Debating the Chemical of The Month: Phenoxyethanol
Are organic compounds really safer than synthetics? Two experts in the field share their thoughts.
The original article below by Bubble & Bee owner Stephanie Greenwood was published in the October issue of Utah Stories Magazine. She shared her thoughts on what she feels is a dangerous chemical found in many households. We subsequently received a detailed response by Dr. Alan D. Eastman, a chemist from GreenFire Energy, that explains some of his concerns in a second article below. The third piece is Mrs. Greenwood’s rebuttal to Dr. Eastman.
By Stephanie Greenwood
EWG Risk Score: 4
What is it?
Phenoxyethanol is an aromatic ether alcohol. What does this mean? This ingredient starts out as phenol, a toxic white crystalline powder that’s created from benzene (a known carcinogen) and then is treated with ethylene oxide (also a known carcinogen) and an alkalai.
What’s its job as an ingredient:
Phenoxyethanol is a hidden “Fragrance” ingredient and also used as a preservative.
Why is it a risk?
One study found it to cause central nervous depression, it’s restricted in Japan and it’s a skin, eye and lung irritant. Not to mention carcinogenic contamination concerns.
Type of Products it is in:
Sunscreen, facial products, scrubs, moisturizers, body wash, mascara
Companies that use this chemical:
- Goddess Garden
- Kiss My Face
- Physicians Formula
See more chemical reviews by Stephanie Greenwood
Response to Stephanie’s Article by Dr. Alan D. Eastman
I have just yesterday become acquainted with Utah Stories – what a great idea! In harmony with your stated objective of telling the undistorted truth, I’d like to make a few comments about one of the articles in your October 2009 edition. As a professional chemist, the article “Chemical of the Month,” discussing a cosmetic additive called phenoxyethanol is a near-perfect example of distorting the truth to fit a pre-conceived idea.
The author’s very first paragraph points out that phenoxyethanol is made from phenol, which itself is made from benzene, a known carcinogen. Phenol is then treated with ethylene oxide, another known carcinogen, then with an alkali. She is technically correct, but it makes as much sense to describe a very common compound around the house as being made from the reaction of a poison gas used in World War I with a substance that spontaneously bursts into flame if it comes in contact with air. That common substance is of course sodium chloride – table salt. That phenoxyethanol is made from rather scary ingredients does NOT necessarily mean that the material itself shares any of the adverse properties of its constituents, any more than table salt is a poisonous gas.
She also gives the following: “EWG Risk Score: 4” without defining where the EWG Risk Score comes from or what it means. It turns out that the Environmental Working Group is a non-profit organization that searches available databases of ingredients in cosmetics to determine the risks associated with each ingredient. The results of that search are published on line, and also used to lobby Congress to pass legislation making cosmetics safer. A look at the actual EWG report (see here) on phenoxyethanol is most enlightening. Note that the EWG is very careful to define the differences between the ingredient itself and the products in which it is used. Here is their statement:
Research studies have found that exposure to this ingredient — not the products containing it — caused the indicated health effect(s) in the studies reviewed by Skin Deep researchers. Actual health risks, if any, will vary based on the level of exposure to the ingredient and individual susceptibility — information not available in Skin Deep.
The author of your article states that phenoxyethanol’s use is limited in Japan, but somehow does not mention what the EWG documents: the chemical’s use is restricted to cosmetics – the very area in which the material is generally used in the US. What a surprise!
By the way, EWG defines their risk score of 4 (on a 1-10 scale) as meaning “moderate hazard.” Now remember that the score is for the chemical itself in its most concentrated form, not for products using that chemical. Since toxicity correlates to dosage, using such a material at the very low levels common for preservatives (phenoxyethanol’s function in cosmetics) means that the actual risks presented by this material are very, very low.
The author’s obvious goal in her article is to tout her ‘chemical-free’ product line. Yes, phenoxyethanol is a chemical, no doubt about it. But it’s a far more benign material than one would think if your only information came from Stephanie Greenwood! If she wants to sell a truly synthetic-chemical-free product line, she will have to quit using virtually all commercially-available fragrances, eschew purchasing glycerine, and go back to lard, olive oil, fireplace ashes, and herbs to make her soaps, creams, and potions.
Now, it’s clear that there are some very dangerous synthetic chemicals around, and that prudence demands caution – but to insist that we go back to the 17th century technologically in order to escape all those terrible materials is not only silly but unnecessary. If you would be interested, I would be pleased to write a short article on some of the fallacies inherent in so-called ‘chemical-free’ materials.
Finally, I’d like to point out that I’m not an industry shill: my company, GreenFire Energy, is engaged in production of energy using advanced geothermal techniques, including a novel process that creates energy while at the same time sequestering CO2! Life is fun–and good technology is good for our planet and all of us who live on it.
Alan D. Eastman, PhD
Vice-President, Technical Development
5698 Park Place East
Salt Lake City, UT 84121
Rebuttal by Stephanie Greenwood
Well, it looks like I’ve succeeded–I live to stir up a good debate about chemicals!
Thank you so much for offering your perspective on phenoxyethanol. I think it’s wonderful that you’ve challenged my perspective in a thoughtful manner. First I have to say that I’m not an employee or paid by Utah Stories, so my opinion does not necessarily reflect that of the publication. Chemical of the Day is a blog that I run, and due to the popularity of a previously published excerpt, Utah Stories asked me to offer one of my chemicals to their readers as a Chemical of the Month. And while I carefully research my information and believe everything to be true, Chemical of the Month is more of an opinion piece than the other hard-hitting journalism found in the publication. We will make this more clear for future pieces. That said, I’ll be happy to delve deeper in substantiating my claims against the chemical. I hold fast to my claims.