Phenoxyethanol: Controversial Ingredient That’s No Longer on Our Shelves

Phenoxyethanol: Controversial Ingredient That’s No Longer on Our Shelves


Today is a big day for us. It’s been a long time coming, but we’re officially adding phenoxyethanol to our restricted ingredients list. After reading the research available, learning more about the chemistry from our advisers, and consulting with our brand partners, we have decided that it’s not worth the risk, especially now that there are safer ingredient options. 

At Follain, we’ve always been committed to carrying the safest, most effective personal care products available. We believe you should never have to sacrifice health for beauty. That’s why everything we carry is extensively tested before it hits our shelves. We love high-performing beauty, but when it comes to your health, we always play it safe.

What Exactly Is Phenoxyethanol?

Phenoxyethanol is a preservative that’s primarily used in skin and cosmetic products. It was originally considered by some to be a safer, “paraben alternative.” But in the past few years, conflicting research has led us to be skeptical about its safety. Every brand we carry at Follain has either never used phenoxyethanol, or as of today has officially eliminated it from their formulas in favor of safer preservatives.

How Bad Is It?

Phenoxyethanol is a potential skin irritant, nervous system suppressant, and has been connected to longer times to get pregnant. Back in 2008, the FDA warned against a particular nipple cream, citing phenoxyethanol as one of two potentially harmful ingredients in it. Phenoxyethanol even has a higher EWG rating than some other ingredients that have always lived on our restricted list, like SLS.

Research published by the National Institutes of Health has linked phenoxyethanol to contact dermatitis, the worsening of eczema, and even neurotoxicity.

That said, it’s also important to note that, like many scientific studies, most of the available research is not yet conclusive. But when we know there are safer alternatives out there, why risk it?

The Controversy Around Phenoxyethanol

Some brands and retailers that approve the usage of phenoxyethanol in their products will chalk it up to a matter of concentration. And it’s true, concentration does matter—in fact, the FDA advised that cosmetic products should not contain more than 1% phenoxyethanol. However, at Follain our philosophy is this: If there’s a risk, why even go there?

Here’s What Experts and Our Partners Say

Indie Lee

“For years phenoxyethanol was viewed as a favorable and safe alternative to parabens. Recently, concerns have been raised over its safety. At Indie Lee, we are continuously researching the use of clean ingredients to improve our formulations, working to provide our customers with the cleanest, most effective products possible. The science driving the clean industry has evolved immensely over the years and as a result, we were able to replace phenoxyethanol with a less controversial ingredient that serves the same purpose. My motto is ‘When in doubt, formulate it out.’” —Indie Lee, Founder & CEO at Indie Lee


“We have never used phenoxyethanol because it’s a petrochemical and it’s ethoxylated, both of which are on the Osmia Tox Screen. I think ethoxylation is a really nasty process. It requires the use of a known carcinogen, ethylene oxide, and results in a high likelihood of contamination with 1,4-dioxane, a by-product that’s toxic to humans and many other species and quickly becoming a significant groundwater contaminant. So it’s always been a no-brainer for our brand.” —Sarah Villafranco (MD), Founder & CEO at Osmia Organics Skincare

Tata Harper

“Phenoxyethanol can be toxic to infants when ingested, resulting in central nervous system depression and, in the presence of some chemicals, respiratory depression. In fact, due to these serious effects, FDA halted the sale of a nipple cream containing phenoxyethanol. In addition, phenoxyethanol is almost always synthetic. At Tata Harper, we are committed to natural, non-toxic skincare, and phenoxyethanol simply doesn’t meet our standards.” —Cara Bondi (MS, MPH), Vice President, R&D and Global Regulatory Affairs at Tata Harper Skincare

Ecocert (one of the certifications represented among some the brands we sell at Follain)

“Phenoxyethanol has been banned from the Ecocert standard since 1998 and the Cosmos standard has taken the same position. Both standards use the precautionary principle – when there is scientific evidence that an ingredient, technology or process could pose a health or environmental risk it will not be allowed. The Cosmos board periodically reviews ingredients and can make changes to ingredient conformity as needed.” –Chris Koestline, Ecocert Certification Officer & Inspector

So, Are All Preservatives in Cosmetics Bad?

Definitely not! This isn’t to say we don’t recognize the need for preservatives, which are imperative to stabilize many of the products we carry. Many brands are substituting phenoxyethanol with a cocktail of more natural-leaning preservatives, including ferments like lactobacillus and radish root, and even ethylhexyglycerin.

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Tara Foley | August 14, 2018

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