There’s a lot of talk about the use of preservatives in our skin care and beauty products these days. No one can seem to come to an agreement as to whether or not preservatives are useful or if they’re downright harmful.
While some people are riding the fence, many have very strong opinions about whether or not preservatives have a place on our vanity, in our shower, and in our medicine cabinets.
Do Skin Care Products Need Preservatives?
Preservatives aren’t always bad, and they’re certainly not always harmful. They can be natural or synthetic ingredients that are added to products to prevent spoilage that could be the result of fungal, mold, or bacterial growth, or undesirable chemical changes that could ruin the product efficacy.
When you’re looking through your ingredients list, you’ll see that most cosmetics contain water. Where there’s water, there’s the danger of mold and bacterial growth. “Preservatives extend a product’s shelf life and stop fungus, mold, yeast, bacteria, and other microbes from growing in cosmetics – especially in humid environments like the bathroom,” explains Bella Schneider, an esthetic scientist and product formulator.
It sounds exactly like a catch 22, doesn’t it? If facial care products aren’t preserved, they’ll be overrun by harmful bacteria that could give you an infection, or they could break down to a black gunky mess and not be effective any longer. None of that is exactly desirable. Yet not all chemical preservatives are good for you.
So what do you do?!
Chemical Preservatives Aren’t All Bad
There are effective preservatives out there that are not harmful chemicals. Chemical preservatives typically work in smaller quantities and do not have the heavy smells and textures that many natural preservatives do. They also wind up being inexpensive and efficient in preventing contamination, making it possible for you to store your products outside of the refrigerator for long periods of time.
Could Natural Preservatives Be the Answer?
People want to be reassured by things natural and organic. Natural preservatives like vitamin E, glycerin, organic acids, essential oils, and phenethyl alcohol can definitely be effective, but they typically have to be incorporated in large quantities (upwards of 30% of the product). “Additionally, they can contain a lot of smell or create allergies in clients, they are not cost effective, and they alter the glide, feel, and fragrance of the product,” Schneider explained. “They can also increase the cost of production and sale. In general, they are much less practical for both the manufacturer and consumer than synthetic preservatives.”
Still, there are products out there utilizing natural preservatives that are worth taking a look at. There’s something to be said for going the natural route!
Preservatives to Watch Out For
Typically the amount of chemical preservatives in cosmetics is minimal. “If the product is ingested or used around areas where it could be ingested – such as the lips, mouth, or underarms, it could be more toxic,” warns Schneider. “Also, prolonged use of certain chemicals can cause adverse reactions, such as rashes or sensitivity, or more long-term health problems such as cancer.”
There are certain chemicals that are raising concern. They may remain in the blood after cosmetic use, metabolized, and potentially cause harm. It’s probably best if you avoid anything that includes these.
- Phenolic Acid (phenol): can cause respiratory issues, coma, fainting, and paralyis.
- Petroleum-based Compounds (including propylene glycol, polyethylene glycols, or polyoxythelene): could be contaminated with a chemical that can cause cancer, according to the FDA.
- Phthalates: “These can be absorbed through the skin and accumulated in the body and may promote breast cancer, asthma, ADHD, obesity, diabetes, neurodevelopmental issues, autism spectrum disorders, altered reproductive development, and fertility issues,” details Schneider.
- Formaldehyde: in all its many forms is a carcinogen. “It can also harm the brain, development in children, and cause allergies, irritation, and asthma,” says Schneider.
- Parabens: have been identified as estrogenic and disruptive of normal hormone function.
A Deeper Look at the Biggest Offenders
Parabens are used to protect cosmetics from the growth of organisms like bacteria and fungi, so they can extend the shelf life of your products. Common parabens include methylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben. You’ll find them in many of your old favorites, but they have been linked to a bunch of serious health problems. They’ve been implicated in breast cancer and male reproductive issues and are a known endocrine disruptor. If that weren’t enough, they just plain don’t help your cause. The Kyoto Prefectural University of Medicine found parabens to increase sensitivity to the sun and cause premature aging!
Formaldehyde can be useful in preventing bacterial growth. That’s why it’s commonly used in the embalming process of preserving deceased people! Topically, it’s been linked to adverse and allergic reactions and has been proven to decrease your immune system functions. Formaldehyde has also been linked to cancer. Sadly, you’re not going to easily spot it in the ingredients list, as companies are sneaky about trying to hide it.
Common forms of formaldehyde used include Diazolidinyl urea, 3-diol Imidazolidinyl urea, DMDM Hydantoin, Quarternium-15, Nitorpropane-1, Formalin, Methanol, Methyl Aldehyde, and Methylene Oxide.
Do your research and choose products that incorporate ingredients you’re comfortable with. A good rule of thumb when using naturally-formulated products is that they should be used with a spatula, and used within three months of opening to prevent any cross-contamination.