Phenoxyethanol is an aromatic glycol ether. It may appear on your product label as ethylene glycol monophenyl ether, rose ether, phenoxytol, phenyle cellosolve, PhE, 2-phenoxyethanol, 2-hydroxyethyl phenyl ether, phenoxyethol, or Euxyl K®400.
Although phenoxyethanol can be obtained naturally, what’s used in natural and mainstream personal care product formulations is mostly obtained from synthetic sources. Phenoxyethanol has become one of the few chemicals awfully difficult to avoid because of its wide application.
It’s used as a synthetic stabilizing agent - to, for example, fix perfumes and make them last longer. It has become increasingly used as an alternative preservative to parabens and formaldehyde releasers to suppress bacteria growth in several natural and mainstream personal care products (see diazolidinyl urea for more information on formaldehyde). It’s used as a vaccine preservative, and considered responsible for producing nodular reactions or swollen lumps at injection sites. It’s one of the few chemicals that’s quite effective over a very broad pH range.
Inhaling phenoxyethanol or products containing phenoxyethanol can produce eye and chronic respiratory tract irritation. Of more than 3,000 allergens evaluated by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), phenoxyethanol featured in the top ten chemicals likely to produce allergies.
Ingestion, particularly by infants, may result in vomiting, diarrhea, respiratory depression, and acute nervous system impairment. Finally, phenoxyethanol is toxic to the kidney and liver; long-term use can cause organ damage.
There’re a number reasons why phenoxyethanol is considered carcinogenic. First, it is prepared from phenols, which are synthesized from benzene, a known carcinogen. Second, the manufacturing process involves ethoxylating phenol, or subjecting phenol to ethylene oxide. Ethoxylation can yield a product contaminant called 1,4-dioxane which is highly toxic and carcinogenic (see ammonium laureth sulfate, polysorbates, steareths, sodium laureth sulfate, and PEG for more information on ethoxylation and 1,4-dioxane). Lastly, phenoxyethanol is a glycol ether; it can break down to release acetaldehyde, which is also carcinogenic.
Given phenoxyethanol’s association with cancer, it’s not surprising that the US EPA has observed a linkage between the chemical and chromosomal changes and genetic mutation effects.