Why We're Still (Currently) Using Phenoxyethanol in Some Products

Jennifer Katehos

Posted on January 08 2018

We're not exactly fans of ethoxylated ingredients, because the process by which they are manufactured produces the compound 1,4-dioxane as a byproduct.  (Read more about why 1,4-dioxane is a bummer here.)  Phenoxyethanol, a preservative we use in Balance Foaming Cleanser, Refresh Hydrating Exfoliant Mask, and Rosewater Hydrating Mist, unfortunately goes through the ethoxylation process.

Preservatives in skincare products are non-negotiable.  Every time air is exposed to a product so is dust, bacteria, and mold spores.  An effective preservative is absolutely critical to ensuring the product is clean and stable for the end user.  The perfect preservative system must offer effective broad spectrum protection against gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria, yeast, and mold.

Phenoxyethanol is found naturally in green tea, but the ingredient used in cosmetic products is synthetically produced in a lab.  It is a robust, paraben-alternative preservative which gives a shelf life of longer than 1 year, works synergistically with other ingredients, and is not odor-offensive.  Despite the scary sounding name, there is no free phenol in phenoxyethanol.  It is only considered an irritant to skin, eyes and lungs as a stand-alone ingredient (i.e., in a concentration of 100%), so luckily, it only requires a concentration of 1% in products.  It is even Whole Foods Market Premium approved.  This preservative is active against gram-negative bacteria but it is, however, weak against mold and yeast, so you will usually see it combined with something like Tetrasodium Glutamate Diacetate, a plant-derived, multi-purpose, readily-biodegradable chelating agent and preservative booster. 

Currently, phenoxyethanol remains the most compatible preservative for the three formulations in which we still use it, and we're only willing to give it a current "pass" because we can use such a small amount of it in each product.  Rest assured, however, that it is our ultimate goal to return to the lab and revisit these formulations, making any adjustments in order to get the same robust level of protection against the creepy-crawlies from a non-ethoxylated preservative while maintaining the quality and results that we've come to expect from these products.