Written by Kayla Fioravanti. One of the foremost researchers and formulators in the organic industry explains Phenoxyethanol & EDTA.
Phenoxyethynol is created by treating phenol with ethylene oxide in an alkaline medium. Each ingredient individually does not sound great, but when they react it creates a safe and effective preservative. Individually many chemicals may harm you, but together they create a beneficial product. For instance, lye alone is extremely dangerous, but after it reacts with oil and water to create castile soap it is harmless and useful. The MSDS for a pure ingredient can cause undo alarm. But as you consider other ingredients that are widely used and safe in cosmetics you will find that the MSDS sounds alarming for them as well. For instance commonly used ingredients like glycolic acid, lye, citric acid, potassium sorbate and even essential oils have MSDS warnings that could be misunderstood and deemed as too dangerous to use in cosmetics. However, we all know that these ingredients are commonly used in cosmetics.
The MSDS sheet is designed to inform the end user of how to handle the ingredient properly in an undiluted form. Some companies claim that phenoxyethynol is derived from rose oil, sage oil, minerals, plant derivatives and even coconut. But honestly, phenoxyethynol is not even remotely related to these ingredients. It is, however, very safe. It is not pH dependent and not a formaldehyde releasing agent. It is paraben free. It does not react with other ingredients, air or light. It is very stable. According to the CIR Expert Panel it is safe as a cosmetic ingredient as it is currently used. It has been tested on the skin and eyes and it is non-irritating and non-sensitizing at levels of 2.2% or lower. We use phenoxyethynol at 1% or less. You may have seen phenoxyethynol used in cosmetics in conjunction with other preservatives, such as parabens. This is because phenoxyethynol is not a broad spectrum preservative by itself. Through extensive research and testing, we have found success in combining it with another commonly used and completely safe cosmetic ingredient, Edta.
Tetrasodium Edta is derived from sodium salts. Edta is used as a chelating agent. The Greek root of the word chelate is chele which means “to claw”. The root of the word creates a great visual image of what Edta as a chelating agent does. Edta “claws” or “binds” minerals, which are necessary components for the growth of mold. For instance, Edta binds up magnesium which is necessary for mold to grow. In cosmetics, Edta not only is a great additive to create a stable product, but it also pulls heavy metals from your skin when you apply the cosmetic. Edta is widely used for chelation therapy, which is approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a treatment for lead and heavy metal poisoning. An estimated one million people in America use chelation therapy for this purpose. The NIH National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) is currently funding a study to prove the effectiveness of Edta chelation therapy for heart disease. Over 100,000 people per year use it in place of heart surgery. In chelation therapy, Edta is injected intravenously. Once in the bloodstream, Edta latches onto lead and other metals to form a compound that can be excreted in the urine. Edta is also used in many foods, for instance mayonnaise and soft drinks, that include ascorbic and sodium benzoate to reduce the formation of benzene (a carcinogen). It is often used in household products. In household products it is sent out into waste water and it binds up the minerals. While Edta is nontoxic in waste water it can impact the natural balance of minerals.
Some might wonder why we use preservatives at all. The water portion of a product is the perfect breeding ground for mold, fungus, bacteria and yeast. It is only a matter of time and all unpreserved cosmetics will go bad. What is frightening is that the product might look and smell just fine, but be filled with microorganisms that are dangerous for your skin and health. Some products may look fine on the outside, but when we run them through micro tests, the bacteria, yeast, fungus and mold count is off the chart. Other times, the signs of contamination are more obvious. Possible signs of a product going bad can be an off smell, separation and visual evidence of mold. An unstable, unpreserved product can be contaminated by the water in the product, spores in the air, even unseen contaminates in your packaging and the germs on your hands. A good stable preservative system can keep your product safe and free from these microorganisms for years.
We are often asked, “Why does brand X not use any preservatives?” Our research has been extensive. It has included testing many chemical, semi-synthetic and natural preservatives on the market today. It has also included running tests on many Brand X products.
In our research there are five possible answers to the question of how Brand X uses no preservative.
• One: is that there is a preservative system on the market with the INCI (Industrial Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients) name “fragrance or parfum”, which does not disclose the ingredients and hides the preservative. They might also be using ingredients that are “multifunctional”, which does again do not fully disclose the ingredients.
• Two: there are many products on the market that failed our challenge tests and grew yeast, mold, bacteria and fungus quickly.
• Three: they do not fully disclose their ingredient lists evidenced by the fact that their product does not fail micro testing and they do not have any ingredients listed that have any preservative properties at all. That’s odd, isn’t it?
• Four: they might be using ingredients that do not require preservatives. For instance a product that does not contain water might not require preservatives, only antioxidants such as Vitamin E.
• Five: they could be using extracts in one or two different methods. Extracts in alcohol used at the right percentage create an effective preservative. Many extracts are in a propylene glycol base and preserved with parabens and urea. These used at high enough levels without fully disclosing them to the other ingredients can create an effective preservative system.
Another great explanation on Phenoxyethanol
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
Other great comments on Stephanie’s Article
* ALL chemicals can be poisonous it just depends on the amount and consistency of use.
For example drinking an excessive amount of water with lack of urination has the potential to be poisonous and therefore deadly.
* Stephanie, what you are peddling is FUD — ‘fear, uncertainty and doubt’ – and playing on the general public’s lack of science education. That’s a shame, because while there can be dangers to any substance, trying to push these scare tactics as reasoned cautions is a bit much. Many of the ‘natural and organic herbs and oils’ you use are poisonous in higher concentrations or doses. Some trigger exceptional allergic reactions. And all are chemicals, be of natural origin or synthesized from natural products by man. Alluding to cyclic or polycyclic compounds as being dangerous because they are similar to others is demeaning to the intelligence of your readers. Do we damn cholesterol because it is polycyclic? Necessary for many cellular functions. Phenylalanine is a close cousin to Phenol — and a necessary amino acid for nearly all life. Ketones such as acetone are made when fats are metabolised — or synthetically as nail polish remover. This is why groups like the EWG and activists such as yourself do the public as much damage with your lack of chemical honesty as the industrial concerns do with far harsher compounds than phenoxyethanol.
I hope this clears up some confusion on Phenoxyethanol.