Are Sodium Benzoate and Phenoxyethanol Safe in Skincare Products?
Taking good care of your skin and investing yourself in daily care routine is something that is essential for a healthy, beautiful complexion. You take care of your skin because you know that a little self-care now will serve you well into the future. Choosing the right products to care for your skin can be a difficult task. Of course, the first thing most of look for when choosing a skin care product is an ingredient list that is designed to target our unique skin care challenges. Retinol, hyaluronic acid, vitamin C and green tea extract are just a few examples of the ingredients that catch our attention and influence our choices. What about the rest of the ingredient list, the items listed in much smaller print on the back of the container? It is within this list that a product’s true integrity can be found, but what should you look for and what should you avoid?
The answer to this question is not a simple one. While the FDA keeps a close eye on the ingredients found in your cosmetics and skin care products, the agency does not have as much control over product safety as you might think. Except for certain color additives, the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act states that cosmetic ingredients do not need FDA approval before landing on your bathroom countertop. What can you do to protect yourself against potentially harmful ingredients? You do the research yourself and look for companies that choose gentle, natural ingredients that are known to not be harmful to yourself or the environment.
The problem with this is that there is not always truth in advertising, and some ingredients, although organic or natural in origin, are not always the “safest” choices. One area in particular that this applies to is the preservatives that are used in most skin care products (even those labeled “Natural”), specifically sodium benzoate and phenoxyethanol.
Preservatives are added to skin care products to maintain stability, protect the integrity of the product and extend the shelf life by inhibiting the growth of harmful microorganisms. When you think about it, this makes sense, even for all-natural skin care products. Most cosmetics and skin care products are made in large batches and sit for weeks or even months before they are shipped. Once shipped, they sometimes undergo drastic temperature changes. Preservatives are a necessity, especially if the product contains water which will further promote the growth of bacteria and fungus.
Sodium Benzoate and phenoxyethanol are two “natural” preservatives that you should be wary about having in your skin care products. Although widely used, and reported as generally safe, there are reasons to be concerned about the use of both of these ingredients. Knowledge is the key to making better choices, so let’s take a closer look at both of these additives.
Sodium benzoate, also call E211, is the salt product of benzoic acid. Sodium benzoate has been used to cover or enhance the scent of products and also as an anticorrosive. It has been more recently that it has been used as a preservative. It is excellent at inhibiting the growth of fungus, yeast and bacteria in food, beverages and personal care products. Sodium benzoate is naturally occurring in fruits such as apples, cranberries, prunes and plums.
The problem with this additive isn’t the ingredient itself, but rather what it does when combined with certain other ingredients, specifically ascorbic acid, or vitamin C. As you may know, vitamin C is a common additive in skin care products today. Vitamin C is a molecule that is vital for healthy skin. It aids in the synthesis of collagen and helps to repair damage that has occurred from exposure to ultraviolet rays. This is only the beginning of how vitamin C protects the health of your skin. In other words, it is one of the best natural anti-aging ingredients available.
When sodium benzoate meets ascorbic acid, a chemical reaction occurs and the result is a byproduct called benzene. Benzene is one of the most commonly used chemicals in the United States. You can find it in other chemicals, plastics, dyes, rubber, detergents and pesticides. Benzene is also found in second hand smoke. According to the American Cancer Society, benzene is known to be a cancer-causing agent based on evidence from both human and animal studies.
Since benzene itself if not added to skin care products, but rather produced as a byproduct, the amounts found in a vitamin C serum using sodium benzoate are relatively minor compared to what you would find in a room full of cigarette smoke. However, the chemical is still there, even in miniscule amounts, and it is being applied to your skin where it can easily be absorbed into your system.
While not related to skin care, it is worth mentioning that sodium benzoate is often used as a preservative in foods and beverages that also contain vitamin C. Research has found benzene levels of twenty parts per billion in some soft drinks containing the combination. That sounds insignificant, however the safe level of benzene in drinking water has been determined to be only five parts per billion, which is significantly less than that found in the soft drinks mentioned.
An increased risk of cancer is only one potential side effect from long term exposure to benzene. Additional potential side effects include:
- Allergic reactions
- Possible connection to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
- Rapid heart rate
The bottom line is that while sodium benzoate is a safer alternative to some other chemical preservatives in skin care products, it still isn’t the best choice and its long-term use raises some concerns and is questionable at best.
Phenoxyethanol, also called Ethylene Glycol Monophenyl Ether, is a preservative with antibacterial properties. Phenoxyethanol is found naturally in green tea, however the type that you might find on your moisturizer’s ingredient list was likely created in a laboratory by treating phenol (created from benzene) with ethylene oxide. The result is a product that is chemically the same as naturally occurring phenoxyethanol.
Phenoxyethanol became more popular as a preservative in skin care products as a “natural” replacement for parabens and formaldehyde-releasing ingredients. Since phenoxyethanol can be naturally derived, it would seem that the potential side effects would be significantly less than the chemicals it has replaced. However, that is not necessarily the case.
While phenoxyethanol is generally viewed as one of the gentler commonly used preservatives, there are some studies that show that the ingredient can actually be irritating and caustic to the skin, even causing blistering in some cases. According to the Material Safety Data Sheet on phenoxyethanol, it is known to cause irritation to both the skin and lungs. Based on just that information alone, this is something that we should not be entirely comfortable with smearing on our skin.
Other possible side effects of phenoxyethanol include:
- Kidney damage
- Depresses the central nervous system
- Severe organ damage from long term exposure
- Cell mutation
Phenoxyethanol as an ingredient in cosmetics and skin care products can come disguised under many different names. If you don’t see the word phenoxyethanol on your ingredients list, take a closer look for these aliases:
- Beta-hydroxyethyl phenyl ether
- Emery 6705
- Glycol monophenyl ether
- Phenoxyethyl alcohol
- Rose ether
Once you start looking at ingredient lists, you will soon realize that there are many companies that claim to be all natural and gentle, yet don’t completely back up the claim with the chemicals that they put in their products. There are a few alternatives that really are all natural, gentle and safe to use as preservatives in skin care products. Two such ingredients that you should look for are sodium citrate and P anisic acid.
At OZNaturals, we are proud to be able to say that our products are made with no harmful preservatives. Our Biopreserve Complex™ is a patent pending, natural preservative system developed by OZNaturals scientists which eliminates the need for traditional, harmful preservatives. When you purchase and use OZNaturals products you can be assured that they contain:
- NO Phenoxyethanol
- NO Sodium Benzoate
- NO Parabens
- NO Sulfates
- NO Synthetic Colors
- NO Fragrance
- NO Phthalates
- NO Benzyl Alcohol
You shouldn’t have to choose between effective products with toxic ingredients and natural products that don’t quite live up to your expectations and needs. We live in a world where nature and science can unite in ways to bring us safer, effective alternatives. Why should you accept being told that a toxic ingredient is acceptable simply because the concentration is so low “that it really doesn’t matter”? You are worth more than that. Your health is more valuable than that.
We each have a responsibility when it comes to supporting companies and products that don’t sacrifice our health for the sake of their bottom line. We each have a responsibility to protect our health by using our ability to influence manufacturers with our choices, and we each have the responsibility to not settle for inferior toxic ingredients. There are safe alternatives and we need to support and encourage their use. The price for not doing so is simply too high for any of us to pay.
-- Angela Irish, Certified Aesthetician & Co-Founder OZNaturals