Preservatives In Cosmetics – Natural vs Synthetic
After many years of using skin care products, it has resulted in wanting the best for my skin, especially as I age. Not really sure what that might have been at the time, but I was definitely going to determine what was best for overall skin health.
I knew I didn’t want to use crèmes that were loaded with a bunch of synthetics or harmful chemicals, and I felt I wanted a naturally preserved product as well, or so I thought. I mean, after all, the synthetic preservatives have been getting slammed lately and the negative press has forced me to take a closer look at going natural. The new generation buzz words were “Go Natural” or “Go Green”.
I have found so many retailers or ecommerce sites offering some fantastic skincare products. Some look so yummy too, as though you could eat the stuff. The pictures are enticing you to buy and give them a try. And I have too! They smell so good when you first crack the lid on the jar, you just can’t wait to try them out. I use them for awhile and after about 2/3rds of the way through the product, I notice a funky smell or they seem to be separating. What happened?
Well this is when I learned more about the differences in preservatives, and there are definitely two divided camps on this issue. So I examined both sides and came to my own conclusion!
First off ~ Is it really about a bad or good preservative? I believe preservatives are necessary due to creams and lotions being formulated with water to help emulsify the ingredients. This gives the product the lovely texture we know and love. Even though the thought of a naturally preserved product sounds perfect, going with a natural product can also provide a haven for yeast, mold, bacteria and fungi. So the natural ingredients we strive for also produce natural sugars and in a moist environment these plant extracts provide their favorite food source. Let the multiplying begin!
The only time you can typically get away from preservatives is when there is no water added such as with the case of thick body butter scrubs. These are strictly melted and whipped together to create the product. They are not emulsified, so water is unnecessary. However, I still look for a bit of natural preservative in these due to the fact body scrubs are used where? ….That’s right, in your shower! What’s in the shower?….That’s right, water! Many of us don’t stop to think about it. I know I haven’t! So, when using these close to water or dipping wet hands into the jar, water has now been introduced and all the nasties can begin to grow. This includes naturally created shampoos and conditioners.
Naturally Preserved ~ for those who prefer this method for their skin care, they have chosen out of a need to purify their lives and remove as many chemicals from their products as they can. I am in full agreement with this lifestyle. It is great to protect our bodies from further contamination. The downside to purchasing these products which are naturally preserved or even preservative free is about storage and handling and their cost. They are typically very expensive to produce.
The preservative free products must be manufactured in small batches and in many cases they are only produced once the order is placed. These are great products for those who are patient and can wait for their special cream, but it is difficult to mass produce these on a higher commercial level which can be a hindrance for growing a business or for a consumer needing their product immediately.
Unfortunately, preservative free products must be stored in the refrigerator immediately after opening and must be made in the most sterile environment possible, and I do mean sterile. So purchasing from a trusted source is essential. They also typically cannot be shipped during hot summer months. They also should be used up within a few days to a week despite what you may have been told by the seller. If they say they can withstand longer then you may call into question whether or not it is truly preservative free. Sometimes preservatives are left off the ingredient list by the unscrupulous or are masked under the label “other ingredients” or “fragrance”. Anything below 1% ratio is allowed by the FDA to be listed this way.
Constant dipping of fingers, steam from the bathroom or getting any kind of moisture inside the jar, will begin deteriorating the product and bacteria will multiply at an astounding rate unless they are sold in an airless pump. Also, refrigeration will not stop nasties from growing; it will only slow the rate a bit. Just look at food stored in the refrigerator, if forgotten after a few days or a week, you go back and find something fuzzy resembling a Chia pet or smelling rank. This same principal applies to your skin crème. In an airless pump the product could sustain longer, how long is not known exactly. Challenge testing is usually required to know precisely and even if something looks and smells fine, the vast numbers of micro-organisms can only be detected under a microscope!
Also to consider: a preservative free product or naturally preserved product cannot fight off the nasties as well as a synthetically preserved product. Once you introduce the open jar into your bathroom, or in your purse, or leave it in a hot car, you will see these are all prime environmental changes which will rapidly cause bacteria to grow in the product. The special handling, extremely short shelf life of preservative free skin care products, plus the frozen face feel for these types of crèmes, pretty much help determine these weren’t quite for me. So I looked in to naturally preserved.
For those who use natural preservatives, they can buy a bit more time in way of product life, usually up to 6 months shelf life before opening. After that, the product should be used up within 30 days. There are some natural preservatives that have been shown to be quite effective but they are not indestructible to air and water contamination, whereby this essentially can make them ineffective to deterioration or oxidation.
- Essential Oils ~ These have antiseptic properties and are shown to kill bacteria and fungi. The downside is, they also can create sensitivities to the skin and some people are allergic to essential oils and will develop a contact dermatitis or rash. They also can break down or evaporate every time you go into your favorite face crème.
- Neem Oil ~ Now this is my favorite natural preservative and I make sure it is in any face crème I use. It is wonderful for all skin types, even those with acne. It is an antiseptic, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-viral, and even anti-parasitic.
- Sweet Orange Oil ~ This is wonderful for killing bacteria and fungi in the product and typically it will give the crème a subtle sweet orange blossom smell. Very nice and calming when I use a crème with this in it.
- Vitamin E ~ Is an excellent anti-oxidant and can help prevent degradation of a product. However, once exposed to air or light it begins to degrade, so it must be supported with another preservative since it does not kill bacteria.
- Honey ~ It is a natural anti-microbial and anti-bacterial, and is great for the skin. It is a great moisturizer due to it having natural humectant properties, holding moisture against the skin.
- Rosemary Extract ~This is a great anti-oxidant and helps to prevent decomposition of the product.
- Grapefruit Seed Extract ~ It is a natural antibiotic, anti-septic and preservative found in many skin preparations, however this ingredient is not as natural as some think. It is mainly synthetically produced from Grapefruit Seeds under a chemical synthesis involving catalysts and reagents under extreme heat to create the aforementioned extract. It also is known to contain methylparaben and triclosan in commercial preparations, and the natural extract has not been shown to provide any antimicrobial protection whatsoever. So typically it is the latter of these two inserted contaminants that are preserving the skincare product.
- Potassium Sorbate ~ This can be considered natural since it comes from a natural source, however it is again synthetically altered to create the preservative used in many skin care products. This ingredient can give a shelf life of up to 6 months, maybe a year, but that is pushing it. But again, once jar is opened, product needs to be used within 30 days. Also this ingredient is very rarely used alone but in combination of another preservative because it supports only the prevention of mold and yeast. It will not stop bacterial growth.
- Benzylalcohol ~ Is a broad spectrum preservative and is a viable alternative to parabens. It works to fight gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria and helps to retard yeast and mold growth.
- Tetrasodium EDTA ~ This is a chelating agent designed to bind metals ions such as zinc, magnesium, calcium. It is an effective stabilizing agent for anti-oxidants and improves efficacy of other preservatives. It is typically found in combination with preservatives for the best in stabilizing a product. EDTA is also used in chelation therapy which is approved by the FDA for treatment of heavy metal and lead poisoning.
- Phenoxyethanol ~ Offers a universal higly effective broad spectrum protection for gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria, mold, yeast and fungi. It also is not a formaldehyde releasing agent. Probably most popular paraben free and propylene glycol free preservative on the market. This is one I look for combined with natural preservatives.
- Germall Plus ~ A brand name of a combination of preservatives. A very effective preservative to protect against gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria, along with mold and yeast. It is comprised of Propylene Glycol, Diazolidinyl Urea and Iodopropynyl.
Well that is pretty much it for the most common types of choices to stay clear of parabens.
Also, realize there are organizations that will still find fault with even these types of preservatives. They will lay claims to them being unsafe or toxic and show biased articles and MSDS (material safety data sheets) giving you worse case scenarios. The ratios used in cosmetics do not even come relatively close to posing this level of hazard or have the level of toxicity proclaimed. Preservatives are used at a ratio of .05% to 1% to entire product and are deemed safe, non-toxic and are totally acceptable in this dose by the European Union and Japan. An elevated concern is only necessary if these ingredients were high on the ingredient list or in undiluted form, but of course we all know that is not going to be the case.
An Example: Phenoxyethynol is created by treating phenol with ethylene oxide in an alkaline medium. Each ingredient individually does not sound great, but when they react it creates a safe and effective preservative. Individually many chemicals may harm you, but together they create a beneficial product. For instance, lye alone is extremely dangerous, but after it reacts with oil and water to create castile soap it is harmless and useful. The MSDS for a pure ingredient can cause undo alarm. But as you consider other ingredients that are widely used and safe in cosmetics you will find that the MSDS sounds alarming for them as well. For instance commonly used ingredients like glycolic acid, lye, citric acid, potassium sorbate and even essential oils have MSDS warnings that could be misunderstood and deemed as too dangerous to use in cosmetics. However, we all know that these ingredients are commonly used in cosmetics and some as natural preservatives. The MSDS sheet is designed to inform the end user of how to handle the ingredient properly in an undiluted form.
Also some may have heard about the Mommy’s Bliss Nipple Cream and its safety in regard to infants. Again, I did research and though the FDA gave a warning as to the potential of harm, there were no actual reports of injury or illness caused by this product containg Chlorphenesin (click for documentation) and phenoxyethanol, the two suspected preservative ingredients. Why the FDA came out of nowhere on this warning is perplexing to the say the least. However, my conclusion is the chlorphenesin posed the major health risk more so than phenoxyethanol based on the information I located, especially since phenoxyethanol given in oral doses of the percentages used in cosmetics posed no health risk. First off chlorphenesin is not commercially available in the United States and it clearly states in the warnings; it is not approved for use in small children. And all the side effects listed are in the FDA warning as well. However, I personally don’t eat my cosmetics, do you? How it ended up as a preserving ingredient in a nipple cream is anyone’s guess, but more than likely an import from overseas. Such as we are now seeing toxicity in infants in China drinking formula with Melamine in it! And to be in compliance and for regard for their customers, MOM Enterprises has since removed the product from sale.
So be careful when coming to conclusions and weigh all the evidence and don’t allow a few radical alarmists make it seem as though the sky is falling. Most of it is pure sensationalism on being the first one to report the negative aspects. I have yet to see independent studies involving human test subjects showing problems with preservatives and proving it is that one particular ingredient over perhaps a combination of ingredients or exposure to many products as being supposedly so toxic to ones’ system, and this includes parabens.
With that, I say enjoy your cosmetics without undue fear or paranoia caused by watchdog groups that do not show both sides of the research but only extremes in high concentrations as an individual ingredient, not in conjunction with other ingredients used or in a dilute solution.
Now as to my personal conclusion: I have chosen to go with a synthetic preservative system combined with a long list of natural preservatives. This gives me the best of both worlds. I get healthy skin care products which will remain stable in all environments and I focus on most or all of the ingredients are from natural plant sources with one or two ingredients being in the synthetic preservative category. Why? Because I know I don’t want micro-organisms to be able to rapidly multiply in my favorite jar of skin cream since they will compromise my skin health more than a minute amount of preservative. And I am not convinced, and studies have not proven that all the fancy sounding chemical or synthetic anti-aging emollients truly work any better than plant extracts. My skin looks great and feels quite smooth, and I am staying away from the majority of the anti-aging synthetic gunk. Besides if watchdog groups are claiming absorption of these crèmes into the skin then why would you want more chemicals going in?
Well that’s it folks…kind of in a nut shell! It is all about personal choice on this one. No rules or precise indication of parabens really being the demon preservative. However, for the sake of argument I felt it was prudent to at least explain some options for those who are sick of all the chemical junk offered on the commercial market.
Good Luck in your pursuit of the perfect skin care product.
More about the author: Katherine Corkill is the founder and creative director of Sterling Minerals Cosmetics. She became inspired to create products that would assist men and women in restoring the radiant healthy skin of their youth. Read more from this author