What to Know Before Using Products With Phenoxyethanol

What dermatologists have to say about the preservative.

Updated 09/26/19
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Phenoxyethanol might not be the most well-known preservative in skincare, but it's slowly becoming one of them. You've likely noticed the growing popularity of "paraben-free" products in recent years and if you've spent enough time looking at product labels, you might have even noticed an ingredient called phenoxyethanol included instead. And since parabens are such a highly debated topic on the internet and a questionable skincare ingredient for some, it would be understandable for you to wonder about the safety of this lesser-known preservative that's suddenly showing up in many of your products.

"Phenoxyethanol is a preservative that became very popular when parabens fell from grace," chemist Gloria Lu of Chemist Confessions says. "Now that phenoxyethanol is everywhere, it seems like the next prime subject to be tossed under the bus." But does it deserve to be added to our perpetually growing list of skincare ingredients to avoid? We turned to Lu as well as dermatologists Gervaise Gerstner, MD, and Heidi Waldorf, MD, of Waldorf Dermatology Aesthetics to shed some light on the increasingly common skincare ingredient. Keep reading to find out everything you need to know about phenoxyethanol.

Type of ingredient: Preservative.

Main benefits: Prevents the growth of bacteria, Enhances shelf life, and Stabilizes products.

Who should use it: In general, anyone without an allergy. Phenoxyethanol is not recommended for those with sensitive skin or eczema.

How often can you use it: Daily.

Works well with: Other preservatives.

Don't use with: Phenoxyethanol works well with most, if not all, ingredients.

What Is Phenoxyethanol?

According to Waldorf, phenoxyethanol is an ether alcohol that is naturally derived from green tea but is usually synthesized in a lab. In cosmetics, it functions as a preservative, a solvent, and an antimicrobial ingredient. Gerstner says it comes in a colorless liquid form and is found in a wide range of cosmetics and skincare, such as cleansers, moisturizers, serums, and creams.

Benefits of Phenoxyethanol for Skin

Phenoxyethanol is not used for its effects on the skin but rather is included in skincare products as a preservative against bacterial contamination.

  • Prevents bacteria: It's antimicrobial and highly effective in preventing the growth of fungi, bacteria, and yeast in a product formula.
  • Prolongs product shelf life: The use of preservatives enhances the safety of products and prolongs the period of which a product can be stored.
  • Is stable: Gerstner says phenoxyethanol helps with product stability because it doesn't react with other ingredients, air, or light.
  • Has versatile use: According to Gerstner, it's effective at protecting against pathogens in a wide variety of products.

Side Effects of Phenoxyethanol

The FDA warns that ingestion of phenoxyethanol can be toxic for infants by suppressing the central nervous system, so Waldorf recommends avoiding the use of products containing the preservative on infants. For adults, the possible side effects of topical application are far less severe, despite some misleading information you might find on the internet. "Scary health issue claims are a huge stretch, but phenoxyethanol can be an irritant for some—really that goes for most preservatives," Lu says.

While rare, Waldorf adds that phenoxyethanol can cause skin irritation and allergic reactions in predisposed individuals. "If you have a tendency toward eczema or sensitive skin, either avoid products containing it or do a self patch test first," she says. To test for a reaction, Waldorf suggests rubbing a small amount of the product containing phenoxyethanol to the same spot on your upper arm twice a day for three days, taking note of how your body responds. If you notice a reaction, discontinue use of the product and consult your dermatologist.

How to Use It

If you do not have an allergy to the ingredient, Gerstner says phenoxyethanol can be used daily in various products. Because the ingredient is included in such a vast array of skincare products, the time of day you would apply it, as well as the step in your routine, depends on the product in question.

The Best Products With Phenoxyethanol

Derma E Vitamin C Concentrated Serum
Derma E Vitamin C Concentrated Serum $20
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The stable ingredients, which means they're less likely to break down, such as phenoxyethanol and a stabilized form of vitamin C make this brightening serum one of Gerstner's top product recommendations. Use this antioxidant serum to fight against the free radical damage that accelerates skin aging and causes dullness and fine lines.

Omorovicza Ultramoor Mud Mask
Omorovicza Ultramoor Mud Mask $120
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Another one of Gerstner's top picks is this luxurious anti-aging mask made with Hungarian moor mud to purify, peptides and amino acids to even out skin tone, and chamomile to soothe the skin for an overall more radiant complexion. At $120 a jar, this is one product you'll want to keep on your shelf until you've used every last drop—and thanks to the phenoxyethanol it contains, you'll be able to do just that.

Eve Lom Cleanser
Eve Lom Cleanser $80
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This makeup melting cleanser checks all the boxes. It removes every stitch of product and debris, it leaves your skin soft and hydrated, it gently exfoliates, and it smells like an expensive spa treatment for a fraction of the price. In addition to phenoxyethanol to keep the contents of the jar clean, the formula contains Egyptian chamomile oil and cocoa seed butter to soothe and moisturize the skin. One Byrdie editor loves it so much it's been her go-to cleansing balm for three years and counting.

Summer Fridays Jet Lag Mask
Summer Fridays Jet Lag Mask $48
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Formulated with sodium hyaluronate, vitamins C and E, niacinamide, and phenoxyethanol to keep it all clean, this creamy hydrating mask is beloved by Instagram skinfluencers and Byrdie editors alike. If you're conscious of the ingredients in your skincare, you'll be glad to know it doesn't contain questionable ones like sulfates, formaldehyde releasers, and phthalates and is certified clean at Sephora.

Drunk Elephant C-Firma™ Vitamin C Day Serum
Drunk Elephant C-Firma Vitamin C Day Serum $80
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If the fact that this serum has 150k loves on Sephora's website and this Byrdie editor's seal of approval isn't convincing enough to give this serum a try, maybe the ingredients will have you sold. This serum by Drunk Elephant, a brand that avoids questionable ingredients in all its products, is packed with antioxidants like l-ascorbic acid (a form of vitamin C), ferulic acid, vitis vinifera, and Indian gooseberry to fight against all the signs of aging caused by free radical damage. Oh, and it relies on phenoxyethanol to protect the formula from contamination.

SkinCeuticals HA Intensifier
SkinCeuticals Hyaluronic Acid Intensifier $100
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In search of the perfect hydrating serum? Look no further: This formula contains 1.3% sodium hyaluronate, licorice root extract, and purple rice extract to boost and maintain the level of hydration in the skin for an instant plumping effect. It's easy to see why both dermatologists and Byrdie editors are so obsessed.

It Cosmetics CC+ Cream Illumination with SPF 50+
It Cosmetics CC+ Cream Illumination with SPF 50+ $39
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With so many skin benefits packed into one tube, it's hard to know where to start. Equally loved by team Byrdie for its SPF 50 protection, hydration, illumination, and color correction, this CC cream has you fully covered (literally and figuratively) without looking like you're wearing anything at all. In addition to phenoxyethanol, this skincare and makeup hybrid contains skin-loving ingredients like collagen, peptides, and niacin so you can feel good about wearing it all day long.

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