Preservatives are a very controversial topic in the world of clean beauty.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) runs their "Skin Deep" website—a popular database that rates ingredients based on their safety. When it comes to preservatives, they give almost every common preservative a bad rating. For example, they rate phenoxyethanol a 2-4, and sodium benzoate a 1-3.
Products loudly make claims of being "preservative free", which further solidifies the idea that they're bad ingredients that should be nowhere near you.
This is giving the clear message that preservatives are bad, when in fact they're a crucial ingredient in many beauty, skincare and personal care products.
Why Preservatives Are a Crucial Ingredient in Clean Beauty
There's a good reason why preservatives are used in products like these—microorganisms and contamination can lead to mold, fungi, bacteria, and yeast growth.
Many clean beauty products also contain essential oils and other ingredients also make for food for the bacteria, also helping them grow.
Not only will these microorganisms make the product unusable, but sometimes they can be there without it being obvious. When used on the skin, especially around the eyes, it can lead to significant problems like infections and allergic reactions.
Not All Clean Beauty Products Need To Be Preserved
The beauty industry is not regulated by the United States FDA, and that includes the use of preservatives. This means that it falls onto the responsibility of manufacturers to ensure that their products are safe to use.
Typically, anhydrous (water-free) products do not require preservatives.
A large percentage of clean skincare products have water, and it's typically the main ingredient. This includes products like moisturizers, lotions, lip balms, etc. However, if the product will come into direct contact with water (for example, a body scrub) then preservatives are necessary.
Products that are used around the eyes are usually more scrutinized than those that aren't. This is because the eyes are very sensitive to bacteria and other pathogens, so products that go on the face will often have more preservatives than those that don't.
Antioxidants Are NOT Preservatives
If a product has antioxidants, it doesn't mean it's safe from mold and bacteria. You'll find antioxidants in the ingredients list as vitamin E, grapefruit seed extract, and rosemary extract, as common examples.
Antioxidants serve a purpose in clean beauty and skincare—they can extend the shelf life of a product by stabilizing the oils
The Term "Preservative-Free" Doesn't Mean Anything
The beauty industry is poorly regulated. This even includes the term "preservative-free", which isn't quite as cut and dry as you would hope.
Take for example the preservative with the trade name "Natricide." It's a natural preservative made from a blend of essential oils. This preservative has the INCI code "parfum", meaning it can be included in a product but labeled as "parfum" in the list of ingredients.
In our research, we came across several sources encouraging the use of Natricide so it can be hidden in the list of ingredients as "parfum" and the term "preservative-free" can be put on the label packaging.
Common Preservatives You'll Find In Beauty, Skincare & Personal Care
Parabens (Avoid) - These preservatives have generated a lot of health concerns because they mimic estrogens, which have been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer and reproductive issues. There are several forms of parabens, the main ones you mind find being methylparaben, mthylparaben, propylparaben, isopropylparaben, butylparaben, isobutylparaben, and benzylparaben. (source)
Diazolidinyl Urea (Avoid) - This preservative acts as a formaldehyde releaser. (source) Formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen and skin toxicant/allergen. For this reason, we recommend avoiding products with this preservative.
Benzyl Alcohol (Iffy) - An aromatic alcohol that occurs naturally in some essential oils. The EU Cosmetics Directive declares benzyl alcohol an ingredient of high concern because it's a well-recognized consumer allergen. (source)
Grapefruit Seed Extract (GSE) (Iffy) - This sounds quite natural, but the end result is a heavily processed ingredient. There is some controversy surrounding GSE, with several studies (1, 2, 3) finding that the antimicrobial efficacy of GSE was due to it being contaminated with benzalkonium chloride (a widely-used synthetic preservative used in cleaning and disinfection agents), triclosan and methylparaben, both synthetic preservatives.
Phenoxyethanol (Good) - The European Union's Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety concludes that phenoxyethanol is safe when used as a preservative in concentrations up to 1%. (source)
Sodium Benzoate / Potassium Sorbate (Good) - Sometimes used alone, but these agents are often combined to provide a preservative effect vs. yeast and mold. These preservatives are generally considered as safe.
Propylene Glycol (Good) - This ingredient has been shown to be a penetration enhancer, meaning it can increase the dermal absorption of the other ingredients in a product. It's also been found to provoke allergic reactions, but otherwise seems to be safe to use.
Salicylic Acid (Good) - The European Union's Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCSS) published its findings on the use of salicylic acid as a preservative and cosmetic ingredient. They state that when used as a preservative, concentrations of up to 0.5% are safe. (source)
Preservatives Don't Guarantee a Product Won't Go Bad
Much like food, cosmetics also have an expiration date that's important to follow. Just because a clean beauty product has preservatives doesn't mean it won't go bad.
If a product is past its expiration date, it's safest to throw it out, especially if it doesn't have preservatives. Use your senses, too—if a product looks or smells off, don't use it.
Preservatives are an important element of any cosmetic product. While we're champions of clean beauty and better ingredients, its important that we don't demonize preservatives. Mold, bacteria and other organisms can be a real problem, and preservatives are there to inhibit their growth and keep us safe.