Follain's Bethesda store, courtesy of Maya Oren.
Follain's Bethesda store, courtesy of Maya Oren.

Why Natural Beauty Brands Are Ditching Controversial Ingredient Phenoxyethanol

4 min read

When it comes to the realm of natural, green and nontoxic beauty, there’s long been disagreement over the safety of using the preservative phenoxyethanol. Natural products often have a shorter shelf life because they don’t use preservatives like parabens, and phenoxyethanol has been somewhat of a life-saver for brands looking to prevent bacteria from growing in their fresh products.

But in the last few years, more information has come out about the potential toxicity of phenoxyethanol, and everyone from brands to retailers are re-examining their use of the ingredient.

Keep reading to see why natural beauty brands and retailers are ditching the controversial phenoxyethanol. 

Photo courtesy of Follain.

Phenoxyethanol can be found naturally in green tea, but commercially, it’s 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 that all reacts to form a pH-balanced ingredient.

It ranks a four out of 10 on the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database, which brings with it a number of concerns, including skin, eyes and lungs irritation, and possible organ system toxicity. But many formulators have argued that it’s all about the amount of phenoxyethanol in the product. It’s usually present in a formulation at less than two percent, which many say is totally safe.

Some retailers disagree. Jeannie Jarnot, founder of the beauty subscription service and online retailer Beauty Heroes, says that since they can’t control how much of a product a customer uses, “we’d rather just not go there,” and Beauty Heroes has banned phenoxyethanol from the brand’s beginning.

First of all,” says Jeannie, “it’s an ethoxylated ingredient, which means it goes through a chemical process that potentially could result in traces of 1.4 dioxane, a carcinogen, being present in it, so it’s a no-go for us,” she says. “Also, phenoxyethanol is restricted in Japan and the EU for its use in cosmetics, which made it a clear ingredient we would avoid.”

Clean beauty retailer Follain recently made news when its team decided to eliminate phenoxyethanol from its repertoire as well. Says Founder and CEO Tara Foley, “Our brand founders were actually the catalyst for this. We had started to see an increased amount of research on the negatives around phenoxyethanol, everything from contact dermatitis to neurotoxicity, so we sat down with our advisory board members and our brand founders to delve into these issues and learn more about potential effective alternatives.”

Phenoxyethanol is a really inexpensive ingredient that’s good at broad-spectrum product preservation, says Jeannie, which is why brands use it. And, Tara reiterates that “many people will say that it is all about the percentage you use, and that low percentages of the ingredient aren’t harmful, but we don’t want to take that risk.”

Jeannie agrees. “We take the precautionary approach to ingredient safety, and I have always felt that when it comes to synthetic chemical compounds, that if a lot has been tested to be toxic or health-harming, then even a small amount should be avoided.”

Tara says that it was relatively easy to remove phenoxyethnoal from Follain’s shelves. “…Most of our brands had either never used the ingredient or were already reformulating,” she says, “and at Follain we strive to be at the forefront of new research and we want to make decisions that continually push the industry to be cleaner and healthier.”

Plus, with other options out there, why would a brand risk it? Says Jeannie, “There are safer ingredients and preservative systems available, so there’s really no reason for us to have to resort to carrying products that employ phenoxyethanol as a preservative, even though preservation is really important in beauty and skincare products.”

Tackling the phenoxyethanol issue with individual retailer and brand bans seems, for now, to be the best way to get it out of our products. Says Tara, “Regulation is a notoriously slow moving process, so the fastest way to enact change in the beauty industry is often through the purchases we make, or ‘voting with our dollar.’ By removing phenoxyethanol from products, we are pushing chemical manufacturers to make better preservative options and ultimately to bring down the cost of safer alternatives to this ingredient.”

Need ideas for products to try that don’t contain phenoxyethanol? Check out Tara’s #MyCleanBeautyShelf, for the founder’s daily beauty routine.


About The Author

Nicolle Mackinnon

Nicolle Mackinnon

Stemming from her personal journey to treat her celiac disease and Hashimoto's thyroiditis, Nicolle serves as a writer and editor for several leading publications helping women understand how important, stylish and fun it is to commit to clean beauty. By way of her contributions to No More Dirty Looks, Thoughtfully Magazine and numerous beauty brands' blogs, websites and social media, Nicolle has become a trusted voice on the correlation between health and beauty. Follow her journey on Instagram and connect with her via nicollemackinnon.com.



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