Many people, including myself, want to avoid preservatives in our food products, but it’s important to note that they are necessary for our skin care products. To make matters more confusing, some preservatives are safer than others and they all have complicated sounding names. So what is a savvy consumer supposed to do, who doesn’t want to spend hours studying up on preservative systems? Read and share this blog of course!
Why Preservatives Are Necessary in Most Skin Care Products
Not everything that goes onto your skin needs to be preserved, but the majority of the products you buy will need some sort of preservative system. Products that contain water (including aloe), some oils and even powder products, are at risk for growing mold, bacteria and yeast. All of these can grow very quickly (within weeks) and no one wants to slather bacteria laden night cream on to their skin. Be wary of companies that are claiming to be preservative-free, unless they are asking you to store the product in the refrigerator, have expiration dates (and I mean within 8 weeks of purchase kind of thing), or they aren’t using water.
Which Preservatives to Avoid
By design, preservatives are meant to kill, which means that they will always have a higher hazard score in databases like the EWG Skin Deep Database (ingredients and products ranked 1-10, 10 being the most hazardous).
Some of the worst offenders include:
- Parabens (look for anything that ends in the word paraben, like methyparaben, propylparaben, etc. EWG Scores 4-7)
- Formaldehyde (EWG Score 10)
- Formaldehyde releasing agents: sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3 diol (Bronopol) (EWG Scores 6-9)
Keep in mind many safer beauty companies will not actively formulate with these ingredients, but still may be present at trace levels, as they are common contaminants in raw materials. What you want to do is to avoid companies who ARE actively formulating with these ingredients, which means they would appear on the ingredient list.
There are several safer preservatives on the market, so look for these when doing your research and shopping. Please keep in mind that preservatives need to be used differently depending on the product. For example, an eye cream will require different preservatives than a body lotion.
Safer preservatives include:
- Phenoxyethanol (Note: The E.U. says this preservative can be safely used at less than 1% in a product. EWG Score 4)
- Sodium Benzoate (EWG Score 3)
- Chlorphenesin (EWG Score 2)
- Ethylhexylglycerin (EWG Score 1)
- Gluconolactone (EWG Score 1)
- Pentylene Glycol (EWG Score 1)
- Potassium Sorbate (EWG Score 3)
- Salicylic Acid (EWG Score 4)
- Sodium Levulinate (EWG Score 1)
- Some essential oils like rosemary (Note: not all essential oils are safe or appropriate to use as preservatives. I am generally wary of companies that claim to only use one type of essential oil as their preservative system.)
An important note about the EWG Skin Deep Database:
Ingredients are given a score of how hazardous they are to human health based on the existing scientific research. Please note that many ingredients, like preservatives, can be safely used if at the right concentrations (ie the E.U. says phenoxyethanol is safely used when it’s concentration is less than 1% of the product). Many people write off certain ingredients, without understanding that the level in which an ingredient is used as a key factor when determining safety. Always feel free to ask your favorite brands which preservative systems they use, and at what concentrations.
Don’t have time to do all this research? Try looking up your favorite products in the EWG Skin Deep Database, or better yet, simply shop the safer products I’ve already vetted for you!