s the real deal: The studies that have found significant negative health impacts were based on full-strength or high-dose exposures. In real life usage, exposures are quite minimal. That’s why it’s safely approved at levels up to 1%. It’s all about the final formulation.
Think of it like a cupcake recipe. You wouldn’t want to eat a mouthful of salt, or raw egg, or flour, or probably any other ingredient that goes into a cupcake. (Not only would it taste disgusting, eating a bunch of salt or raw eggs could make you sick!) But mixed in just the right amounts, baked just the right way, a cupcake is divine. That’s the magic of chemistry! Product formulations work the same way.
Given all this, we recognize that phenoxyethanol isn’t perfect, and we are testing a natural chelator with all the formulations to try to find a replacement. It’s the spirit of the company and our commitment to you, to always try to do better!
Have any other questions or concerns about phenoxyethanol? We’re happy to hear them and help you better understand this ingredient!
Until next time, remember “Your Skin Deserves Love Too!”
International Journal of Toxicology Final Report on the Safety Assessment of Phenoxyethanol
CIR Safety Review: The CIR Expert Panel reviewed safety data on Phenoxyethanol and noted that it was practically nontoxic via oral and dermal administration.