Preservatives are necessary for cosmetics as to prevent product damage caused by microorganisms and to protect the product from inadvertent contamination by the consumer during use. It would be a health risk if there weren’t preservatives in cosmetics and skincare products. A preservative is often added to a product to protect it against damage and degradation caused by exposure to oxygen, and in this instance, these ingredients are also called antioxidants. Without preservatives, cosmetic products, just like food, can become contaminated, leading to product spoilage and possibly irritation or infections.
A preservative is a natural or synthetic ingredient that is added to products such as foods, pharmaceuticals and personal care products to prevent spoilage, whether from microbial growth or undesirable chemical changes. Often, products are kept at room temperature, products with any water in it are going to attract microbes. If you have a cut in your skin, these microbes get into your skin, and you could get an infection.
Can your cosmetic kill you? Sadly, there do have cases of poorly preserved cosmetics that may lead to severe, life-threatening infections. It is important that products are well adequately preserved. Applying 1-2% preservative (even a chemical one) helps to prevent contamination and save a life. Using a preservative is a necessity.
It is important to recognize that preservatives are there to protect you from bacteria, fungus, and yeast.
EU Cosmetics Regulations which came into force in July 2013 requires that certain products are challenge tested when you apply for your safety assessments. This means that, for water-containing beauty products that have a shelf life longer than a week, a preservative will generally be required.
What ‘Preservative-Free’ Really Means for Cosmetics
People are getting more conscious and aware of what they are using and exposing their bodies to, and cosmetics are no exception. Consumers are having the awareness and learn or already know how to read the ingredient label. Many may have read about the risk associated with parabens, a group of preservatives used in many mainstream beauty products. In 2004, Dr. Philippa Darbre, a research scientist at the University of Reading in the UK, found that parabens may be carcinogenic, meaning they can transform healthy cells into cancer cells.
Some brands are removing all mention of preservatives from their labels because they “look bad” to label-readers. This is very worrisome as preservatives are not all bad. Moreover, consumers should know what they are feeding their skin, so all ingredients should be listed.
Before you buy a product simply because it is labeled as “preservative-free,” you need to understand some of the cosmetics labeled as preservative-free are actually not as they appear.
The cosmetics industry is so poorly regulated, and claims don’t mean anything. Natural does not mean anything as such terms are regulated by the FDA. Moreover, it is not compulsory in some countries to list the ingredients that make up less than 1 percent of the product so if the preservatives is below 1 percent, and it will not even make known.
Preservatives may have already pre-mixed with the cosmetic ingredients when supplied to manufacturers. What is even more misleading is that instead of listing the ingredients in scientific form, they mentioned them by commercial name. For instance, Herbigerm preservative contains parabens, however, the name sounds much greener and healthier.
Alert: Hebigerm Preservatives is a composition of Propylene glycol, diazolidinyl urea, methylparaben, propylparaben, rosemary oil, tea tree oil, grapeseed oil
For products to completely preservative free, it particularly has to be free from water, or the product is made fresh and used up immediately. The moment you add water, for instance to oil to create an emulsion, you produce the perfect environment for bacteria, yeast, and mold to flourish. Even so, for oil, balm, or wax-based products, a preservative is often used to retard rancidity. Products completely free of preservatives are not designed for mass market sale or standard retail environments whereby minimum shelf life is expected in these consumer market.
Why Natural Formulations Need Preserviatives
Natural products will not stay fresh for long, and this is why commercial products are typically loaded with preservatives to allow them to remain fresh during the long span between the time of manufacture and the time the customer finishes using it.
To produce a 100% natural skincare always present a challenge. Natural products are more susceptible to microbial growth. Direct sunlight and UV rays, oxygen, heat, moisture, and bacteria from your fingers can all be detrimental to your products. Preservatives not only extend the longevity of the products, but they also protect naturally derived products, keeping them free from bacteria.
The risk of using preservatives is significantly lower than that of using unpreserved cosmetics, especially for water-based cosmetics.
What Common Preservatives Used in Cosmetics?
Preservatives are antimicrobial ingredients added to the product formulation to inhibit the growth of the microbes which will cause contamination to your products. A product may become unpleasant and unsafe for consumers if it is not properly preserved. There are 5 most common types of preservatives used in cosmetics: –
It is the most economical and widely used group of preservatives. It is effective for fungal and bacteria protection.
- Germaben II
2. Formaldahyde Releasers
It is effective for bacteria but weak fungal efficacy
- Germall Plus
- DMDM Hydantoin
- Imadozolidinyl Urea
- Diazolidinyl Urea
Its broad spectrum effectiveness is best to use for rinse off products. However, it may cause irritation for some consumers
It is often considered a “milder alternative” to traditional preservatives. It has very good bacterial efficacy, stable and is not pH dependent. As by itself, it is not broad spectrum so often combined with caprylyl glycol, sorbic acid/potassium sorbate or EDTA to create broad spectrum efficacy. There is concerns on carcinogenic activity
- Optiphen, Optiphen Plus (contains phenoxyethanol combined with others for broad spectrum protection)
5. Organic acids
This is considered to be “natural alternatives” though they are often made synthetically. It requires pH 2-6, aqueous based, and if precipitate in high water content, it will become inactive. It often combined with other organic acids or diazolidinyl urea (DU) for broad spectrum effectiveness. It is effective against most fungi but with weak efficacy against bacteria. This type of preservatives tend to be higher in costs due to higher use levels to be effective.
- Benzoic Acid/Sodium Benzoate
- Sorbic Acid/Potassium sorbate
- Levulinic Acid
- Anisic Acid
What is the Natural Preservatives for Cosmetics?
The most common preservative is parabens because they are so effective and inexpensive. However, in recent years, they have been shown to mimic estrogenic activity due to study. Even the study was disputed, but the public now perceives them as dangerous, and it is difficult to turn that around. In 2013, Methylisothiazolinone made the “Allergen of The Year” list, and in 2014, formaldehyde-releasing preservatives made the list and were deemed a carcinogenic leading to companies scramble to reformulate so to keep up with the public concerns and customer demands to remove harmful chemicals.
There are 3 broad spectrum natural preservatives for cosmetics and these preservatives are all approved for use in certified organic products. They are either derived from natural sources or are nature identical.
1. Preservative Eco
Other trade names include Mikrokill ECT, Geogard ECT and Plantaserv M.
INCI: Benzyl Alcohol (and) Salicylic Acid (and) Glycerin (and) Sorbic Acid
(Meets Ecocert and COSMOS Standards)
This is a broad spectrum preservative which contains four different components: Benzyl Alcohol, Salicylic Acid, Glycerin, and Sorbic Acid. These molecules are all found i,n nature in plants such as pine resin, rowan berries, and willow bark. It is a non-paraben, non-formaldehyde, non-isothiazolone based preservative system. It’s a liquid that is added to the cooling phase of a cream. It has a slight almond-like smell that is normally not detectable in the finished product. Over time, benzyl alcohol oxidizes to benzaldehyde, which has a strong almond smell. Suitable for use in oil-in-water, water-in-oil and water-based formulas, so compatible with a wide range of skin, hair and sun care formulations.
It’s usually used at 1% in water-based products, however, it is not permitted in products for children under the age of three years due to the salicylic acid content.
It is supposed to have broad pH compatibility of pH 3-8, but it’s most effective at pH below 5.5.
2. Geogard 221 / Cosgard
INCI: Benzyl Alcohol (and) Dehydroacetic Acid
(Meets Ecocert and COSMOS standards, NaTrue Certified and Soil Association approved)
An Ecocert approved, multi-use, broad spectrum preservative system that is a synergistic blend of an organic acid and alcohol that can be added at room and elevated temperatures. Dehydroacetic Acid and Benzyl Alcohol are both organic compounds which are accepted for use in natural cosmetics, offering a broad spectrum of stability at a wide range of pH. The organic preservative compound is a non-paraben, non-formaldehyde, non-isothiazolone based preservative system.
The recommended use level is 0.2-1%
It is water soluble with an effective pH from pH 2-6; it’s most efficient at pH below 5.5.
3. Naticide / Plantaserv Q
INCI: Fragrance or Parfum
A broad spectrum preservative is effective against Gram+, Gram -, yeasts, and molds. Naticide is naturally derived fragrance mixture that has a sweet vanilla/almond-like scent, and this remains in the end formulation. This preservative is popular with natural companies in Australia and New Zealand.
It is effective at a pH of 4-9, but it’s best used at pH 4-5.
The recommended use level is up to 0.3- 1%. Depending on the type of formulation, it’s best to use it at 1%. Up to 0.6% is soluble in water, the rest (0.4%) must be added in the cool down phase of an emulsion. Due to limited water solubility (up to 0.6%), it’s not suitable for water-based products, like toners or spritzes.
Other options include:
- Totarol (made from the New Zealand Totara tree)
- Geogard Ultra (D-Glucono-1,5-lactone and sodium benzoate)
- Benzylalcohol Dehydroacetic Acid
- Sodium Benzoate, Potassium Sorbate
- Leucidal Liquid (Leuconostoc/Radish Root)
- Plantaserv S (Origanum Vulgare Extract, Thymus Vulgaris Extract, Cinnamomum Zeylanicum Bark Extract, Rosmarinus Officinalis Extract, Lavandula Angustifolia Extract, Citrus Limon Fruit Extract, Mentha Piperita Extract, Hydrastis Canadensis Extract, Olea Europaea Leaf Extract)
- Dermosoft 1388 Eco (Parfum)
Alert: Antioxidants are NOT preservatives. Antioxidants can be used to extend the shelf life of an oil and help prevent it from going rancid early, and they do not have antimicrobial qualities. Examples of common antioxidants include grapefruit seed extract, rosemary extract, and vitamin E. There are other reasons to add these ingredients in a product, but preservation is not one of them.
What’s the Difference Between Naturally Sourced and Synthetic Preservatives?
The risk of using preservatives is significantly lower than that of using unpreserved water-based cosmetics, as using high percentages of water creates a breeding ground for micro-organisms. Whether you lean towards chemical or natural preservatives, know the pros and cons of each.
The big pro for synthetic preservatives is their broad-spectrum effectiveness at very low concentrations and do not have the heavy smells and textures that many natural preservatives do. Synthetic preservatives are also stable, predictable (do not depend on changes that occur in nature), clean (no trace elements), and sometimes cause fewer allergic responses, especially because they are needed at such low amounts, than their natural counterparts. For the cons, most of the health scare for cosmetics seem to lie within this ingredient category
The pro’s for natural preservatives can include potential skin and environmental benefits depending on the ingredient, and it is always nice having a preservative in natural form. The biggest con is that natural preservatives are less effective than synthetic preservatives. Most are not broad spectrum and have to be used at a much higher dosage to be effective. They can contain a lot of smell or create allergies to consumers. So it is not easy to develop a preservative system with multiple natural preservatives working together to achieve broad-spectrum protection. Besides, many natural preservatives can be quite allergenic, especially at higher concentrations, depending on the ingredients. Natural preservatives are generally a lot more expensive than their synthetic counterparts.
In conclusion, there is probably a lack of proper preservation in the natural cosmetics industry. As much as I’m a supporter of natural, greener beauty, health and safety are ultimately still the most important aspects you should not neglect.
Water-based products run an extremely high risk of developing mold, bacteria, and pathogens, and then you need to use a preservative.