Are all preservatives in skincare a bad thing?
The short answer is no - many products need preservatives to be safe to use on your skin. Not all preservatives are created equal though and you’ll want to avoid the unhealthy ones. Read on to understand what you need to know about preservatives in skincare products.
What Is A Preservative In Skincare?
A preservative is a natural or synthetic ingredient that is added to skincare to protect the formulation’s integrity and the health of your skin.
Preservatives prevent skincare ‘going bad’ either due to bacterial growth or chemical changes that compromise the effectiveness and stability of the formulation.
Do All Skincare Products Need Preservatives?
Preservatives have gained somewhat of a dubious reputation. One of the big myths on this topic is that ALL preservatives in skincare products are bad.
“Preservative-free” is often promoted as more healthy or “clean” than skincare with preservatives - but the truth is, the opposite can be true.
If a skincare product contains water or water-based ingredients, it needs a preservative (natural or synthetic) to remain stable and safe to use on the skin.
The only types of skincare safe to be formulated without are anhydrous products. Anhydrous means “without water” - products that are made of plant oils, butter, and waxes that contain no water.
A product that contains water and is “preservative free” will quickly become a home to mould, bacteria, and microbial growth. Not a healthy choice for your skin.
Even some anhydrous products can become contaminated if they are designed to come in contact with water during use. Wet fingers can introduce water to the formulation, opening the door to microbial growth if there is no preservative.
Different Kinds Of Preservatives
So why have preservatives earned themselves a bad reputation?
There are both synthetic preservatives and natural preservatives - many synthetic preservatives are highly irritating to skin and considered toxic. Some have been linked to serious long term health issues too.
Some of the common preservatives to avoid include:
Parabens (Butylparaben, Methylparaben and Propylparaben)
The most widely used preservatives in cosmetics, skincare and personal care products, parabens have been linked to health issues including reproductive toxicity, endocrine disruption, and skin irritation.
Diazolidinyl urea and Imidazolidinyl urea
These are types of antimicrobial preservatives that release forming formaldehyde which acts as a preservative in cosmetic products. Studies have shown both can trigger health problems including skin sensitisation, eye and skin irritation, and respiratory issues when inhaled.
A known eye and skin irritant, benzalkonium chloride has also been linked to organ damage and issues with the lymphatic system.
It’s these kinds of toxic options that have given preservatives in skincare a bad reputation.
Triclosan (TCS) is an antibacterial and antifungal agent used as a preservative in antibacterial soaps and body washes, toothpastes, and some cosmetics. Triclosan was banned for use in over the counter products in the US by the Food and Drug Administration due to the health risk posed by using products that contain Triclosan over time.
With growing awareness about the potential health risks of these types of synthetic preservatives, consumers are increasingly looking for safer alternatives.
Thankfully, there’s plenty of them.
Healthier choices for your skin and body include both natural preservatives for skin care products and “Nature-identical” preservatives. These are identical to those found in nature, but are synthesised in a laboratory.
A few common examples include:
Natural phenethyl alcohol
Phenethyl alcohol is an all-natural preservative derived from corn. It has antimicrobial functions against bacteria, fungi, yeast, and mould.
Benzyl alcohol is an almond-scented, aromatic alcohol. Deemed as safe for use in foods by the US Food and Drug Administration, benzyl alcohol is an approved preservative under the COSMOS Organic Certification criteria
Phenoxyethanol is a preservative found naturally occurring in green tea and chicory. As a “nature identical” chemical it’s synthetically re-created in a lab for cosmetic / commercial purposes.
An alcohol derived from a fatty acid caprylyl glycol offers both humectant benefits (drawing moisture to the skin) and preservative-like properties.
A safer option than traditional preservatives, such as parabens or those that release formaldehyde, caprylyl glycol is derived from the natural fatty acid found in palm and coconut oils. It also helps increase the antimicrobial activity of other preservatives.
Potassium sorbate is a salt of sorbic acid which is naturally found in some fruits. A “nature identical” preservative this ingredient is synthetically recreated for use in cosmetics, skincare products, and food.
There are also what’s known as broad spectrum preservative ‘systems’ that have been deemed safe for use in certified organic skincare.
Broad spectrum means the preservative is effective against bacteria, mould, and yeast.
For example, a preservative ingredient on its own may not protect against all 3 contaminants, but combined in a formulation with other preservatives, the result offers broad spectrum activity.
One example is a system called Preservative Eco which is composed of benzyl alcohol, salicylic acid, glycerin and sorbic acid.
You’ll find most skincare products are formulated with more than one type of preservative to achieve broad spectrum activity.
Are vitamin E, rosemary extract or grapefruit seed extract preservatives?
Another myth about skincare preservatives and organic preservatives for cosmetics is that antioxidants such as vitamin E, grapefruit seed extract and rosemary extract act as natural preservatives.
Antioxidants can help stabilise oil and butter based formulations (preventing them from oxidising) but they don’t provide protection against bacteria, yeast, or mould growing in a product.
We want to point out it’s still possible to have a reaction to any preservative (even natural ones) if you’re allergic to the substance - like honey, for example. For this reason, we recommend always patch testing a product before using it.
Have more questions about preservatives in skincare? Our team of skincare experts is here to help!