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How to Read “Preservatives” in Beauty Products

Posted on March 09 2015

With every news cycle, it seems there’s a new warning in the world of harmful ingredients in personal care products. Last month, The New York Times reported on methylisothiazolinone (MI), a preservative you might find in everything from baby care wipes to lotions to sunscreen to mouthwash. This ingredient has been known to cause highly allergic reactions among children and adults — so much so that manufacturers are scrambling to reformulate their products that contain it.

Until I began making my own products, I was quite ignorant in the variety, importance and range of preservatives in body care products. When I made my own soaps and lotions, I’d use them immediately so there was no need for preservatives. But once I began making products for companies that needed a longer shelf life, I learned about the importance, range and safety of preservatives.

So, what is a preservative and why are they so important in beauty products?

A preservative deters the growth of bacteria, yeast and mold, and prevents chemical change in the product over time. There are more chemical preservatives (like MI) than natural ones because natural ones tend to expire sooner. Preservatives are essential in skin and hair care products for stability, odor, appearance, texture and most importantly, safety. Companies are always looking for a way to extend the shelf life of their products and without preservatives, cosmetic products can become contaminated, leading to product spoilage and possibly irritation or infections.

The top five most popular preservatives in personal care products are:

  • Parabens
  • Formaldehyde releasers
  • Isolthiazolinones
  • Phenoxyethanol
  • Organic Acids

Parabens used to be the most common preservative because they’re so effective and inexpensive, but in recent years they’ve been shown to mimic estrogen, causing breast cancer tumors and increasing prevalence of early puberty in girls. In 2013, Methylisothiazolinone made the “Allergen of The Year” list, and in 2014, formaldehyde-releasing preservatives made the list and was deemed a carcinogenic leading many manufactures to reformulate.

On the other hand, some of the Organic Acids are food grade perservatives and can be naturally derived like Sodium Benzoate and Potassium Sorbate. Sodium Benzoate is a natural derivative of Benzoic Acid, a substance naturally found in apples, cranberries and fruits. It is approved for use by Ecocert, a stringent certifying organization that sets standards for organic cosmetics in over 80 countries. It has become controversial as it might have negative effects when ingested in combination with vitamin C (or ascorbic acid) or used with artificial colors; however when Sodium Benzoate is used in personal care products, there is no evidence of any harmful effects. Potassium Sorbate is rated one of the safest preservatives and provides long-term safety. It is a salt of sorbic acid which is also naturally found in some fruits.

Companies are scrambling to keep up with the scientific data, public concern and customer demands to remove harmful chemicals that irritate skin, cause rashes or even physical ailments like sore throats. This often leaves them with limited sources for preservatives, or very inexpensive ones.

Besides the use of some Organic Acids as perservatives, natural and organic brands tend to use the below naturally based preservatives:

  • Neem oil
  • Rosemary
  • Salt
  • Lemon
  • Sugar
  • Honey
  • Vinegar
  • Grapeseed extract
  • Citric acid
  • Alpha tocopherol (also known as vitamin E)
  • Castor oil

So why don’t all companies use food grade or nonchemical preservatives in their products?

The continued use of more toxic preservatives comes down to two factors: cost and shelf life. Parabens and MI are known for their very low costs and for the ability to hold a product stable for many years, which is why natural products that don’t contain these tend to have a shorter shelf life. All “natural” and organic products should be marked with expiration dates, and a responsible company will go through the following tests before the product hits the market: microbial testing, a preservative challenge tests and stability testing. My company, Babo Botanicals, has chosen to use a combination of the safest natural preservatives carefully selected to better fit each formula and extend product stability and safety as long as possible.  We do put an expiration date on each product because we want to make sure consumers are extra safe and always get the freshest products available.

When you’re shopping for hair and skin care products, read labels and know your preservatives. Buy from companies you know and trust, and look for expiration dates on products that use natural preservatives. The product might smell and look good, but contain bacteria or fungi that are dangerous to your health. Oil-based products like lip balm and salve generally don’t contain water and can easily be made preservative-free. It’s water and oxygen that causes bacteria, yeast or mold, so any product that is water based like shampoos, lotions, etc. have preservative in it. It’s up to you to decide whether you’d like to use products that contain chemical preservatives or a natural alternative.


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