Phenoxyethanol, children – and adults

We were interested to learn recently from DHI Environment and Toxicology that ANSM — the French national agency for medicines and health products safety — would like to tighten up the use of the preservative phenoxyethanol in cosmetics. Currently allowed in a concentration of up to 1%, the ANSM has recommended to the EU Commission that this should be reduced to 0.4% for products aimed at children under three, and that ‘intimate’ products for babies, such as nappy balms and baby wipes, should be free from phenoxyethanol entirely.

Phenoxyethanol has become popular in many natural and ‘free from’ cosmetics, since concerned were raised about parabens in the last decade, and cosmetic manufacturers began to swap the latter for the former in their formulations. But the ingredient divides opinion, as some are concerns about its toxic capabilities (in the blood and liver), and the research about it is inconclusive — as Sarah Brown from Pai Skincare discussed on her blog here, where she links to a fuller discussion on the No More Dirty Looks site. The Soil Association currently (I think until the end of 2014) permit its use in organic products with certain provisos, and it can be derived from petrochemical sources, although it can also be derived from plant ingredients too. There’s another interesting article on it at the Australian Shop Naturally site.

For the first two years of the FreeFrom Skincare Awards we have allowed naturally derived phenoxyethanol — and indeed, some of our winning products have contained it — but we are planning to review this for the 2014 awards, as we do know that many people avoid it and there is some concern about it. We’ll certainly blog about this subject in greater detail later in the year.

What attracted our attention from the news, however, was the thought that some products which are safe for adults may be less ideal for children — even in the ‘natural’ or ‘free from’ cosmetics world. How many of us with children always buy separate natural cosmetics for them, which aren’t necessarily aimed at them or else described as ‘family friendly’? How many parents can honestly say they’ve never used some ‘adult’ cream on their child?

It’s perhaps a small reminder that children’s skins are more delicate and may need different kind of care and attention than adult skins, in ways we may not think about. Inevitably, products aimed at children are likely to be ‘gentler’ — although this is by means not always the case…

In this, the second year of the awards, we introduced a ‘mums, babies and kids’ category, which had some very interesting entries — although do remember there is of course no guarantee that phenoxyethanol is not used in the brands entered, or where it is, that it is used at or below the 0.4% that ANSM is calling for. As always, always read the label — and don’t be afraid to call up or email the brands if you’d like more information.

We do plan on covering child-specific skincare issues more in the future, but meanwhile, if you have any thoughts on phenoxyethanol, for use in products for adults or kids, we’d very much like your thoughts.


  1. Walter

    Hello Alex,
    Thanks for your interesting blog post. I am a formulator at the very heart of various high tech cosmetic brands – some you may know. I’m sorry to post anonymously but you probably understand I cannot discuss my clients. I work very closely with two exceptional brands who are not “natural” in their marketing position but would easily outperform most natural products in their ‘free-from’ status. They both use Phenoxyethanol. They made this change 3 years ago when Parabens became the arch-enemy. Manufacturers in the EU are under immense pressure to conform to a mountain of regulations. In fact brand new, far-reaching new regulations just came into place (July 2013). Maybe people are not aware of the extreme level of safety and testing that is required in developing a cosmetic product. A whole battery of tests specific to the individual product. Even batches are tested. Companies like the client I mentioned above even do HPLC testing on each batch which is unheard of elsewhere in the costmetic industry. Imagine a company that has oneor two hundred products. Forget the actual testing costs for re-doing all the stability, compatibility, challenge, safety assesment etc, imagine the time and the market research. It would be like telling the car industry that suddenly they cant use rubber anymore. They need to find a new material for tyres and buttons and this after they just changed from the last material. I dont blame consumers. Most are baffled by the whole maze of chemicals. They dont understand what toxicicity really means and how a small amount of somethign is entirely different to a large amount. There are many armchair commentators who know very little but spread, perhaps innocently, the scaremongering of new brands looking for a marketing edge. My clients all moved to Phenoxyethanol still beleiving that Methyl Paraben is totally safe and very effective. They did this from consumer pressure. We were told that the change to Phenoxyethanol would be supported by the trade bodies and companies were told that even though the risk of parabens was minimal to non-existant, the switch to phenoxyethanol would be in the best long term interest of the industry and coudl be phased in over the years. Now after 3 years, most companies are paraben free and contain phenoxyethanol and the whole thing is starting again. I wish consumers could see that their supposed friends are really just scaremongering to oust solid performing stalwarts in favour of something untested. I would not be surprised if in 10 years, everyoine will be back to Parabens. Luckily the EU noticed that this non-science trending was damaging and unfair so there is a new rule as of July 2013 that prevents brands from marketing that they are “free from” a cosmetic ingredient that is permitted in the new EU regs. We respect the right of journalists to inform consumers what products contain what and give their opinions. Consumers will decide what journalist is to be believed as rational and those who just cause alarm. However we feel and the EU recognises it is deceitful for a brand to rubbish a perfectly safe ingredient when the company has no alternative because of the immense cost and time it would take to comply with the latest whim. Phew – got that off my chest…. Best of luck with the site. Walter

  2. Alex (Post author)

    Thanks for such an in-depth comment and insight into the issues. We are obviously strong believers in ‘free from’ messaging and don’t hold the view that ingredients typically listed as being absent in this way are necessarily ‘bad’. It all depends on the individual: nut oils may be ‘bad’ for a nut allergic, but perfectly good and nutritious to the skin of a non-allergic person, for instance. We understand that the issue regarding parabens (which some people are allergic to) is unproven, and although we welcome brands clarifying their ‘free from parabens’ status, we don’t like it when implications are made to breast cancer (“breast cancer tumours contain parabens” we see tweeted often. So what? Breast cancer tumours contain water. Means nothing). We also dislike ‘free from nasties’ and similar labelling.

    As far as we’re aware the EU haven’t prevented brands from marketing that they are ‘free from’ – free from labelling is still going strong as far as we can see. We’re actually a little confused about this ourselves. According to the CTPA, a free from claim will be prohibited if ‘it constricts a consumer’s decision making’ … although we’re not sure how that might work in practice …

    Thanks again, Alex.

  3. Walter

    Hi Alex,
    First off, I just want to clarify that when i said “arm-chair commentators” I was not rerring to you at all. I found your article refreshingly measured and especially restrained given your blog and awards are focused on this segment.

    I appreciate your comments and I too am confused about the new EU ‘free-from’ labelling rule. I know three of my clients have had boardrooms of executives pouring over that same sentence from the CTPA. I think Paraben free will be allowed to remain just because it is so endemic now. Otherwise i think gradually the pressure will be on to restrict label claims to peanut free, fragrance free or other ‘free-from’ claims where common allergies are widespread and known about. Where the point of the warning is to ferment the myth and be disparaging to a perfectly harmless and legal ingredient it will be prevented. Many chemicals (as you have wisely pointed out) just happens to cause irritation in a tiny sample of people – there are people allergic to water. The latest on MIT et al (which we dont use btw) is a dermatological patch test at far higher concentrations than would be legal so its a pointless test.

    I really like what you are doing because you can help people understand the real concerns from the scaremongering. Please remember there are an army of dedicated scientists that want to produce amazing products for people and noone has more concern over the safety of cosmetic products than the professional formulator – they don’t only want to devote themselves to perfection for the end customer but also don’t want the sack by giving someone Salmonella from an under-preserved product.

    In my opinion its the new kitchen sink operations who put cosmtics on the market with all sorts of free-from claims and using new-fangled ‘untested’ preservatives.

    Oh and i would never ever buy any shampoo which didnt have SLS or SLES in it. Its the best surfactant by a million miles. Nothing cleans and lathers the hair as well and none of my clients now use it. Every blind test i have ever been involved with picks SLS as the best feedback from test users. Never heard of more than one or two people irritated by it. That is the tragedy for consumers. They are getting worse products and at a higher price than they need.

    Thanks, Walter

  4. Alex (Post author)

    Hi Walter,
    No worries – I didn’t take it that way! I do intend to get to the bottom of the ‘free from’ issue at some point when I’m less busy – probably at around the time we’re putting together the plans for the 2014 awards – so will certainly blog / write about it again. From our perspective, it’s not only about safety / health, but there are other reasons to take into consideration – ethical concerns (petrochemicals / palm oil / vegan) and religious (alcohol) being two other reasons we support and want to encourage ‘free from’ messaging.
    Thanks once more – and we hope you stop by again to leave such insightful comments!
    Very best – Alex.


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