What to Know About Phenoxyethanol

Medically Reviewed by Debra Jaliman, MD on July 20, 2023
3 min read

Phenoxyethanol is an ingredient in cosmetic products that serves as a preservative. In soaps and perfumes, it is used as a stabilizer. What exactly is this ingredient, and is it safe for use on your skin?

Phenoxyethanol is an oily, sticky substance with a pleasant odor often compared to roses. Cosmetic products, soaps, and detergents are prone to going bad, just like the food we eat. Phenoxyethanol helps to prevent fungi, bacteria, and yeast from growing in your products. This gives them a longer shelf life and ensures safety.

If your cosmetics products aren’t preserved correctly and become contaminated, they are very harmful. Your skin may be irritated, infected, and you may even have symptoms of illness. Additionally, products that aren’t preserved correctly can impact how the product is intended to be used, including look, smell, and feel.

Other uses include:

  • Insect repellent
  • Antiseptic
  • Solvent‌
  • Anesthetic in fish aquaculture

Products that contain phenoxyethanol include:

  • Eye shadow
  • Sunscreen
  • Mascara and eyeliner
  • Shampoo and conditioner
  • Foundation and concealer
  • Hand cream
  • Blush
  • Hair color
  • Hair spray
  • Lip balm and gloss
  • Lotion and moisturizer
  • Nail polish
  • Baby wipes‌

Baby lotions and soaps that contain phenoxyethanol:

  • Soap and body wash
  • Shaving cream
  • Deodorant
  • Toothpaste
  • Perfume and fragrance
  • Hair removal waxes
  • Hand sanitizer‌
  • Ultrasound gel

Product labels. If you’re looking for Phenoxyethanol on ingredient labels, you may see it called:

  • Phenoxyethanol
  • 2-Phenoxyethanol
  • Euxyl K 400
  • PhE

Safe for use in low concentrations. Phenoxyethanol is approved by several entities for use in products, including consumption:

  • Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) Panel
  • Food & Drug Administration (FDA)
  • European Economic Community (EEC) 

Studies show that it is not a primary or cumulative skin irritant. It is generally considered safe for use in a concentration of less than 1%.

Products last longer. When you see preservatives like phenoxyethanol on your product labels, you know they will last longer. Most cosmetic items and soaps come with expiration dates, so be sure to check to see how long your products are good for before purchasing.

You should also regularly check your cabinets and throw out any products that are expired. If you have doubts about freshness, err on the side of caution.

It can be considered dangerous. The use of products that contain phenoxyethanol is linked to reactions that may be life-threatening. If you do use products containing phenoxyethanol as a preservative, be aware of how much you’re using each day, especially around infants.

You may be allergic. If you’re allergic to phenoxyethanol, you may develop a rash like hives on your skin where the product was applied. In severe cases, you may experience anaphylaxis. One study showed that parabens may enhance the effects of phenoxyethanol, leading to a stronger reaction.

It may irritate eczema. If your skin is already sensitive because of eczema, avoid products with higher concentrations of phenoxyethanol. If you do have a reaction, discontinue use. Most cases of a skin reaction clear up within days or weeks once you stop using the product.

It is harmful to infants. In 2008, a nipple cream containing phenoxyethanol was recalled. Infants who nursed and ingested the nipple cream had instances of vomiting, diarrhea, and a depressed nervous system. Some babies lost their appetites, exhibited limpness, or showed difficulty in waking up after sleep.

When you read product labels, you may not see phenoxyethanol listed because there are other types of preservatives. These include:

  • Aldehydes – These also protect against bacteria and fungi. They may be listed as formaldehyde, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, or diazolidinyl urea.
  • Glycol ethers – Phenoxyethanol falls into this category. These are also listed on labels as caprylyl glycol.
  • Isothiazolinones – Protect against bacteria and fungi. They are listed on ingredient labels as methylisothiazolinone.
  • Organic acids – These also protect against bacteria and fungi. They are called benzoic acid, sorbic acid, levulinic acid, or anisic acid.‌
  • Parabens – Prevent the growth of fungi and bacteria and are also called methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, and isobutylparaben.