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I’ve spoken often about the need for preservatives in cosmetics as have many of my experienced and trained colleagues. But it seems the fact of the matter just isn’t sinking in like it should on a grand scale. I’m regularly questioned about preservatives in our products because people have heard how “bad” preservatives are, that they cause disease or health concerns. Or I see someone who is selling products that are “preservative free”, when by the list of ingredients I see, they should include a preservative.  Recently, I see a scary trend of DIY’ers who are finding, making and sharing “recipes” online that are breeding grounds for microbial nasties, especially with the recent growing trend of home use of essential oils. The advice I see given in these cases is to refrigerate the product and statements that the EO’s protect the product.  Not the best advice folks!  It all makes me shutter.  I’m going to talk about this topic again today and hopefully, my readers will understand that I do this from the genuine care I have for you.

Don't let the beauty fool you. Bacteria is nasty business.

Don’t let the beauty fool you. Bacteria is nasty business.

Let’s start with what a cosmetic preservative is. A preservative is a substance, sometimes a single ingredient but usually a blended compound, that inhibits the growth of bacteria and/or fungi such as yeast and mold in products. In this case, the products are cosmetics that contain water, a water equivalent or will likely have water introduced into them by the consumer. Products that fit this description would include lotions, creams, toners, body sprays, serums and other water based beauty products. They are also used in anhydrous/hydrophobic (no water) products that will likely have water introduced into them by the consumer such as scrubs. In addition, they are included in the formulation of make-up products such as mascara, liquid eyeliner, liquid foundations, etc.

Preservatives are important and necessary to deter microbial growth in the product itself, extending shelf life as well as protecting the user. They are crucial to protect the consumer from being exposed to the nasties that cannot be seen or detected with the human eye or nose until it’s too late. Microbial growth begins the moment the ingredients are combined with the water phase. Cosmetics are actually quite the smorgasbord for hungry yuckies. Did you know that by the time microbials grow enough to be seen or cause an odor, they may have multiplied into the millions? Exposure to these contaminants can result in serious skin infections that can permanently damage tissue and skin and even be life threatening. If skin is broken the potential for internal infections is present as well.  Yes, it really is that serious.

It is not an option that can be disregarded or overlooked! In fact, the FDA requires that products are not “injurious to user under conditions of customary use because it contains, or its container is composed of, a potentially harmful substance” and they can not “contain filth.” What? You heard that cosmetics and cosmetic companies were not regulated in the United States? That is simply not true. We most definitely are regulated in how and what we make and how we market and sell what we make, which includes claims made when selling locally, across state lines and online. We are not even allowed to “imply” that our products heals, treats, prevents sickness or disease or changes the structure of the body as this classifies the product as a drug and requires extensive testing to prove said claims. We cannot make any claims, direct or implied, that cosmetics do anything other than clean, moisturize or beautify. Then, if one is selling internationally, we also must adhere to the regulations of the other countries we sell in. We are also required to follow FDA requirements on our labeling, which are quite extensive and specific about ingredients listing, contact information, safety information, usage directions, font size, etc. So, we are NOT unregulated or a self-regulated industry. Far from it!

OK……. back to the topic of preservatives.  Any manufacturer or hand-maker of cosmetics is being irresponsible (not to mention non-compliant with regulations and laws)  if they do not adequately preserve the products they make and sell when one is required. Kinda harsh?  Maybe. But when it comes to you and your safety, I don’t play.  While we’re on the subject, ingredients such as vitamin E, grapefruit seed extract or rosemary oil extract do NOT preserve cosmetics. These  are anti-oxidants which means they help slow or deter oxidation. They are not anti-microbials. Salts cannot protect a product from nasties. Sugars do not have any preserving abilities in cosmetics (sugar is food for bacteria, folks).  Likewise, essential oils are not preservatives and  do not protect the product or the consumer from bacteria or fungus. None of these have adequate, broad spectrum preservative capabilities as some say.  So……Buyer beware!

Fungus in your favorite facial cream is NOT fun.

Fungus in your favorite facial cream is NOT fun.

Preservatives often get a bad rap, but in most cases, the panic and wariness is needless. The benefits of preservatives far exceed the perceived risks here. The percentage required to adequately preserve a cosmetic product and is so small (usually in the range of 0.25% to 1.5%) that it poses no danger to the consumer and actually protects them.  All the negative rhetoric and fear-mongering  hype about the dangers of preservatives is completely false and not science based.  I really love this saying from David Steinberg about bacteria and the use of preservatives, which he actually has trademarked, “Remember, Preservatives are Safer than Bacteria™”. Yes, that pretty much sums it up right there. You really do not need to fear preservatives in your cosmetics. You should be grateful for them and applaud them as helpful and much needed.

There are many well-tested and long proven preservatives available to the maker of cosmetics that are safe and very effective. In my own research and formulation testing, I have not been impressed with the “natural preservatives” for my formulations. They tend to offer a rather limited range for products they are suitable in as well as be very temperamental and unreliable for long term protection in many products. But that’s not to say that some of the natural preservatives are not good and perfectly suited for some products. I choose to use microbial inhibitors that offer a more reliable and versatile range with long term stability and efficacy that works extremely well with my products over the long term, as well as having well documented track record of effectiveness through manufacturer and independently led studies. I know what I use works well for my formulations. I can’t say they are suitable for anyone else’s. Nor will I advice on what will or will not work for someone else’s formulas and products. Chemistry and biochemistry of cosmetics just doesn’t work on a one-size-fits-all plain. And regardless of what anyone else says, what I use is NOT unsafe or harmful to one’s health. If they were, I wouldn’t use them. In fact, the risks of not using them is exponentially greater than any imagined or misguided perception of risks and threat of using them.

So all that said, you may ask me “Why” I talk so much about this and continually emphasize the need for proper preservation in personal and home care products? Easy answer! Because I care about you and your health. It’s that simple! 

Until next time, enjoy the Ahh moments in your life!

Read more about preservatives in cosmetics at these resources. 

A Fungus Among Us

Preservative Information

Why Do Emulsions Need Preservatives

Mild Preservatives – Fact or Fiction?

Why Cosmetics Need Preservatives

I Use Grapefruit Seed Extract As My Preservative Because It’s Natural. But Is It?

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