Saturday, 4 April 2015

Reading the labels: Preservatives

One of the most contentious and debated subjects of the beauty industry as a whole but even more hotly debated in the natural and organic community.
Preservatives have been a topic I have addressed frequently in individual blog posts and reviews but today I will be taking a look at the topic as a whole, what are preservatives, why do we need them and which ones are we likely to find on our skincare labels. I write this post as a consumer rather than expert, in the aim of helping other people to decipher what's in their products and to shed some light in the most balanced way I can at some of the issues surrounding preservatives and what is happening in the industry. Please feel free to make up your own mind, add your thoughts in the comments and do your own research, all I ask is that we keep it respectful.

So first off why would we need preservatives in products? Any product containing water is a breading ground for bacteria, mould, yeast or fungus. It is the manufacturers responsibility to ensure that products are safe and not contaminated and therefore well preserved. Europe has quite stringent rules on this and all cosmetics need to be safety assessed before going on the market by a cosmetic chemist which includes a test challenging the preservative system to give an idea of shelf life.

What preservatives are you most likely to find on cosmetics labels?

Parabens: Perhaps the most discussed and widely used preservatives, there are several different kinds of paraben look for Ethyl, butyl, propyl, benzyl, isobutyl and methylparaben on the labels. The parabens used in skincare are synthetically created, however it is worth noting that parabens occur naturally in many fruits and vegetables, they get a bad reputation for possible Estrogenic effects on the body. 

Phenoxyethanol: Just like parabens phenoxyethanol also occurs naturally, in this case in green tea and chicory, for the most part though the phenoxyethanol used in cosmetics is synthetic although I have seen several brands claiming to use naturally sourced phenoxyethanol I am unsure how true this is or whether it makes any different to the performance or safety. Brands who are COSMOS certified will now have to remove phenoxyethanol before the end of the year or risk loosing their certification, I think many brands will be working to remove it and so it will be less prevalent than it once was. 

Potassium Sorbate: Widely used in natural organic products as it is approved by both the Soil Association and Ecocert. It is formed when Potassium salt bonds with citric acid. Perhaps one of the least controversial preservatives but still far from perfect, I have spoken to several people who are sensitive to it and it makes them using natural products tricky at times due to how widely used it is. 

MC/MI: Stands for Methylcloroisothiazlininone and Methylisothiazolinone, not two words you will forget in a hurry and a bit of a tongue twister, hence the abbreviation. I have put them together as they are often used that way as they seem to work better and in lesser amounts as a duo but they can also be found individually. They can be problematic in terms of allergies and contact dermatitis and are very widely used, you can find them in lot's of household products making them difficult to avoid. 

Benzyl alocohol: Can again be synthetically produced or it can be found as a natural constituent of essential oils such as Jasmine for example. It is approved by the Soil Association and is often used in conjunction with Potassium Sorbate. It is best avoided for conditions such as Rosacea. 

Naticide: This is a fairly new preservative system which you will see listed on the ingredients list as Fragrance. I think the fact that it has to be listed as such on an INCI will severely affect Naticides popularity, so many people will avoid it regardless of whether they know what it is or not. Some brands do note it is a natural preservative in brackets but I still find it confusing. Unlike older preservatives such as Phenoxyethanol or Parabens this hasn't been widely studied so I haven't been able to find a lot of data positive or negative. 

Alcohol: Alcohol is a widely used preservative in 100% natural brands, it is also used as part of the preparation of certain tinctures. Alcohol has no safety concerns but there is some data to suggest in large quantities can dry the skin.

Other common preservatives: Radish root filtrate, Sodium Hydroxymethylglycinate, Sodium Benzoate, Disodium EDTA, Sodium levulinate, Dehydroacetic acid. 

This is by no means an exhaustive list, for more opinions and studies on the above preservatives see my recommended reading list below, you will find some interesting perspectives both for and against these preservatives. 

Where else can you find preservatives?
When it comes to personal care products it's actually a fairly easy area to control and reduce certain kinds of preservatives as they are required by law to be listed on an ingredient's list (This applies to Europe and may vary around the world). You can also find preservatives in foods especially anything pre-packed and prepared, cleaning products which scarily do not have to be disclosed on the label, paints and other products found at your DIY store which again don't require by law to be labelled. When you start to put preservatives in to perspective you can see there is a much bigger picture going on than just what is in your face cream.

A note on allergies and other skin problems:
When you look at preservatives almost universally you can find data to suggest that allergic reactions and other related conditions such as contact dermatitis are an issue. It seems almost impossible to create a product that will be free from the risk of allergic reactions, whether it be natural or synthetic, and given the role preservatives are expected to carry out (to kill microbes) a higher risk of skin irritation from these ingredients seems logical. If you are someone with an underlying skin condition it makes sense for you to be careful about the amount and type of preservatives you are applying topically especially if the skin is broken or compromised as it seems to increase the likelihood of absorption in to the bloodstream. A doctor or dermatologist is most qualified in this case to advise you on this, but being informed cannot hurt.

So what is the best option for preserving formulas?
I am no cosmetic scientist but through my research I have come to realise that is a complex question as it depends on many variables. Depends on the PH of the formula, the ingredients used, the stability of the formula, the packaging of the product, manufacturing methods, the shelf life needed and probably a whole lot more that I have not covered. From what I can see there doesn't seem to be a one size fits all approach that can please everyone, manufacturers, retailers and consumers 100% of the time hence the huge variations in what is on our shelves. Some brands use a variety of preservatives which inevitably leads to a longer ingredients list but in some cases smaller doses of several preservatives seems to work better than one larger dose of just one. 

On the whole my personal experience is that people are far more preoccupied with the possible dangers of preservatives than they are with the dangers of an improperly preserved product. I support being an informed consumer but during my time blogging I have also seen some brands which have led to me raising an eyebrow in disbelief. For example the "organic" mascara with rosewater as the second ingredient which the brand claimed to have a six month shelf life with no other preservative than Vitamin E, having questioned them on this they claimed that as it didn't have water it didn't need any preservative, this just doesn't ring true to me and I am not going to take my chances, I value my eyes far too much for that. I do wonder whether in our search for the cleanest possible products some brands try and cheat the system possibly leading to dangerous consequences. Look for brands with a good reputation who are well established and who either supply information on their preservative system on their website or who are willing to give it if questioned. 

Preservatives will generally be found towards the end of an ingredients list, if the brand uses INCI ingredients will appear in order of percentages highest to lowest, however that doesn't apply to anything under 1% so if you see several ingredients after the preservative but they are for example essential oils (generally used under 1%) it doesn't mean necessarily there is a higher level of preservatives, as consumers we have no way of knowing percentages from simply reading the INCI unfortunately. If you are a fan of DIY's please think carefully about not just what ingredients you are putting together but also the sterilisation of your storage, personally I wouldn't attempt to make any water based cosmetics at all and would stick to simple oil and butter recipes and would use promptly. 

I would estimate approximately 70% of my routine consists of waterless products that have Vitamin E or Rosemary to prevent the oils going rancid, these are not suitable preservatives for water based products however. Going water free is easier than you think due to the variety of products created by natural brands, the shelf life still may not be very long (usually around six months) but if you are genuinely concerned about preservatives, balms, butters, oils ect... are in my opinion the way to go. Feel free to leave me your thoughts below, are you concerned about preservatives? Have you ever experienced a product that became contaminated? 

Further reading: Some interesting articles I found whilst researching this post.

Parabens and Preservatives: Are they really a problem (Paula Begoun)

What are parabens and are they really that bad? (Best health)

The Truth about cosmetic preservatives (Best Health)

Phenoxyethanol revisited (Pai skincare)

What is Potassium Sorbate? (Livestrong)

MI/MC article (Colin's beauty pages)

Why are chemical preservatives allowed in organic cosmetics? (Soil Association)

Ana x


  1. This is a really great article Ana, you've explained it very well. I have concerns about parabens and therefore I avoid them, especially as there may be a link with cancer (although not exactly proven and more research is needed but better be safe than sorry). Phenoxyethanol is also kind of a grey area and it's great to hear that brands with Soil Association/COSMOS logos will have to remove them.I decided not to use any eye creams with phenoxyethanol in them as skin under eyes is really thin and chemicals like that can quickly get absorbed and go straight to your blood stream. So I am using eye oils/serums at the moment instead, basically 100% natural.
    It's really concerning though that some brands don't disclose all the ingredients including preservatives. Would you say this is more of an issue for smaller brands?

    1. In Europe the regulations are quite tight but not infallible, I have been in contact with brands that seem to have skipped some or all of the necessary steps to be correctly registered. In the US things are much more sketchy and yes I would say it is more of a problem with smaller brands although I wouldn't want to tar everyone with the same brush as there so many great brands out there. Looking at the amount of brands that are claiming all natural and handmade on Etsy and other sites you can imagine that policing that would be a logistical nightmare so the system relies on brands being investigated only once a complaint has been made.

    2. It's good to know this information, thanks so much Ana!

  2. I really like your objective overview. It's really an interesting and important topic! Unfortunetely many preservities are labeled as dangerous, which, if you're digging deeper, is just not true. I love organic beauty, but I wish it wouldn't be all about "bad chemicals" (the word alone is wrong...I mean even water has a chemical formula...). Thanks for your post!

    1. Thank you! I agree I wish natural and organic wasn't all about the endless negative too, there are great reasons to use the products as most are well formulated and great for you. I think in this case a little perspective is helpful all round :)

  3. Charlie Hughes commented:
    Great post Ana and very balanced. I'm part of a Skincare Entrepreneur Group and I've come to really understand the full importance of a proper preservative system. As you say it's not black and white and microbes and bacteria are probably more dangerous than the preservatives used. We cannot see bacteria and if you are slathering that on your body, you are in for trouble! If anything has water, aloe vera or hydrolats such as rose water, it needs preserving. It's scary that some products get to market without being thoroughly tested. I hope this article helps people in their choices and perhaps we can start to focus beyond preservatives and see that it's also about the fabulous ingredients that our natural products are made with x

    1. Not sure where your comment went after I published it Charlie but luckily I still have the notification in my email so can reply. It is a big issue in the industry I feel and people underestimate the issues they can have from eye infections to bad reactions. I myself let a product go off recently and had a horrendous reaction, like a burn from a toner, when I opened the bottle I realised there was mould due to the fact that I had decanted it and obviously not sterilised the bottle, rooky mistake! Xx

    2. How weird that my comment disappeared - spooky ;) Wow, that's some reaction ! Shows how important adhering to an expiry date it. I get a sense that all of us are becoming more informed and this can only be a good thing x

  4. Such a handy post for anyone concerned with preservatives. I've come not to scrutinise them as much as I used to and accepted that there are very necessary for a lot of products. Like you though, I tend to stick to oil/butter based products :)

    Mayah x

    1. Thank you Mayah, with the variety of butters and oils on the market I find it fairly easy and then for the other 30% of products I don't stress too much but it is something people comment on a lot Xx

  5. Since most of the comments here covered what I was going to say, I'll just say - Great post! :-D xx

  6. This is such a useful post - I'm going to return to read it again lots! I've recently got stricter about phenoxyethnal - it's in REN and This Works, which is a shame because I love their products. :( I also love Weleda, but a lot of their products have alcohol, and I find that irritates my skin. So I'm basically left with Pai (£££) and oils! Not that I'm complaining... ;) xx

    1. I hear you! Phenoxyethanol is everywhere making it difficult to avoid, I can use some Weleda but not all and Pai is pricey but has some of the best deals so look out for those. You might light the new Melvita cream I just reviewed no preservatives as it uses new technology and it's lovely! Xx

  7. Such a great post Ana - I'm going to add it to my Green Beauty Newbie page on my blog :)

    1. Thanks Amber! Glad you like it, it was an interesting subject to write about Xx

  8. Great article with amazing information on preservatives in natural cosmetics/skincare. Thanks so much for taking the time to research and write (I've quoted you several times on Twitter!) xo-Jane | Sheer Miracle Minerals and Organics


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