Phenoxyethanol is a synthetic preservative that’s manufactured using a complex process where phenol is treated with ethylene oxide. Phenol is a mildly acidic white crystalline solid that can be obtained from natural or chemical sources. Ethylene oxide, also known as carbolic acid, is a colorless gas or liquid that is considered carcinogenic. Combined during manufacture, the two chemicals are claimed by some to form a safe, non-toxic synthetic preservative. However, other articles are strongly opposed to the use of Phenoxyethanol in skincare products.
The Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) on Phenoxyethanol states that it can cause skin and lung irritation. It’s also toxic to the kidneys, nervous system, and liver, and repeated, long-term exposure can cause organ damage. It notes that toxic effects can occur through inhalation, skin exposure, and ingestion. The toxicity effects listed in the MSDS are based on exposure to the preservative when it’s undiluted, and scientists agree that in high doses Phenoxyethanol is toxic.