I debated whether or not to write this blog post as preservatives are a controversial topic. Recently in the press there has seemed to be a lot of scaremongering concerning preservatives. The beauty industry have encouraged this with claims such as ‘Paraben free’ on front of pack. Here, I wanted to share with you an honest assessment of what, why, and how preservatives are used.
Frist let’s start with an analogy about how preservatives work. Let’s take Deet as an example. DEET is an anti-mosquito spray. It’s one of the few anti-mosquito products, that actually work, you can buy it in different strengths like 30, 40, even 100% concentration.
Deet is harmful/toxic to mosquitoes in the small quantities you use. Commonly you will see it labeled with a harmful chemical symbol on the back of pack. Imagine, a few sprays of the stuff. For a fly this would cover its whole body a few times over. So the dose per mosquito is really quite high. If you scaled up the amount to human size it would follow that it’s also going to be harmful to you too.
Everything is harmful in the correct quantity, even water, potatoes, vegetables, etc. etc.
How much preservative is used?
This depends on the formulation, however as a guide 1-1.5% is around the maximum used. Some products will also use much less than this.
A trick – it’s a good way to tell if there’s much of ‘special’ ingredients included in a product. If they appear below the preservatives, there’s not much in there.
How much preservative is used, is determined by the product design, I’ve listed a few of the more important ones.
Format, is it a jar your going to scoop your hands into time and time again? If so they’ll need to put more preservative in to stop anything on your hands growing in the pot over time.
Packaging, there is a new type of packaging making its way into the market at the moment, these are called ‘airless’ containers. They are a sealed bottle, which as you pump out reduces the space inside, so there is no ‘air’ in contact with the cream. Most of the ‘badies’ need air to survive like us, take this away and they can’t. This means little to very weak preservative systems are needed.
Shelf life claimed on the product, if they want to guarantee its safe for a longer period of time, then more preservative is needed.
Formulation, as I mentioned water is needed for bacteria’s to grow. If there is no water then you do not require a preservative. Also using the same principle, if you have less water in your formulation, then less preservative is needed.
Should I trust the claim ‘preservative free’?
The answer is 2-fold. If the product has no water (aqua), then yes, trust away. If there is no water, then you cut out one of the vital ingredients needed for bacteria to survive.
If the product has water, then NO – do not trust this claim. There will be a preservative of some kind in there. If there is not then the products shelf life would be a matter of days. The average shelf life a cosmetics company will validate is 2 years.
What happens without preservative?
I can speak from first hand experience. OWCH! I will not name the product, beacause I do LOVE them still and they do use preservatives. It was really my own fault for not looking at how long I had, had the product for. I discovered in the back of my bathroom cupboard, a bottle I had forgotten about, eagerly lathering it on post shower I let it sink into my skin. All was fine until 10 minutes later and my whole body started to feel like it was on fire.
Realising what had happened, I got back in the shower and tried to rub off as much as possible.
When you have had a product for too long past its open date on pack, the preservatives can become ‘de-activated’. This means that bacteria’s can grow and change characteristics about the product.. one of which is its PH!
Some common preservatives
There are many, many types of preservative, below I have listed the most common you will find in beauty products.
2. Benzoic acid/sodium benzoate also used in certain foods as a preservative.
3. Sorbic acid/Potassium sorbate also used as a food preservative.
4. Benzyl alcohol
5. Parabens I am opening a can of worms here. Most beauty consumers will now associate the word with cancer. It’s a product of how powerful the media are these days. Unfortunately in science a lot of studies are taken out of context and not investigated thoroughly for their significance before a journalist has jumped a story.
I will not go into the full story here, I will save that for another day.
In short the word Parabens house a family of preservatives. It’s like a species. Some examples – methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben … there are many more. There are parabans which have been deemed as safe, for example a review by the SCOGS (select committee on GRAS substances, GRAS = generally recognized as safe) have deemed Methylparaban as such. Read more about that here.
I think the message of this post is, yes preservatives are not there to benefit your skin. They are there to make sure the product is safe to use. If you have water in a formulation then you need a preservative. If you use no preservative then you are opening yourself up to potentially deadly and harmful bacteria’s forming in your skincare products.
It is a catch 22, and the beauty industry are constantly searching for new preservatives which they can claim are ‘natural’ or ‘milder’. In my view, a preservative has to kill something, or make it a hostile environment for a bacteria’s survival. With that criteria in mind, then it’s unlikely you will find one which is not controversial.
Not the most glamourous post, but I hope it’s gone a little way to explaining the use of preservatives in beauty products.
What are your thoughts about the use of preservatives? Do you pay attention to any of the no-paraben claims now seen on so many beauty care products? Do you actively look for no-preservative products?