The Great Preservative Debate: Is Phenoxyethanol safe?

The Great Preservative Debate: Is Phenoxyethanol safe?

All personal care products that contain water need to be preserved so they don’t grow harmful organisms that can make you very sick. Phenoxyethanol is safer than parabens and is the best preservative currently available that has been scientifically proven to be effective and safe at low concentration levels. 

What is it?

Phenoxyethanol is a safer preservative alternative to parabens. It’s found in green tea in nature, but usually created in a lab for commercial products.

To be scientific...

Phenoxyethanol is created by treating phenol with ethylene oxide in an alkaline medium. Each ingredient individually sounds daunting, but when they react together, it creates a safe and effective preservative when used in low concentrations (<2.2%).

What does it do?

Kills bacteria, mold, fungus and other microbes.

Any personal care products that contain water are a breeding ground for nasty micro-organisms that can be harmful to your health. It’s a little scary...even if your product looks and smells all right, it may be riddled with bacteria or fungi that can make you very sick.

Preservatives that are proven to work are necessary for safety.

Why does Sheer Miracle use it?

We use phenoxyethanol because its safe and it works. Any of our products that have phenoxyethanol on the ingredient list contain <1%. Alternative preservatives include parabens and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives which research has shown may cause health risks. Tests on skin and eyes have shown phenoxyethanol is non-irritating at levels of 2.2% or less.

Contrary to a lot of hype on the web...

The European Union and Japan both approve its use in cosmetics up to 1%.  Phenoxyethanol has also gained approval by some very credible sources like the Handbook of Green Chemicals and Whole Foods Premium Body Care. Their standards are developed by scientists over years and are some of the strictest standards in personal care product ingredient safety.

What does EWG’s Skin Deep say?

The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database rates phenoxyethanol a 4 on their hazard scale (0 being the least hazardous to 10 being the most). Compare this with most parabens that rank a 7 or higher on EWG’s scale.

It’s important to remember that EWG's score is for the chemical itself in its most concentrated form, not for products containing that chemical. Since toxicity correlates to dosage, using such a material at the very low levels common for preservatives (phenoxyethanol's function in cosmetics) means that the actual risks presented by this material are very, very low. Because of the very low concentration of phenoxyethanol used in Sheer Miracle products, our finished products containing the preservative rate a 2 or lower on EWG’s hazard scale.

Why are we telling you this?

We occasionally have clients that are worried about phenoxyethanol’s safety because there’s a lot of online vilification of this ingredient. A quick Google search and you’ll find claims that it's a developmental and reproductive toxicant all the way to being a carcinogen.

Generally, most of the online fear mongering stems from poorly interpreted science.

The facts:

Most of the studies that have found significant negative health impacts are based on full-strength or high-dose exposures (i.e., people in lab or factory setting exposed to undiluted 100% phenoxyethanol daily for long periods of time).  In real life, usage exposures are extremely small. That’s why it’s approved at levels up to 1%.

What about the warnings on the MSDS?

Looking at the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for a pure ingredient can cause undo panic. Individually many chemicals can be harmful, but together they create a beneficial, safe product. For example, lye by itself is very dangerous, but when it reacts with oil and water it creates castile soap - one of the safest, most mild and harmless cleansers available.

The MSDS is intended to educate the end user on how to handle the ingredient safely in an undiluted form.

Myth busting:

This article by Dean Godfrey on debunks the hype and hysteria found on the web about phenoxyethanol: Which is Safer – Phenoxyethanol or Water? (Geek’s a little technical.) 

Bottom line:

All personal care products that contain water need a preservative to inhibit growth of harmful bacteria and fungi that can make you very ill. Phenoxyethanol is safer than parabens and is the current best preservative available that has been scientifically proven to be effective and safe. We use it to keep our products safe for our clients.


All this said, we acknowledge that phenoxyethanol may not be flawless, and we are constantly researching new, better and more natural preservative systems that are scientifically proven to work and render safe products.