Preservatives have a bad rap and for good reason. Most often people think of a dead frog floating in a green jar of formaldehyde when they think of preservatives (formaldehyde isn’t green, but let’s just go with it). You may think of processed food or parabens, a class of preservatives commonly used in the skin care industry. But not all preservatives are bad, the last thing you would want is to use hand wash that is growing nasty mold!
Preservatives are meant to kill mold, yeast and bacteria and by design they have a higher “hazard profile” than other ingredients used in skin care products. But that doesn’t mean that all preservatives are bad, and in fact having preserved skin care products is a good thing. I want to shed some light on the myths and facts around preservative use in the skin care industry (not for food or other products) and hopefully create some important context for us to understand wha constitutes safe skin care.
Myth #1: We don’t need to preserve skin care or cosmetic products.
If a product contains water or aloe and is not preserved – mold, yeast and bacteria will grow – within weeks. Not only is this nasty, it’s a genuine public health threat. You don’t want to rub mold on your body, nor do you want to have mascara that gives you a bacteria laden sty in your eye. Products with water must be preserved and aloe is over 95% water. Unless a company is recommending that you keep their skin care products in the refrigerator, have short expiration dates, do not use water or aloe, then they are using some type of ingredient to preserve their product. If not, they are putting your health at risk, and creating a big risk for the company’s reputation.
Myth #2: All preservatives serve the same function.
Different products have different needs when it comes to preservation. You need a “full spectrum” preservative for example for products that go on or near one’s eye since there is a greater risk of exposure. Simply applying a one size fits all approach to preservatives is not a good way to formulate products. For example, if a company chooses to only use essential oils (some of which have preservative properties like rosemary oil and pine oil), the consumer may be at risk for exposure to mold, yeast and bacteria depending on the formulation. This is because essential oils aren’t full spectrum in their coverage. It all depends on the type of product a company is formulating. Some brands are willing to take that risk, others aren’t.
Myth #3: All skin care products need to be preserved.
If a skin care product does not contain water or aloe, it may not need to be preserved. Balms and oils are great examples of skin care products that – for the most part – do not need to have added preservatives. Pressed powders like blushes and bronzers are another example of products that can be formulated without preservatives.
Myth #4: All preservatives are toxic.
I wish talking about skin care safety was this simple. Some preservatives have very concerning hazard profiles, meaning they have been linked to health problems in peer reviewed literature. Others have been well studied have been found to kill nasty organisms, but have a lower toxicity profile. If you look up a skin care product in EWG’s Skin Deep database for example, the preservatives will always have a higher score.
When using safer preservatives companies commonly have to use several different types of preservatives to achieve the desired effect. Here are preservatives that are considered “safer” if used properly and are commonly alternatives to parabens: phenoxyethanol, potassium sorbate, sodium benzoate, rosemary oil, to name a few. They are not perfect, but they are the best alternatives to preservatives like parabens. When used wisely, these preservatives can be effective and safe for public health. Smart companies use preservatives at less than 1% of the ingredients in the product. How a company chooses to use preservatives is very important and not everyone is getting it right. I encourage you to ask your skin care company what preservatives they use and at what level. If they can’t or won’t tell you – find another company.
Myth #5: Preservatives are bad in food, so they must be bad in skin care products.
I wrote an entire article on how “food rules” don’t apply to the skin care industry. How one is exposed to a chemical (dermal vs. oral) matters when we look at health impacts.
Myth #6: “Preservative-free” means preservative-free.
Marketing terms like “natural” “botanical” and “preservative free” are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. In fact, some companies put “preservative free” on their label, and when you turn over the package you will find parabens listed on the ingredient list!
Myth #7: We need five parabens in one lotion.
Think of the old lotion bottle from ten years ago that is under the sink at your parent’s guest bathroom. Have you ever slathered that on your body? I have. And it was perfectly fine. It’s normal for companies to hedge their bets and protect themselves from lotions turning gross, but five parabens are not needed in lotions. In general it’s good to use your skin care products within 12-18 months of of opening them. To my point under Myth #2, for safer preservatives a company may need to use a few in one product to have the same effect that one paraben would have in ones lotion. Make sense? You’re a pro by now! Thanks for sticking with me… seriously you’re still reading?! I love you!
Myth #8: This article is the be-all, end-all on preservatives.
This isn’t a static conversation. Many companies are working hard to create and improve the preservative options for skin care and personal care products. I think we should always ask how we can make safer preservatives and actively work with our scientific partners to do so. Just because phenoxyethanol is available to use now, doesn’t mean we have to be using it a few years from now. The journey for safe skin care is about progress, not perfection.
So as you can see the context is incredibly important to consider when talking about ingredient safety.
As the public learns more about harmful ingredients in everyday consumer products, it becomes challenging to convey this complicated scientific data into short sound bites. It’s easy to create an image on social media that distills the science into tidbits, but that doesn’t do the public any good nor does it move the cosmetics industry in the right direction.
If you want to avoid preservatives all together in personal care products you can. You will limit yourself to using oils, balms and salves. There are DIY skin care recipes that require you to refrigerate the product to avoid using preservatives, so if you want to lotion up from your kitchen, more power to you.
And for those of you like me, who want to use lotion, face and eye creams, look for the safer preservatives on the market and don’t feel shy about asking your skin care company about the levels of preservatives they use. I personally use and actively promote the company I work for Beautycounter – a company dedicated to creating the highest performing safe skin care products on the market.