Reading the labels – Preservatives in natural skincare

preservatives in natural skincare

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 alcohol – 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 chemist, but through my research I have come to realise that is a complex question as it depends on many variables. What preservative is used 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.

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)

Ana Green

Written by Ana – A beauty industry professional who is passionate about product and helping people navigate the marketing hype in the beauty industry.