Phenoxyethanol

This is part of our ongoing series helping consumers better understand chemicals, chemistry, and product formulations. We translate the science, bust the myths, and give you an honest assessment, so you can make informed choices for your family!

Ingredient: Phenoxyethanol

What it is: 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.

What it does: Fights bacteria. Most personal care products are made with a lot of water and a variety of nutrients (consider all of the natural oils and botanicals in Honest products!) which makes 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!

Why we use it: We use phenoxyethanol in a very low concentration as a preservative in 5 of our products (Stain Remover, Multi-Surface Spray, Dish Soap, Hand Soap & Laundry Detergent) because the most accessible alternatives for these types of formulas include parabens and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives. Both are classes of chemicals with demonstrable evidence of potential health risks, whereas phenoxyethanol is very safe at low levels. It’s been tested on the skin and eyes and it is non-irritating and non-sensitizing at levels of 2.2% or lower while being effective at only 1% concentrations. The European Union and Japan both approve its use up to that 1% level and our formulas fall well below the recommendation at 0.5% or less (depending on the specific product).

Even better, 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. If these two credible sources give it a thumbs-up, we do, too.

Why we’re featuring it today: We regularly hear from customers concerned about this ingredient because there’s quite a bit of online controversy about its safety.  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: Most of the studies that have found significant negative health impacts are based on full-strength or high-dose exposures. In real life usage, exposures are quite small. That’s why it’s 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.

We’d like to point out a study that helped inform our decision to use it – a study conducted on pre-term newborn babies finding a phenoxyethanol-based antiseptic as the preferred, gentle formula that’s quickly metabolized by even a premature baby’s system.

Now, we’re not trying to write-off our customers concerns about this ingredient – honestly, it’s not perfect, but there are not many preservatives that are.  Even alcohol can be harsh and has it’s limitations.

Given all this, we recognize that phenoxyethanol isn’t perfect, and we are actually already trying to find a replacement. It’s the spirit of the company and our commitment to you, to always try to do better!

We certainly stand behind the safety of our products, but we know there’s always room for improvement and we take all of our customers’ feedback and concerns to heart.

Have any other questions or concerns about phenoxyethanol? We’re happy to hear them and help you better understand this ingredient!

Learn more: