Preserving Natural Cosmetics with Phenoxyethanol and EDTA

Written by: | October 30, 2015 | 4 responses


Natural and Organic Wholesale

Laura Badcock VP and General Manager Lic. Aesthetician

Preserving Cosmetics: Phenoxyethanol & EDTA

Preservative systems are specially designed to reduce the likelihood of a product growing unwanted bacteria and mold. In the organic and naturally derived skin care world, we are more careful about the preservative systems we use and at Essential Wholesale & Labs, one of the go-to systems we use is Phenoxyethanol and Tetrasodium EDTA.

What is Phenoxyethanol?

Phenoxyethanol is a reliable alternative to commonly used and potentially harmful, formaldehyde-releasing preservatives. Phenoxyethanol is a bactericide, often used in place of sodium azide because Phenoxyethanol is milder. [i] Phenoxyethanol is a colorless, oily liquid produced when Phenol is treated with Ethylene Oxide in an alkaline medium.

The names Phenoxyethanol and Ethylene Oxide don’t sound particularly appealing to those of us committed to using safe, naturally derived products. Their names can seem intimidating and may bring to mind a harsh chemical, but don’t worry. Other frequently used ingredients like Glycolic Acid, Lye, Citric Acid, and Potassium Sorbate have equally ‘harsh’ sounding names, yet we comfortably use these elements day in and day out in cosmetics and skin care.

Phenoxyethanol Properties

When assessing Phenoxyethanol, you’ll definitely what to know what’s behind the name. Some companies claim that Phenoxyethanol is derived from rose oil, sage oil, minerals, plant derivatives and even coconut. Perhaps this is an attempt to make Phenoxyethanol appear more ‘natural’, but truthfully, Phenoxyethanol is not even remotely related to these ingredients. It is, however, a safe and efficient preservative and here are a few reasons why we use it in some of the products we make for our customers.

Phenoxyethanol is:

  1. Effective in a broad range of pH levels – is not pH dependent
  2. Not a formaldehyde-releasing agent
  3. Paraben free
  4. Non-reactive neither with other ingredients nor with air or light.
  5. Very stable
  6. Non-irritating to eyes and skin when used at 2.2 percent or lower levels

In 2011, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review board reaffirmed the findings of the 1990 Final Report on the Safety of Phenoxyethanol. [ii]

It is concluded that Phenoxyethanol is safe as a cosmetic ingredient in the present practices of use and concentration.[iii]

How does Essential use Phenoxyethanol?

At Essential, we almost always use Phenoxyethanol at one percent or less concentration. Phenoxyethanol is not in and of itself a broad-spectrum preservative, so it is often combined with other preservatives, such as Parabens. At Essential, we do not use Parabens with Phenoxyethanol, except for a few of our masques. Instead we combine Phenoxyethanol with Tetrasodium EDTA, another commonly used and safe cosmetic ingredient. Ethylenediamine (EDTA) is also deemed safe by CIR for use in cosmetics at below two percent.[iv]

What is EDTA?

Tetrasodium EDTA, derived from sodium salts, is used as a chelating agent in cosmetics. EDTA binds minerals together, including those necessary components for the growth of mold, such as magnesium. By binding these elements together, EDTA prevents the growth of mold and bacteria. EDTA can be used in medically supervised chelation therapy, an FDA-approved treatment for lead and heavy metal poisoning because of its binding properties. Many foods that include ascorbic acid and sodium benzoate add EDTA to reduce the formation of benzene, a carcinogen.

Why Use a Preservative at All?

The water portion of a product is a perfect breeding ground for mold, fungus, bacteria, and yeast. All unpreserved cosmetics will go bad, and those containing water will degrade faster. Unlike the ‘sniff test’ some of us give the carton of milk in our refrigerator, spoiled cosmetics may often look and smell just fine even when teeming with harmful microorganisms. Who wants to put that on their skin? Signs that something isn’t quite right may include an off-smell, separation, or visual evidence of mold.

Unpreserved products can be contaminated by the water in the product, mold spores in the air, even unseen contaminants in your packaging as well as the germs introduced with fingers, sponges, brushes and other applicators. A stable preservative system can keep your product safe and free from microorganism for months and years.

A Few Words on Preservative Systems

As manufacturers and distributors of quality naturally derived and organic products, Essential maintains a strong commitment to providing safe and effective products. Different preservative systems exist to meet different needs and philosophies, for instance, our organically preserved products use an organic alcohol system, which you can read about here.

At Essential, we have chosen to use Phenoxyethanol and EDTA as one of our trusted preservative systems. It’s not for every product, nor will everyone be comfortable with it. That’s okay. We have options to suit most needs.

Ultimately the right preservative system for any individual product will depend on many factors, including the preference of the brand and of course, what their consumers want. While some may choose not to use a preservative – as for instance when the product is mixed in a spa and kept in a refrigerator for use that same week, or the product does not contain water.

Essential is committed to continual research and development and to producing exceptional products for you and your customers. If you have questions about the preservative system in any of our products, please send us an email at






[i] “Final Report on the Safety Assessment of Phenoxyethanol” Journal of the American College of Toxicology, Volume 9, Number 2 published by Mary Ann Liebert, Inc. Found online at

[ii] Andersen, F. Alan, “Annual Review of Cosmetic Ingredient Safety Assessments: 2007-2010” International Journal of Toxicology 30 (Supplement 2) 73s-127S published by Sage. Found online at

[iii] Final Report on the Safety Assessment of EDTA, Calcium Disodium EDTA, Diammonium EDTA, Dipotassium EDTA, Disodium EDTA, TEA-EDTA, Tetrasodium EDTA, Tripotassium EDTA, Trisodium EDTA, HEDTA, and Trisodium HEDTA, found online at

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