Ethylhexylglycerin Impairs Membrane Integrity and Enhances the Lethal Effect of Phenoxyethanol

PLoS One. 2016 Oct 26;11(10):e0165228. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0165228. eCollection 2016.


Preservatives are added to cosmetics to protect the consumers from infections and prevent product spoilage. The concentration of preservatives should be kept as low as possible and this can be achieved by adding potentiating agents. The aim of the study was to investigate the mechanisms behind potentiation of the bactericidal effect of a commonly used preservative, 2-phenoxyethanol (PE), by the potentiating agent ethylhexylglycerin (EHG). Sub-lethal concentrations of EHG (0.075%) and PE (0.675%) in combination led to rapid killing of E. coli (> 5 log reduction of cfu after 30 min), leakage of cellular constituents, disruption of the energy metabolism, morphological deformities of cells and condensation of DNA. Used alone, EHG disrupted the membrane integrity even at low concentrations. In conclusion, sub-lethal concentrations of EHG potentiate the effect of PE through damage of the cell membrane integrity. Thus, adding EHG to PE in a 1:9 ratio has a similar effect on membrane damage and bacterial viability as doubling the concentration of PE. This study provides insight about the mechanism of action of a strong potentiating agent, EHG, which is commonly used in cosmetics together with PE.

MeSH terms

  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / pharmacology
  • Cell Wall / drug effects
  • Cell Wall / metabolism
  • Cosmetics / chemistry
  • Drug Synergism
  • Energy Metabolism
  • Escherichia coli / drug effects*
  • Ethylene Glycols / pharmacology*
  • Glyceryl Ethers / pharmacology*
  • Microscopy, Electron, Transmission
  • Preservatives, Pharmaceutical / pharmacology*


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents
  • Cosmetics
  • Ethylene Glycols
  • Glyceryl Ethers
  • Preservatives, Pharmaceutical
  • ethylhexylglycerin
  • phenoxyethanol

Grants and funding

This study was funded by Schülke & Mayr GmbH, Norderstedt, Germany and Foundation for Research Levy on Agricultural Products (FRLAP, Grant no. 224921/F40). FRLAP had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript. Schülke & Mayr, through the co-authors participated in planning, interpretation of results and the decision to publish.