Ask a Skin Care Biologist: Phenoxyethanol is safe, dry brushing doesn't work, and a guided routine for esthetician-damaged skin
by Wendy Ouriel
Question: There is so much fear about the preservative phenoxyethanol, which you talked about in your first post. Can you go into more depth about why there is so much fear surrounding it? I know some green beauty carriers refuse to bring in products that contain it.
Answer: The one thing that you can notice from anyone who claims that phenoxyethanol is bad is that they do not come from a scientific background. That should really end the discussion right there because if you do not have the training or background to understand a topic, then you are not qualified to provide your opinion. That includes beauty suppliers and bloggers.
Unfortunately ultracrepidarians have a just as big of a platform, if not bigger than those who are genuinely educated on a subject, and the truth gets muddied in a sea of misinformation. Welcome to the internet.
A shoemaker, his shoes.
Unfortunately a lot of people have been harmed because too many empty cans made a lot of noise about matters for which they know nothing. Including phenoxyethanol. And what happened when those empty cans made a lot of noise? They scared people, and set skin care progress back decades.
The harm caused by the spread of misinformation regarding phenoxyethanol is significant and severe. Phenoxyethanol is a safe and effective broad spectrum preservative that offers protection against mold, fungus and bacterial growth in your skin care. If you do not have a proper preservative, the product will infect your skin and it will make you sick.
Preservatives are anti-aging and necessary. Skin care not containing a preservative, or a pseudopreservative (such as essential oils) are going to cause harm.
The investigations on the subject of phenoxyethanol have found that it has a low (or often non-existent) sensitizing capacity. And the few (outdated) studies that have found that it can be sensitizing to some have found that is only does so at high concentrations and for those with old, sensitive skin or existing skin diseases such as contact dermatitis.
I do not know about other companies, but in OUMERE Skin care, we use far less than 2%. We use as little as possible while maintaining the highest amount of broad spectrum protection against pathogenic growth.
I chose phenoxyethanol because it had the lowest irritant potential, while having the most protection against bacterial, mold and fungal growth.
There is no legitimate research that has found cosmetic use of phenoxyethanol to cause cancer, human cell death or anything else of concern. Anything to the contrary is just false.
So how did the hysteria over a safe and effective preservative start? Just as how any other skin care myth gets started, through a combination of ignorance and ego.
At some point, at least one person with no background in science (and therefore incapable of understanding scientific literature), who felt entitled to push their agenda, went on google scholar (a search engine for scientific literature), typed in something along the lines of “phenoxyethanol toxicity” and skimmed the results.
First and foremost, googling scientific research by typing in a result you want to find is a highly unscientific way to find data because you are cherry picking information to suit your bias. Actual educated scientists do not conduct a literature search in this way. Only self-proclaimed internet scientists and other assorted charlatans do.
Then this person or persons conducting these flawed searches read the first few sentences of the first few articles they found, which may have discussed phenoxyethanol as an irritant or dangerous, then assumed the following:
- It is an irritant in all cases, and therefor toxic
- This study was 100% done properly
- This study had no error or bias
- The study had picked the proper test subjects, and the test subjects properly reported all of their skin sensitivities
- This study was done on humans
- This study 100% relates to skin care in all cases in all products in all of the world
- This study was done on a sample size of thousands
- All skin care has the same concentration of phenoxyethanol
- All skin care has the same ingredients and thus the reaction to phenoxyethanol is the same
- All people have the exact same skin
- No false positives occurred
- Phenoxyethanol wasn't mixed with another preservative, and that other preservative was the culprit for irritation
- This study was properly replicated and the replications found the exact same results
- The phenoxyethanol came from the exact same source as used in all skin care products in all of the world
As you see, that is a lot of assumptions.
And I guarantee this: No one who wrote anything about the ‘dangers of phenoxyethanol’ did ANY due diligence on any of the study’s they cited (if they cited any). Meaning, they did not examine the methods to make sure the study was conducted properly. They did not determine if the study was properly replicated. They did not look at the study’s cited research and read those studies to determine if there is proper basis for the experiment. They did not determine the context of the study to determine if the concentrations, type or method for using phenoxyethanol properly relates to that which is in used in cosmetics. They did not look at the follow up studies. They did not examine if the studies were specifically for phenoxyethanol use in cosmetics (because it is also used in paint and other non-consumable products) They did not examine the test subjects to determine if they were the proper sample size, demographic or had the proper health history (were these healthy test subjects or did they have existing skin sensitivities that would skew the results). They did not examine the journal’s credibility or impact score. And they have done no actual experiments themselves.
If they did any of the above they would have understood how ludicrous it is to posit that phenoxyethanol is dangerous.
In general I have found that studies who examined cytotoxicity of phenoxyethanol came to the same basic conclusion:
"phenoxyethanol showed little to no irritant capacity or cytotoxicity when compared to other preservatives tested"
A limited amount of studies have found that phenoxyethanol, like most substances, has the potential to be an irritant, but only when used in high concentrations and for those with damaged, very mature or sensitive skin.
When we read a study that finds irritancy may occur at high concentrations (>2-5%) for those with sensitive or damaged skin, it only requires basic cognitive functioning to deduce that makes phenoxyethanol safe because it gives formulators a clear threshold to work with. Even water when consumed in high amounts is toxic.
Furthermore, even if phenoxyethanol was an irritant to some, it is beneficial to most people, and we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bath water because 1 in a 10,000 might have a slight reaction. I get a stomachache from eating bananas. Does that mean Chiquita Banana Co. should stop selling bananas and go out of business? Does that mean Bananas are bad? Of course not, it just means I cant eat them. But for everyone else they're a healthy fruit and its something that should be part of a balanced diet.
My final thoughts on this subject: If someone has a blog and talks about science, toxicity and health, and they have no background that would qualify them to make such statements, why believe anything they have to say?
Question: Does dry skin brushing fall under the no manual exfoliation category? I'm so confused because I keep reading of it's benefits, especially for lymphatic drainage.
Answer: One thing your body is really good at is functioning on its own. If it didn’t do this properly, you wouldn’t exist. This is why ‘detoxes’ are mostly a scam: your liver and kidneys and other organs are designed to detoxify, filter, remove waste and protect against infection. And your organs are so good at keeping you healthy, we have 200,000 years of human existence to thank for it.
One of the new detox fads is this dry brushing to 'assist with lymphatic drainage.’ It is called manual lymphatic drainage, and it entirely based on an unproven postulation that massage (including dry brushing) will promote the natural drainage of lymph.
To understand why dry brushing does not promote lymphatic drainage, we first need to establish how the lymphatic system works.
- The lymphatic system is a network of lymphatic vessels that circulate lymph throughout the body.
- The lymphatic system circulates lymph throughout the body via a system of extrinsic and intrinsic lymph pumps. These lymph pumps are necessary to overcome existing opposing pressure gradients (think of climbing up a hill), and move lymph throughout the lymphatic system
- The pumps generate motive forces that generate energy in one of two ways
i. Intrinsic rapid contractions of the smooth lymphatic muscle
ii. Extrinsic pumping through cyclical compressing and expanding of the
neighboring tissue forces, which generate a pressure gradient to circulate lymph.
Thats a very general overview, but as you can see, the lymphatic system is a complex network that requires an intricate and precise pump/pressure mechanism that is running on a constant basis for proper circulation and drainage of lymph.
Running a dry brush along your body is not going to do that.
I don’t care how much anecdotal evidence the massage therapist has about how dry brushing removes bruises. You know what removes bruises? The passage of time because a healthy body heals itself because of many things, including a functioning lymphatic system.
Running a dry brush on your body will remove live skin (along with dead skin) which will cause premature wrinkling along with a slew of other skin issues that you don’t want.
I don’t recommend it.
Question: In the last 2 years, I’ve developed tiny red marks on my cheeks (I think they’re burst capillaries, but I haven’t had them diagnosed). It started with one, right in a spot where I’d picked a pimple. Then, a few months later, I was persuaded by a sweet talking aesthetician to have microdermabrasion done for the first time. She destroyed my skin, leaving me raw, bright red, and in a lot of pain. Shortly thereafter I noticed a couple red marks on my other cheek. Over the last few months they’ve been multiplying like crazy. I stopped using the retinoid cream I’d been using, stopped washing my face with a cloth and warm water and my routine now looks like this:
- cold water wash in the evenings with an oil based cleanser
- lactic acid exfoliation AM/PM
- moisturize with rose hip seed oil
Is there anything I can do to fix these? Are there any products I should avoid on these areas at all costs to prevent further damage? I’ve read that laser treatment can be helpful, but I’ve also heard it can damage the skin and leave scarring in its wake. I’d love some insight from you around this matter. Thanks in advance.
Answer: I am glad to know you are off the warm towels, microdermabrasion and retinol. All of which will create the busted capillaries and make your skin worse. I agree with part of your routine, with certain recommendations, but I believe other parts may cause issues. Lets go through it one by one:
- Cold water wash in the evenings with an oil-based cleanser
I agree with the cold water wash using the oil-based cleanser. With delicate skin, it is critical to not strip the protective oils, and to not dry and damage the skin with warm or hot water. Therefore an oil-based cleanser and rinsed with cold water is best.
Just be sure it is a cleanser that is pH-balanced, and contains an anti-inflammatory fatty acid profile, which means it needs to contain anti-inflammatory plant oils such as grapeseed oil and watermelon seed oil. Also be sure there are no alcohols, essential oils or other irritants.
2. Lactic acid exfoliation AM/PM
I have had many people with similar issues use the No. 9 to rebuild their skin (which contains lactic acid) with profound results, so I recommend continuing with the exfoliation, but I recommend diluting it with distilled water for at least 6 months. I believe that with damaged skin, an exfoliant with poly hydroxy acids, in addition to lactic acid, such as lactobionic acid is necessary because it offers gentler exfoliation which is necessary for the repair of damaged skin.
The problem with the step, however, is exfoliating morning and evening, because twice daily exfoliation is overkill for damaged skin. I recommend just in the morning, and this should be the first step in your routine because the oils that accumulate on your skin overnight will help prevent over exfoliation and damage from occurring.
3. Moisturize with rosehip oil
Oils do not moisturize because oils contain no water. Oils can lock in pre-existing moisture but that is all. I see no water-based serums in the routine, so there is no moisturizing occurring within the regimen, and coupled aforementioned exfoliating step, it will make skin dry and further irritated.
In addition to skin being inflamed, putting straight oil on is going to make matters worse because you are trapping in heat. This is why a light part-oil, part-water serum is best because you will have the benefit of moisture without causing damage from trapping heat into the skin which will make redness worse.
Therefore this routine is missing two key components:
- Moisture from a water-based serum
- A moisture-locking serum containing anti-inflammatory oils and water based extracts
I agree with adding sunscreen last.
This is the golden routine for those with damaged skin:
Sunscreen of your choice
Have a question for an upcoming Ask a Skin Care Biologist post? Send us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org
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