Spotlight on preservatives in skincare

Preservatives get a bad rap when it comes to personal care products. The personal care industry is one of the biggest global consumers of preservatives and creates products we use multiple times a day.

To understand why preservatives ended up in personal care products, we need to drill down into product formulation.

The formulation (or recipe) depends on the product you’re using, but typically they contain water, emulsifiers/surfactants, gums, thickeners, a blend of oils and a preservative. Natural skincare ingredients are known to be superstars for your skin and can help maintain the health of your skin by providing skin-loving nutrients. But if you’re applying a nutrient-rich formulation to your skin, this also means that the ingredients are nutrient-rich to other organisms, such as yeasts, bacteria and funguses.

Think about it: someone has lovingly blended up a super-skin smoothie, put a lid on it and left it in a temperate, damp bathroom – the ideal growing conditions for microorganisms to flourish. It makes inadequately-preserved skincare an absolute science experiment ready to take over your face. Scary stuff.

Preservatives are added into your personal care products to keep the products safe for consumption. However, some preservatives have earned themselves a bad name – which leads us to question all preservatives.

But what even is a preservative?

Preservatives can be grouped into three general types: antimicrobials that block growth of bacteria, moulds or yeasts; antioxidants that slow oxidation of fats and lipids that leads to rancidity; and a third type that fights enzymes that promote the natural ripening that occurs after fruits or vegetables are picked.

There are different types of preservatives, including natural and synthetic preservatives. Natural preservatives are derived from plants or other natural sources, while synthetic preservatives are created in a laboratory. The choice of preservative depends on the specific application and the desired level of protection.

There are also broad-spectrum preservatives and preservatives which are only effective on one type of contaminant and not another; for example, Dehydroacetic acid is a potent anti-fungal whereas Benzyl alcohol is a powerful anti-bacterial. Although these two ingredients are typically from synthetic origin, they are often found on natural skincare labels together because, when combined, they create a strong broad-spectrum preservative against yeasts, moulds and funguses. They are popular in natural skincare because many of their trade-named suppliers have obtained EcoCert for safe use in natural cosmetics.

What about products claiming they’re preservative-free? Are these safe to use?

My advice is to be careful! If a (cosmetic) brand is claiming to be preservative-free, it’s time to flip the label and look closely at their ingredients list. If the product is waterless, you could be safe. However, to prolong the longevity of waterless formulations, it can be advantageous to add an antioxidant to preserve the product and prevent rancidity. Ingredients such as vitamin E and rosemary extract are popular choices in waterless products.

If the formulation does contain water (aqua), and the brand is claiming the product is preservative-free, they are either selling an unsafe product or misleading you about the preservation mechanisms of ingredients in the product.

From experience, there are brands who have nested their preservative under the name ‘fragrance’ or ‘parfum’, and, yes, these ingredients might produce a scent, but the primary reason for their presence in the formulation is to preserve the product. For example, the preservative Natacide has an INCI (International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients) of parfum or fragrance – meaning brands can add this vanilla-scented preservative into their products and claim preservative-free, because no official ‘preservative’ exists on the label. As far as preservative safety goes, Naticide is EcoCert and COSMOS-approved, which makes it relatively safe. But to me, the point is that claiming to be preservative-free while hiding a preservative under another name is misleading the consumer.

Long story short, you need a preservative if your formulation contains water with gums and/or oils. Stand-alone natural ingredients like Neem oil, potassium sorbate and grapefruit seed extract do provide light preservation action, but are by no means broad-spectrum. If your product only contains oils and doesn’t contain water, then the use of an antioxidant is strongly advised.

In an ideal world, we’d make our skincare fresh like we do our morning smoothie and keep it in a (beauty) fridge for optimum freshness. But doing this isn’t exactly practical. Our clever formulation chemists add in (or remove) ingredients which make our skincare safe to store in the bathroom for prolonged periods of time, while still having the performance and skin-feel the end consumer so desires. But you, the consumer, can do your own preservative research, too.

Which preservatives should be avoided?

There are several cosmetic preservatives that some prefer to avoid due to potential health concerns or skin sensitivity issues. Here are some of the top cosmetic preservatives to consider avoiding:

Parabens: These synthetic preservatives, such as methylparaben and propylparaben, are commonly used in cosmetics and personal care products. However, some studies have suggested that they may be endocrine disruptors and can potentially cause hormonal imbalances.

Formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing agents: These preservatives, such as DMDM hydantoin and quaternium-15, can release formaldehyde over time and have been linked to skin irritation and allergic reactions.

Phthalates: These are often used to make fragrances last longer in products, but they have been linked to hormonal disruptions and potential reproductive harm.

Triclosan: This synthetic preservative is often used in antibacterial products, but it has been linked to potential hormonal disruptions and may contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Ethanolamines (MEA/DEA/TEA): These preservatives are often used to adjust pH in cosmetic products, but they can potentially cause skin irritation and allergic reactions. 

It’s important to note that the safety of cosmetic preservatives is a complex issue – some preservatives may be safe in small amounts, while others may be harmful at any concentration.

If you have concerns about the safety of specific cosmetic preservatives, do your own research and at the end of the day, there’s no harm in avoiding the ingredient if you’re unsure.

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