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!

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  • VK

    Nice honest article (a couple of instances of it’s being confused with its- just thought I’d let you know in a friendly way!)

  • RE

    Can you use this product on HE machines?

  • mominala

    the referenced Final Report on the Safety Assessment of Phenoxyethanol is dated 1990. could there be newer references we can review?

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  • Nick Bro

    Tagged

  • pk

    “The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) data sheets show chromosomal changes and genetic mutation effects in testing as well as testicular atrophy and interference with reproductivity in mice.” says Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phenoxyethanol

    • Care

      “or other Glycol Ethers, although Phenoxyethanol is not mentioned in the abstract.[11]” This is the rest of that sentence. There is no period after the word ‘mice.” This statement was not in reference to Phenoxyethanol.

    • SUPRA luca

      The whole sentence is:
      “The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) data sheets show chromosomal
      changes and genetic mutation effects in testing as well as testicular
      atrophy and interference with reproductivity in mice for other glycol
      ethers, although phenoxyethanol is not mentioned in the abstract.”

  • Johan A.

    @pk The EPA abstract does not mention Phenoxyethanol, only other glycol ethers, and there is also a question of dose levels. Phenoxyethanol is GRAS in the whole world at levels below 1%.

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  • Ahmed

    hi, i purchased enlargement cream which ingredient are Phenoxyethanol, water, glycol stearate SE, isopropyl myristate, fenugreek oil, allantoin vitamine A, gragrance, i want to know can i use it .
    thx

  • none

    It is not found in green tea. This is a lie. It is a completely synthetic chemical. The Honest Co is not honest at all! I will not be purchasing your products.

    • Summr

      Wow. I’d like to suggest you do a little research (and investigate your sources) before making ignorant statements. Though I do concede it is becoming increasingly difficult to find truth and reputable info these days. Can’t even trust the word “organic” anymore. However, phenoxyethanol is in fact found, naturally, in green tea. This company makes no claim they use plant based phenoxyethanol. That is made clear in the article. I for one appreciate there candor.

      And no, I do not have any ties to this company nor have I ever purchased anything from them. Happened upon the article quite by accident, never been here before.

    • Cute Mikey

      You need to read carefully before ranting. The blog clearly says that is a synthetic form of something found in green tea. Are you claiming that the two are not bio-identical with the same pharmacokinetics? Seriously, do some research and read CAREFULLY.

  • Erika Summers

    The issue is, many products contain it so it’s not such a low does anymore. Just like 1 cupcake isn’t so bad but a dozen is!

  • Christina

    I like that you are trying to educate people about ingredients. I am not currently using any of your products but found your blog while doing research on phenoxyethanol and other possible allergens. I have been experiencing strange allergic reactions to something in the products that I am using. Out of the eight products sitting here on my desk that I am using everyday…5 of them contain phenoxyethanol. These are on my skin and in my hair everyday. 3 of them are from the same company and I purchased them thinking that they were more natural, organic, non-gmo and made with plant based ingredients therefore more healthy. Individually it would seem they are…but I am beginning to see that my exposure is much greater than I could have imagined. Wishing you all the best.

  • Angela Henderson
  • anohkos

    so you’re basically saying having poison in our bodies is ok if it does not ecxeed 1% of any given product we use? Your articles are misleading and dangerous, please do the appropriate HONEST research!

    • pk

      Stain Remover, Multi-Surface Spray, Dish Soap, Hand Soap & Laundry Detergent? Unless you are using dish or hand soap all over your body, everyday – I think you are gonna be fine with this being in your stain remover and laundry detergent. Don’t worry!

    • Cute Mikey

      Wrong. What it’s saying is that it’s NOT a poison at very low levels. That’s true of many substances including vitamins and minerals. You need to read up on toxicology and pharmacology before ranting. While you’re at it, read up on how our kidneys detoxifies continuously.

  • Joyce

    Oh no! More stuff to stress about…lol! I’m already afraid of what I’m putting in my body…now I have to worry about what I put on the outside of it, too…

  • Judy Grupido

    Dear honestly, Please do your research before you “Honestly Blog” about something. Everyone would appreciate it.
    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.
    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.

    • Michelle Harmond

      what are you complaining about when both you and Honest Company are saying the same thing — that it’s a safe preservative especially at such low percentages? Am I missing something?

    • Cute Mikey

      What are you talking about? You’re basically repeating what the blog says.

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  • AJ

    I WAS TURNED OFF WHEN I READ THE LABEL AND PHEN-OXYEN-THANOL, AND THATS BEFORE I JOINED THE HONESTLY FAN CLUB AND THREW AWAY ALL MY GREEN TEA. SO REALISTICALLY PEOPLE ARENT READING THE WAY ITS SPELLED OUT HERE, AS A COMPLETELY LOOSE ISOLATE CHAIN READY FOR ANYTHING, LOL.

    • Paul

      Threw away all green tea? Why?

  • SR

    I hate to hear “a little bit won’t hurt you”! Why not just add smoking for hmmm lets say a year, to the list, and say “a little bit won’t hurt you”. Makes me angry. This chemical can cause brain and nervous system damage. If claim you’re an “honest company” that’s products are natural, consumers should be able to trust that. Angry and disappointed consumer.

    • BRUNA

      I’M A LITTLE DISAPPOINTED TOO. BECAUSE I AM TIRED TO READ LABELS.
      THE BLOG SAYS THAT THE PHENOXY…DOESN’T REACT WITH OTHER INGREDIENTS BUT THE WEBSITE OF FDA SAYS THE OPPOSITE.

      “The two potentially harmful ingredients in Mommy’s Bliss Nipple Cream are chlorphenesin and phenoxyethanol, which may interact with one another to further increase the risk of slow or shallow breathing (respiratory depression) in nursing infants.”

      please , if we are interest only in quality, why honest company needs to use this ingredient in some products?

    • Cute Mikey

      Do some thinking before you rant.
      1) Does smoking have any benefits? This chemical is used for a reason. You’re comparing apples and oranges.
      2) Do some reading on how substances are absorbed into the skin vs how is absorbed into the lungs. And how the kidneys detoxifies. Are you seriously claiming that smoking has the same pharmacokinetics as this preservative?
      3) If you’re sick of hearing, “a little bit won’t hurt you,” you’re obviously ignorant of Phase I and Phase II clinical trials by the FDA, where our goal is to determine safety levels (I’m a Medical Research Analyst). The fact is, virtually all substances have a toxicity or harmful level, including calcium, vitamin D and zinc. Indeed, over 60,000 cases of vitamin toxicity is reported to the government annually.

      The fact is, our body detoxifies itself continously. If you don’t exceed the recommended dose, you’re fine. And note that we set these safety levels at way lower than the minimal dangerous level, meaning that if you exceed it occasionally, you should still be fine (assuming you’re healthy).

      Instead of being angry, maybe you should try being educated. Consult the FDA and a physician instead of making assumptions. And learn about the clinical trials process and how dose escalation works.

      • Alice Lind

        If feeling like someone threw acid on your skin, getting rashes or even wounds (by products containing less than 1%) is your definition of fine, then yes absolutely, phenoxyethanol is “fine”.
        Because that’s what happens to me when coming in contact with anything containing it.

        • Ryan Becker

          So what? It sounds like you have an allergy or intolerance to the chemical. How does that impact the general public, which is what clinical risks and safety profiles are about. My neighbor has a peanut allergy. Her anaphylactic reaction is MUCH WORSE than anything you described. In fact, it’s live threatening. Did that mean peanuts are harmful, toxic or not fine for most of the population? Sorry but Honest doesn’t custom make products just for you. It looks at the medical literature and research says it’s fine for most people, so there’s no reason not to use it if the benefits outweigh the risk. And to me, a mild temporary reaction for a few people doesn’t outweigh the benefit of not having bacteria in my skin care products. If it bothers you, don’t use it. But don’t extrapolate your personal experience to make it unavailable for everyone else. That’s the definition of arrogance and selfishness.

          • HD

            Not so simple! And would you go out of your way to expose your neighbor to peanuts? This is a common allergen, and can be quite severe. Moreover, phenoxyethanol and similar synthetics are found in nearly everything on the shelves. I know this because I have to read ingredients of all products before I can come in contact, and must create many of my own products. The UN-SIMPLE part is everything the collective “you” smear on yourself ends up on everything you touch, and then, everything we, the allergic touch. It doesn’t matter how little I’m exposed to, or where on my body the exposure takes place — my face gets the rash. And NO, this isn’t a little temporary rash. My reaction is so severe, I must use an immune-modulator to stop my body from attacking itself, literally forever, to interrupt the reaction. This could happen to you someday too. I didn’t always have this problem. The community at large needs to understand they can’t just be that selfish and ignorant about the effects their own actions have on others, and please never belittle those who suffer from chemical reactions. I only posted this reply in the hope and others would see it and understand that their viewpoint on a not-so-innocent group of anti-microbials is quite serious, indeed.

          • Janie Hartman

            I am having the same problem. I was diagnosed with an allergy to methyldibromo glutaronitrile which is another name for phenoxyethanol. I cannot find products that donot have phenoxyethanol (which goes by many other names too). I can’t even find a soap to use on my face. The problem with reading the labels is that manufacturers don’t put all the ingredients on the label. You can usually go online and find more ingredients, but this is really a hassle when you are at the store. I have bought products that donot list it; use them and break out again. It is so very frustrating! Even drugs manufactured in Europe where methyldibromo glutaronitrile is banned use phenoxyethanol. I guess they are finding a way around the ban.

        • bryguyf69

          Well, clearly your reaction is not typical or common since the chemical is still considered safe. What happens to you has no bearing on what happens to me, or much of the population. That’s why we use statistics. There’s a simple solution to your problem: Don’t use it.

          • HD

            Not so simple! This is a common allergen, and can be quite severe. Moreover, phenoxyethanol and similar synthetics are found in nearly everything on the shelves. I know this because I have to read ingredients of all products before I can come in contact, and must create many of my own products. The UN-SIMPLE part is everything the collective “you” smear on yourself ends up on everything you touch, and then, everything we, the allergic touch. It doesn’t matter how little I’m exposed to, or where on my body the exposure takes place — my face gets the rash. And NO, this isn’t a little temporary rash. My reaction is so severe, I must use an immune-modulator to stop my body from attacking itself, literally forever, to interrupt the reaction. This could happen to you someday too. I didn’t always have this problem. The community at large needs to understand they can’t just be that selfish and ignorant about the effects their own actions have on others, and please never belittle those who suffer from chemical reactions. I only posted this reply in the hope and others would see it and understand that their viewpoint on a not-so-innocent group of anti-microbials is quite serious, indeed.

        • HD

          Me too!

        • Tcbaby

          Me too! It’s in my MAC bb cream and makeup remover wipes.

      • Sharon O

        but let’s remember that every drug recalled by the FDA . . . was first proven to be “safe and effective” by the FDA.

        • bryguyf69

          What disappoints me about the discussion is the avoidance of science. When you say that drugs have been recalled, what are the stats? How many drugs have been recalled out if the ones that have been approved? The US FDA is notoriously tough. It rejected thalidomide, which caused birth defects in Europe and Canada, where it was approved. If your logic guided drug approval, we’d have much fewer therapies on the market. And that, to me, is much more dangerous than a few people having an allergic reaction.

      • Stacy

        EXACTLY. Every word. My husband and I make the joke all the time that the FDA passes items if it only killed 3 out of 15 people. As long as it didn’t kill 4 we’re good lol!

        • Ryan Becker

          What do you think the point of Biostatistics is? If you’re looking for perfection in both safety and efficacy, you might as well stop using all consumer products, especially drugs. In fact, you might as well stop eating since there is no guarantee that the tomato you’re holding isn’t infected. Clearly the fact that MOST tomatoes aren’t infected, as shown by QA spot checking, isn’t good enough for you.

          • Stacy

            Horrible analogy. Of course you will never know if 100% of your food is infected whether you grew it yourself or not. That’s totally different than the FDA irresponsibly allowing harmful ingredients to be on the market such as hydroquinone (an ingredient completely banned by Europe). Stay on topic. We are not talking about life sustaining medications or food here we are talking about ingredients primarily used in cosmetics.

  • Patrick

    Good afternoon Honest Company. Thanks for “standing behind the safety of your products”! Quick question – why don’t you publish the Materials Safety Data Sheets for all your products on your website? I came across this entry on the blog while looking for them. Clorox, Lysol, and even 7th Generation have entire portions of their website devoted to safety and MSDS sharing. I’m kind of confused as to where to find yours. Can you post of link in this public forum so everyone can view them? Thanks!

  • Jazzer

    Someone mentioned here FDA like it’s a trustworthy organization.. “Consult the FDA and a physician instead of making assumptions…” Wow.. what an ignorant person! The FDA is a Fraud and Death Administration – they are here only to protect billion dollar corporation’s interest. They are not for consumers, people! Stop trusting bogus institution and fake science. Read some info on FDA corruption and maybe you will wake up one day.

    Regarding Phenoxyethoanol – it is used as an antibacterial agent. According to the MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet), we find that it is toxic if swallowed, inhaled, absorbed through the skin, it is a severe skin and eye irritant, and it may cause reproductive defects [http://www.sciencelab.com/msds.php?msdsId=9926486]. According to the EPA data sheets, it has shown to cause chromosomal changes and genetic mutations in tests, as well as testicular atrophy and interference with reproductivity in mice [http://www.epa.gov/ttn/atw/glycol2000.pdf].

    The known side effects of Phenoxyethanol exposure are:

    Headache
    Shock
    Convulsions
    Weakness
    Kidney damage
    Cardiac failure
    Kidney failure
    Death

    • Ryan Becker

      Er, that MSDS data is pointless without dosage information. And that’s precisely the problem with all these alarmist posts. They only give the most extreme cases, and worst, out of context. For example, some will say 10 babies got sick. But 10 babies out if how many in what time period??? Our they would say, contact with XXX caused developmental problems. But they don’t mention that the “contact” was oral ingestion. And that is indeed the case with phenoxyethanol: long-term ingestion of safe dosages (and I’m not merely talking about the baby sucking on a thumb that touched a baby wipe. I’m talking about sucking on nipples repeatedly that were treated with nipple cream).

      The bottom line is that in the recommended doses, it is a safe and effective preservative for those without allergies to it, and that’s the vast majority of consumers. Indeed, I’d much rather have my patients use something with phenoxyethanol then risk an infection from spoiled chemicals (which includes natural ingredients like water).

      • Jazzer

        Ryan, Ryan – don’t be so naive. Here is a clip of Dr. Peter Rost, a former vice president of Pfizer and a whistleblower of the pharmaceutical industry telling you directly how your approvals, trials, research are done to get drugs or other chemicals on the market that later cripple or kill people: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TrCizlAOBAo

    • Ryan Becker

      As for the FDA (whom I used to have weekly interactions as a medical researcher), I challenge you to give me a VERIFIED example where the public was harmed from “corruption.” Tell me an example where dangerous medications were released, and who was harmed. If anything, our FDA is notoriously cautious – and overly so according to many activists. Look up the AIDS crisis and see how groups like ACT-UP fought the FDA to relax their standards for life saving drugs. Cancer advocates have also taken up the fight. For better or worse, our FDA has a reputation around the world of being too strict, which is why many patients resort to [sometimes illegally] buying medications from out of the country. As an example, Nizoral 2% (an antifungal shampoo) is only available by prescription here but widely available over the counter in other countries. A famous example of our FDA’s success is Thalidomide. While many European countries approved the morning sickness pill, our FDA did not. It later turned out that the drug cause fetal deformities such as missing limbs. As a result, Americans were spared of the trauma, but Europe and parts of Latin America had a generation of limbless children. One of my co-workers was born missing 3 fingers because of thalidomide.

      Yes, there is corruption and inefficiencies, where some meds may be given unfair preference, while others are unfairly suppressed. But internal checks and balances protect the public, and data acquisition — including adverse events — is second to none. That’s why oUr FDA is routinely quoted in other countries, i.e. when I was in Asia, medical news programs and even commercials often cite the FDA. I used to be a source of that data where I filed weekly reports to the FDA from our patients, so I’m speaking from experience. So instead of making irresponsible accusations without proof, EDUCATE YOURSELF with real peer-reviewed academic sources and learn how medical research, including the FDA, actually works.

      • Jazzer

        Ryan, of course, FDA must do something good, right. But that’s on a surface – for avg ppl like you and me. Now once you start digging deeper, then you realize what money can do. I’ll give you such an example – aspartame – artificial sweetener – banned in lots of counties. But not U.S. because 1) big corps make tons of money 2) it generates for U.S. medical system a huge number of patients with diabetes, birth defects, mental retardations, etc. etc. All you need to do is start drinking diet coke. Lots of products sold in U.S. are filled with aspartame. So here is your approved by FDA a very dangerous chemical that damages health to lots of Americans. If you only watch mainstream media you will never know that FDA approved prescription drugs kill about 200,000 people yearly in U.S. alone! [http://wakingtimesmedia.com/prescription-drugs-killing-us-meet-one-doctor-many-just-published-paper/]
        As to Nizoral 2%, Zovirax or other drugs that you can buy in U.S. on prescription only is due to big Pharma making tons of money by selling it with 200-500% margins. The same drugs you can buy in other countries over the counter way cheaper.
        At last, I knew a guy who owns the clinic where those trials are ordered by Pharm companies and he literally said we can approve for FDA any drug you like. So you would be so naive to think if those Pharm companies are funding the research or trial, the clinic will fail the trial?! Wrong answer – they will get it approved as one-two-three done! Now your job as a normal human being to expose all that stuff about FDA and big Pharma and not to hide from avg ppl.

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  • missmanhattan

    link to preterm baby study doesn’t work…

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  • Nathan Currah

    A patch test indicated that I am severely allergic to Phenoxyethanol. We’re in the process of trying to figure out why my fingers broke out with dry, cracking skin and deep fissures on all my finger tips. Needless to say, I’m suddenly unable to work, after 20 years as a nurse. My employer is investigating the gloves, lotions, soaps, alcohol scrubs, detergents, and antimicrobial products that I come into contact with all day, every day, for Phenoxyethanol (PE) as well as a couple other things I am moderately allergic to. 90% of the creams on the market that dermatologists have recommended to me contain PE. I also looked through all the personal care products at home, detergents, disinfectant wipes, etc. I found several that I use daily containing PE, including my shaving cream and aftershave lotion. I have to think that even if each product only contains 1-2% PE, using multiple products daily has to add up to quite a chronic exposure. PE may also potentiate the release of accelerants and formaldehyde in some rubbers, plastics, adhesives etc.; all things to which I could react allergically.

    • Sheena burch

      Phenoxyethanol is in vaccines as well