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Why I avoid butylene glycol and phenoxyethanol - and maybe you should, too
This morning I woke up to burnt orange rays of winter sunshine peeking through my curtains. It was refreshing to wake up to such a bright day when the last few have been so dreary. As I slowly swung my legs off the bed, and started to plod off to the bathroom, I ran my hands over my eyes and cheeks in an effort to slough off any remaining sleep from my puffy skin. I turned on the bathroom light, looked up into the mirror, and my mood immediately sunk down to the cold, hard bathroom floor – I had a rash. A radiant red rash on my neck.
I’m sure many of you have had similar moments. Those times when you look in the mirror and know that this is going to take time to fix. It won’t be gone in a few hours, it may even stay with you for a couple of days or even a week. The feeling that prompts you to start digging in your makeup drawer for your best concealer…
A friend of mine was recently telling me about her experience with a reaction to skin care that almost ruined her wedding photos – red, scaly dermatitis all over her mouth and jaw. She reacted quickly and sought the advice of a dermatologist who directed her to immediately stop using all her beauty and body products (even her current toothpaste!), and change to completely organic products with no preservatives, parabens, sulphates, and fillers. After a few days of using new products she realised was she was allergic to the preservatives commonly found in her skin care.
Her story prompted me to read up on the different types of preservatives used when formulating skin care products. But before I go any further I need to explain why we need certain preservatives in our skin care products.
It’s fairly simple – picture what happens to milk when it’s left out too long – it curdles; when you leave fruit in the sun – it ripens and starts to break down; or what happens to the left over fat from a good home made roast chicken – it separates right? These are all completely natural foods and without any sort of natural preservative so they go bad pretty quickly. Apply this to your skin care and imagine what would happen if the formulations didn’t contain some sort of preservative. They would have a very short shelf life – probably not even long enough to make it from farm to shelf to face – and may even become home to some unwelcome bacteria. There are of course exceptions – certain oils for example have an excellent natural shelf life. Just remember if you do buy products without any preservatives (natural or otherwise) you should be aware of their shelf life, store them in the fridge, and be very careful not to contaminate them when you open them.
While preservatives may be necessary in some skin care formulations, not all preservatives are created equal – some are naturally processed and made from natural sources; some are made in a laboratory from natural sources; and others are synthesized completely in the laboratory from chemical components. The reason for lab formulations is twofold – the resulting preservative is often cheaper to make in the lab, and it also often yields a preservative of higher purity and potency. In each case the resulting preservative may or may not cause a reaction, but of course some preservatives have a cleaner conscience than others… Just google “reactions to skin care preservatives” and you will find plenty of news articles.
As discussed in a previous blog, one example of a preservative that can sometimes result in side effects is butylene glycol. It is definitely not the worst of the glycols out there, but it’s worth using it as an illustrative example here.
Skin care manufacturers will defend the use of butylene glycol by saying when it’s applied to the skin it breaks down into a natural chemical compound found in the human body (gamma-hydroxybutyric acid). (It’s very common in a wide range of formulations for the active compound to only be synthesized as a result of the metabolism of the originator molecule.) They will also cite international regulatory agencies such as the FDA and the World Health Organisation who state that it’s safe for use in humans. The manufacturers and the regulatory agencies are not entirely wrong here – it is safe, but if you are unlucky enough to be sensitive to this compound then it can result in skin allergies and dermatitis.
I don’t want to talk too much about butylene glycol, but it is the preservative that gives me a rash, so I am going to stay far away from it. In general I am always weary of anything on the back of the bottle that reads like this:
- -glycol (e.g. propyl glycol);
- -alcohol (e.g. benzyl alcohol);
- -ethanol (e.g. phenoxyethanol);
- -paraben (e.g. methylparaben);
- -glycinate (e.g. hydroxymethylglycinate);
You have to bear in mind that these preservatives can be made from various sources – either from natural ingredients or from chemicals in the lab. So when you read the ingredients in your skin care and spot some of these don’t freak out – research the brand and find out where their products are made and to what standards.
A good example is phenoxyethanol – it can be made from green tea or it can be manufactured artificially. It has been known to cause some pretty awful reactions, so be sure to test it out on your skin (preferably the natural version) before you use products that use it as a preservative.
Also be aware that many of these compounds are listed by many other names so while it may sound like something natural, it may not be. Phenoxyethanol is also called phenoxytol, phenoxethol, rose ether, and ethylene glycol.
My suggestion is to research for yourself – This is an excellent article by Making Skin Care: http://www.makingskincare.com/preservatives/
The overall message take home message is to firstly, read the back of your bottles to understand what it in them before you use them; and secondly, be aware of the ingredients that irritate your skin and remove those products from your routine. There are over 6 billion skin types in the world – yours is entirely unique – so take the time to learn what works for you. Recommendations from friends are great, but always be aware of the products effects on you. Don’t get fooled by marketing, pretty packaging, or great smells – if it doesn’t work, or even worse, if you get a reaction to it, stop using it.
As always, do your research!
The Luxe Botanics Team