by Emma Peters March 04, 2017

As a general rule, for us here at Belle & Sage any synthetic and potentially toxic ingredient is a no-go. We figure that the way nature intended is better, and that toxins even in small quantities aren’t worth the risk. So we’ve decided to dive deeper into phenoxyethanol, and why a few of the products we stock contain it in.

Bear in mind that this is an ingredient sparking a debate across the board, whether you’re a stockist or consumer. Everybody has a different view and that’s encouraging, it means people are thinking critically about what goes into their products.

This is our take on the debate, but your own opinions may differ and that’s okay too. After all it’s your body, what you put on it is your own, informed decision.


Phenoxyethanol is a synthetic, ‘nature identical’ chemical. This means while it occurs in nature, when it shows up in a product it’s a lab creation. Technically speaking, it’s ethyl-oxide treated phenol and is useful for fighting bacteria and acting as a preservative in cosmetics.

Preservatives like phenoxyethanol are important to include in beauty products to some capacity. Think about it this way, most products contain multiple different ingredients that would expire without some kind of preservative. Beauty products come in regular contact with our bodies, and applying harmful bacteria from stale ingredients could be catastrophic. So clearly preservatives are necessary, but which types are okay and which aren’t? 

The good side of phenoxyethanol

One thing in phenoxyethanol’s favour is that currently, all the effective alternatives seem much worse. Other preservatives we aren’t comfortable stocking are things like formaldehyde, lead or parabens.

Phenoxyethanol is definitely effective, and doesn’t react with other ingredients, air or light (which is a massive plus). Many consider it safe in small doses, non-harmful at a concentration of 2.2% or lower  and still works at 1%. 

One study even proves phenoxyethanol to be the safest preservative in newborn antiseptics. The study found the chemical was quickly metabolised in small amounts by even premature babies. 

The argument against phenoxyethanol

It’s great that phenoxyethanol is an effective way to preserve and sterilise products, but there are still a few facts that make us a little uneasy.

EWG still classifies it as a ‘moderate toxicity risk’ despite the fact that it often appears in small amounts, making it the only technically ‘toxic’ ingredient we currently stock. The European Commission on Cosmetic Ingredients also stipulates that phenoxyethanol is particularly harmful if applied around the lips or mouth.

It is considered to be an irritant with a low (but present) chance of allergic complications or immunotoxicity issues. 

So what do we think?

Right now, our general consensus is that for some Belle & Sage products phenoxyethanol is a necessary evil and definitely the best of a bad bunch.

We’d rather stock and use sterile, safe products where it counts because the risk of infection seems more scary than the current solution. The below 2.2% concentration guideline is useful, but we think that a little can always build up into a lot. That’s why we’ve chosen not to stock products including phenoxyethanol that we use in large quantities (for example, foundation, body lotion or hair products).

At the moment we also don’t endorse any mouth or lip products with phenoxyethanol in them, as per the European Commission on Cosmetic Ingredients’ recommendation.

The products weare currently happy to use that contain phenoxyethanol are Eye of Horus Mascaras and Eye Pencils, because of their limited contact with the skin and the tiny amounts that you apply when using them. 

Burt’s Bees Brightening moisturisers and BB Cream also contain phenoxyethanol as  the preservative and because these products are applied to the skin and are left on the skin, we’ve decided to pass on these in future. They’re currently available until stock sells out but at this stage we wont be reordering.

Basically, the products of ours that do use phenoxyethanol are ones we’ve thought hard about and are confident will do no harm. In these few instances, we’ve prioritised the need for a strong preservative and antibacterial ingredient over the unlikely event of lasting harm.

Cosmetic science is always evolving and hopefully sometime soon there will be a nice, natural alternative that packs a punch! But until then, this is where we stand. Any questions or feedback are, as always, more than welcome.


Belle & Sage x

Emma Peters
Emma Peters

Emma Peters, organic makeup artist, creative director and founder of Belle & Sage, is committed to leading the conversation around beauty and wellness. With over twenty years of experience as a make-up artist, she knows you don’t have to sacrifice quality for clean.

She’ll help you find the what, learn the why, nail the how, and everything in between.

Letting you know more, wear better, and start making beautiful choices: from the inside, out.

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