Do you have a favourite ‘legal drama’? If you don’t go get yourself a Netflix account and gorge on ‘The Good Wife’, you will not regret it, I promise *winks*. Even in the juiciest TV dramas, there are always glistening gems of life lessons twinkling beneath the love triangles, the ‘I want one of those, give it to me now’ outfits and those scenes where someone manages to be topless and you’re not quite sure how or why that even happened, but you’re enjoying it (surely this is Will Smiths MO?)!
One gem of a life lesson you’ll grab from your favourite legal drama is this – the law is not what is right or wrong, it is not a set of morals, it is a rule-book that can be ‘creatively harnessed’.
We only get one of these ‘human bodies’ ‘eh, so obviously we want to look after it. That makes us a bit twitchy about things like ‘preservatives’ in skincare, some of them have been getting a bad rep lately ‘eh!
That is why some skincare companies are starting to develop formulations they christen as ‘preservative free’… but absolutely do still have a preservative in there.
Yup, you read that right, you can legally put certain preservatives into skincare products and claim them as preservative free. Usually these preservatives hide under the name ‘parfum’ on your skincare ingredients list.
Can a Product Ever Really be Preservative Free?
There is one situation when a skincare product really can be honestly and truthfully preservative free. Cue the halo *winks*. If your skincare grab ONLY contains oils and butters, or flip that around like a flip-flop, if it doesn’t include water (/aqua on an ingredients list) then your product can be honestly preservative free.
‘The one situation your skincare can honestly be preservative free, is when it contains no water’
That’s because most bacteria have needs ya know. They need water, they like a bit of warmth and give them the opportunity they will be colonising before you know it!
As soon as you’re adding water into the mix, you’re making a cushy home for stuff to grow in your product. Because these ‘invaders’ are so tiny, that we can’t see them (at least at first!) with our naked eyes (what a strange saying that is, why is my eye naked *winks*) it’s easy to think, ‘well it looks alright’.
That’s the stealth secret of bacteria’s, they are all around us, all the time and we don’t even know it. Like any well-balanced film, there’s the good and the bad… and the ones that sit their bums firmly on the fence…
If you wanted a truly preservative free skincare routine, then you’ll need to stick to facial & body oils, water free butters and balms.
PRO-TIP: Just because a skincare pick is an oil, butter or balm, doesn’t automatically mean there’s no water & preservative in there. Make a quick check of the ingredients list for the word ‘aqua’ and if it’s not there, then it’s almost bound to be preservative free.
If you want to get you some creams, lotions or facial mists into your skincare routine then these product picks will absolutely have preservatives in them, even if they claim ‘preservative free’… and that is actually great, because preservatives are keeping you safe and free of those stealth bacteria that are ready to make their colonies on your skin…
The Legal Lie – Preservative Free – How It Works…
The legal lie of skincare being preservative free is like, #ThatDress. In real life that dress was blue and black, in the Instagram world it was BOTH black and blue & white and gold #MindBoggle. That black/blue, white/gold thing was a trick of the light, meaning some people did really see that picture as white and gold.
The legal lie of being preservative free is a snap to that.
These new kids on the block are preservatives because they preserve your water based skincare from nasty bacteria’s. Guess what, they also wear a second hat – a fragrant one! These new ‘preservative free’ preservatives could also be called fragrance because they do that as-well!
So instead of saying we are using this to preserve your skincare, a skincare company will say, we are using this to fragrance your product and slap it onto the ingredients list as parfum (remember how that word can hide 50+ different ingredients – get a read of no.3 on the key skincare ingredient to avoid).
See how it works? It’s there, but it’s not there, but it is there, but its only kinda there… hmmm… In my book it is there, and it is a preservative!
Are Natural Preservatives Better Than Man-Made Ones?
BIG question! It’s not just an elephant size question, it’s also one that tugs at our heart strings ‘eh. We like natural, natural just feels right, sing it Aretha, ‘cus’ you make me feel like a natural womeeeennnnn’. #PowerBallard
Thing is sometimes nature gives us what we need, but with a lot of other bells and sparkles in the mix, when we just need the 1, or it has a whip in its tail with a toxic contaminant (get a read of why you should always use Allantoin and steer clear of Comfrey extract), or to use it would be to destroy forests and contribute to species becoming endangered.
The thing we usually forget when we think about natural things, is that nature ‘cooked’ that up too. Just like we would go to make something in the lab, mother nature did the same thing, but in the forest!
One of the ‘preservative free’ preservatives that is getting a lot more face-time in natural based skincare is derived from Basil (it’s skincare ingredient list name is sodium levulinate & sodium anisate).
Skincare companies that use this natural, ‘preservative free’ preservative often claim that other preservatives are irritating and the one they use isn’t.
Imagine sitting out in the sunshine, you’re chillaxing, the birds are a’ chirping and the boys are playing football. Then outta no-where there’s a gasp as you only half hear the word ‘duck’ (a duck, really where!? *winks*) and that football plonks you darn hard on the back of your head. Disclaimer – this has actually happened to me!
That football got booted darn hard, and it could rival your head in size. But what if you got knocked with a kid’s size ball, or even a ping pong ball at the same speed? I’m not gonna lie, it’s probably not going to be an enjoyable experience, I mean when did you wake up and think I want to be knocked around by Ping-Pong balls? But it’s not going to leave you with a football sized headache.
This little football analogy is why the amount of certain skincare ingredients (concentration) is super important. It’s like exfoliating skincare acids, you’re not going to be putting them in your eyes anytime soon, and you’re not going to be using them neat – owchy!
Preservatives are the same.
Most preservatives at 100% concentration are irritants or have some other scary safety warning. When they are used in the right amount, they do the job and because you’ve got only 1% or less, it doesn’t make your skincare ‘pick’ an irritant – there’s just not enough to do that.
It’s like trying to only eat lemons for a week, or gorging yourself on sweet potatoes for a month. A little bit is super-healthy, a lot is super-not.
Here is a bit of formulator chat for you. Whenever I or any other scientist orders an ingredient, that ingredient comes with paperwork! No jokes – this is not just a 1-pager. This paperwork is like the ingredients passport. One part of that passport is the safety of the ingredient, this paperwork will tell you what the potential hazards would be if you were to ‘bath’ in it, or you know, spill it on you, whichever sounds more realistic *winks*.
These natural, ‘preservative free’ preservatives have the same scary sounding safety risks as the man-made alternatives. Even the irritant warning.
The frustrating part to watch as a skincare formulator and scientist is when natural skincare brands scare their audience by saying how bad preservatives are for their health because they are irritants /(insert other scary reason here), when firstly, that would only be true if you were using a 100% concentration and secondly their preservative has the exact same safety profile.
You would be shocked if you saw the safety profile of some ‘sweet-looking’ kitchen fixtures like lemons! and I don’t mean to scare you when I say this because…
The thing is, everything is bad for you if you have too much of it.
Natural preservatives share a lot in common with man-made preservatives, it’s just part of their ‘cooking’ happens in mother nature’s garden. A lot of these preservatives are very new, and we don’t know as much about their long term effects as we do the more traditional preservative choices.
Bottom line – preservative free skincare that contains water, is not being upfront with you!
Have you seen the ‘preservative free’ claim on skincare that contains water (like a face cream or lotion)? What do you think when you see the ‘preservative free’ claim?
Cheryl Woodman is a scientist & award winning skincare formulator who’s more friend next door than bow tie wearing professor. As creator of Honesty For Your Skin her aim is to help you care for your skin in the best ways possible. She’s founder of the natural & fragrance free skincare brand Honesty while also hosting 1 to 1 skincare coaching to help you get your best skin yet. Find out more here.