Phenoxyethanol is a clear, oil-like liquid substance with a faint rose-like scent. It is one of the most frequently used preservatives and antimicrobials in cosmetics and skincare.
It can be used in concentrations of up to 1% and is effective against all kinds of harmful bacteria and yeasts that could damage a skincare product, while still generally leaving our natural skin microflora unharmed. The biggest public concern when it comes to chemical preservatives is their safety: are they safe to use? Will they irritate my skin? Is it okay if I put them on my skin every day?
According to all latest research and the European Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety, concentrations of up to 1% are completely safe, even for babies and children. In small concentrations such as these, everything that gets absorbed into the skin will quickly be metabolized and excreted from the body, with no harmful effects.
The studies that observed harmful effects on lab rodents were those where the rats were fed extremely large amounts. This is commonly done in experiments in order to estimate at what amount the chemical starts to become dangerous.
Since the amount is very large for Phenoxyethanol, it has been concluded that it is absolutely safe to use on the skin in the small amounts that are allowed by safety committees. It is actually so safe that it has been used at 2% concentration as a skin disinfectant on prematurely born babies and deemed safer than disinfecting the skin with alcohol. As for whether or not it will irritate the skin, there have been some reported cases of sensitivity to Phenoxyethanol. In one study, from a sample group of 243 Chinese women, 60 were reportedly sensitive to Phenoxyethanol. The signs of sensitivity were burning and itching.
Other significantly larger studies found that the rate of sensitivity in the general population in Europe is very low (0.1–0.24%).
Phenoxyethanol is one of the most well-tolerated preservatives used in cosmetic products and is not classified as a sensitizer by the European Chemical Agency.
It is actually suspected that the bad reactions are not due to the Phenoxyethanol itself, but rather the impurities in the lower-than-cosmetics-grade ingredients, such as phenol, or other preservatives that are commonly combined with Phenoxyethanol, such as Methyldibromo Glutaronitrile.
That aside, it is always a good idea to patch-test your skincare product before using it if you suspect you may be sensitive to Phenoxyethanol.