One of the most talked about subjects in the skincare industry is preservatives. Which ones are safe, which are harmful? These are common questions asked by the public and as anyone who works in the industry knows, a lot of them aren’t great.
Using unpreserved products containing water is fraught with risk. It doesn’t take a jar of preservative free hand cream to become a bowl of bacterial soup. This can be very dangerous as you can imagine. In fact any risk posed by the use of a good preservative in the right measure is far lower than not using any preservative.
What are Preservatives?
In this article I’m going to delve into exactly what preservatives are. Why there is such a poor perception of them. What products should always contain them. Which ones should be avoided and which ones are considered safe?
Preservatives are chemicals that prevent the decomposition of a product. This is usually due to the action of microbes or by chemical changes. There are 2 main types of preservation.
- Chemical – adding chemical compounds to the product.
- Physical – processes like pasteurization, dehydrating or refrigeration.
With skincare products we are only concerned with chemical preservation. This form of preservation consists of 2 distinct groups.
- Synthetic – chemicals and compounds created in a laboratory
- Natural – derived from natural sources
There has always been controversy surrounding which preservatives are acceptable in skincare products. Particularly when it comes to organic and natural branded skincare lines.
Lets attempt to demystify the controversy by understanding the differences between these 2 groups of preservatives.
There are a lot of benefits associated with using synthetic preservatives. As a manufacturer though you can compromise natural or organic status by doing so. The regulatory bodies of each do allow small percentages of approved ones though. This is because they have a broad-spectrum of effectiveness at very low concentrations. You don’t need much to do an effective job.
Synthetics tend to be less allergenic than natural preservatives as well. This is also because they are being used in much smaller amounts.
There are also a lot more options available when using synthetics.
Chemical firms that manufacture preservatives have to perform toxicity testing. Therefore there is a lot more information about their safety profiles. They also tend to be low cost and more consistent from batch to batch. Synthetics also don’t tend to change the characteristics of a formulation such as fragrance, lather, colour & odour
The biggest problem with synthetic preservatives is the negative perception of them. They are often made from bi-products of the petroleum industry. They can cause skin sensitization and may need a narrow pH band to work effectively.
Below is a list of some of the synthetics considered acceptable for use in skincare products.
There are many synthetics that are best avoided though and these are listed below.
- Methylisothiazolinone (MIT)
- Formaldehyde donors – DMDM Hydantonin, Imidazolidinyl urea, Glutaraldehyde, Quaternum-15
Due to the bad press surrounding synthetics consumers generally prefer natural preservatives. However, there is not actually much extra benefit to using natural preservatives. They do tend to function over a broader pH range and impart a natural fragrance. But that’s about it.
On the negative side, natural preservatives have limited options of usage. They don’t work as well on limiting microbial growth like synthetics do and don’t work across a broad spectrum. This means they may inhibit bacterial growth, but not mold.
You also need to use a lot more natural preservative than you would a synthetic. This can impact the formulation of the product and change its characteristics. Feel, color, odour, etc in an undesirable way.
Consistency and potency of the preservative can also vary from batch to batch. This can make consistency of formulation difficult for the manufacturer.
As with synthetics skin sensitization can also occur over time.
Below is a list of natural preservatives commonly used in skincare products.
Are antioxidants preservatives?
Antioxidants are often hailed on product labels as being a preservative. This just isn’t true and is a marketing ploy to make you believe the product is natural and safe. Antioxidants only help in preventing oils and fats from oxidising and turning rancid. They do ‘not’ kill microbes or prevent fungal growth.
Some common antioxidants found in formulations are
- Grapefruit seed extract
- Vitamin E
- Oleoresin Extract
- Rosemary extract
- Vitamin C
When do preservatives need to be used?
Preservatives are absolutely essential in any product containing water (commonly labelled as Aqua). Water can also be ‘hidden” inside other ingredients like aloe vera, milks and hydrosols. It pays to read and understand product labels.
Remember, it doesn’t matter how sterile the products container or packaging is. If there is water in the formulation, or indirect contact with water, it needs a preservative.
Always check the product you use is protected by a broad spectrum preservative.
This kind of preservative system is one that kills and prevents the growth of microbes and mold. By their very nature organic and natural products provide an excellent food source. Microbes and molds thrive in this kind of environment given a chance.
Preservative free skincare
There is a big push these days towards preservative free skincare and a lot of brands are touting this. While it is true that skincare products containing only oils and no water are less susceptible to decomposition It is still possible for them to become contaminated.
Water and microbes can enter the product through damp fingers dipped into a tub of cream for example. Steam can even get into the product if it is kept in the bathroom. Once water is present it doesn’t take long to become a breeding ground for contamination.
Contamination can be very dangerous. There have been a lot of cases of contaminated products causing great harm and even death. so it’s something that should be taken extremely seriously.
One case at the Universitari del Mar Hospital in Barcelona in 2008 highlighted exactly this kind of contamination problem.
In 2008 five intensive care patients picked up a deadly B.cepacia infection on the ward. It was later found to be from contaminated moisturising milk. Three suffered blood poisoning and two others acquired urinary tract and lung infections.
If you see products saying they are preservative free but contain water, be very cautious. Personally I would avoid them at all costs.
The Bottom Line
If the preservatives in the skincare you use concern you then educate yourself about them. Do your own research. Decide for yourself if the potential risks to you are greater than you are prepared to accept. Very often there is a lot of disinformation about them and their actual properties too. These days with access to the internet, it doesn’t take long to find out the truth.
The other option is to choose products that are oil based with no preservative system. The only trouble with this is that they do behave differently to water based products. Moisturisers that do not include water for example are not very hydrating.
If you do decide to go preservative free. Make sure you keep the products in the fridge. This will at least slow down or inhibit microbial and fungal growth.
Remember the word natural on a product, doesn’t mean you are all clear and safe to go. You need to read and understand the label and what is in the product. Do your own research from reliable sources. Don’t believe the marketing spin.
Last but not least, If you are really worried about a product and its possible effects, do a skin patch test first. Apply a little of the product to a small area. Wait half an hour or so and see if there are any possible adverse skin reactions. If no reaction then at least you have ruled out any allergic reaction. In a lot of cases the preservative system can cause this.
Well I hope you’ve found this post informative. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions you have below. We always look forward to hearing different points of view as well.