Recently, while I was browsing the different vendor booths in the “green” section at an aesthetics trade show, I overheard a conversation between an attendee and brand representative that went something like this:
Attendee: Are your products preservative-free?
Representative: No, we do use preservatives, but we use natural preservatives.
Attendee: You don’t have any preservative-free products? I don’t want to use preservatives because preservatives are toxic.
The brand representative shrugged her apologies, and the attendee walked away, continuing to rant to her friend about how she couldn’t believe products from an organic skincare brand would still contain preservatives. She then said “let’s go to X Organic Brand’s booth, because I know they only sell preservative-free skincare.”
I admit it–I followed them. They went to a large, elaborate exhibition that claimed to not only sell preservative-free skincare, but even “chemical-free” skincare. Whoa.
Here’s where I started to get annoyed, because of three things.
First, while many preservatives are known endocrine disrupting chemicals (like parabens), skin irritants (like phenoxyethanol), and even carcinogenic (formaldehyde-releasing preservatives like diazolidinyl urea), there are many preservation systems that are not associated with risks like these.
Second, there’s no such thing as chemical-free. Water is a chemical, air is a chemical, you and I are literally made of chemicals. There’s a BIG difference between ‘chemicals’ and toxicants–and while ‘chemical-free’ might look pretty on a label, it has absolutely no meaning in reality. This was a case of greenwashing at its finest.
Read more about free-from claims HERE.
And third, I took a look at these ‘preservative-free’ products, and saw that many of them contained both water and plant-derived ingredients. The products also claimed to have a 3 year shelf life. Now I ask you: if you took a glass of water and stuck some ground up plant material in that water and let it sit for 3 years, what do you think would happen? This concoction would quickly become a petri dish for bacteria, mold, yeast, and goodness knows what else. Would you be excited to buy that? I think not. So this is an example of either misleading labeling, or hidden ingredients–both of which also are forms of greenwashing.
Read more about hidden ingredients HERE.
Any product that contains water, and botanical material MUST contain a preservative it if is going to have any shelf life at all. One cannot rely on ingredients like herbs or essential oils that are said to contain naturally antimicrobial properties, either, because the high concentration of those ingredients you’d need for that action to be effective would render the product unsafe for topical use. No–products containing water must contain a broad spectrum (meaning that it kills and/or inhibits the growth of bacteria, mold, and yeast) preservative in order to be safe, and prevent contamination.
What’s the worst that could happen by using a preservative-free skincare product?
“Studies have shown that the most frequently found microorganisms in cosmetics are P. aeruginosa, K. oxytoca, B. cepacia, S. aureus, E. coli, C. albicans, E. gergoviae, and S. marcescens, but also other bacteria, fungi, and yeasts. Skin and mucous membranes are protected from microorganisms; however, these may be damaged and slight trauma may be caused by the action of some cosmetics that may enhance microbial infection.” While the skin’s microbiome typically does a great job keeping pathogens at bay, many people have compromised or unbalanced skin microbiota due to overcleansing, overexfoliation, dehydration, stress, and poor diet and lifestyle choices. Any of these pathogens can cause skin or eye irritation or infection, which may then get into the bloodstream or eyes, causing a more serious infection or condition (conjunctivitis, boils, impetigo), and even blindness.
It’s just not worth those risks, even if you’re the healthiest person with strong, resilient skin! So, to review, products that contain water and botanical ingredients must also contain a preservative. The only way around this is to either use anhydrous products (products containing no water like oils and balms), and take extreme care not to contaminate them or make micro-batch products, store them in the refrigerator, and use them within 3 days. Or you could choose to make or purchase a properly preserved natural product.
If you see a water-based or gel-based product like a cleanser, toner, lotion, cream, or serum, floral water, or hydrosol that shows no preservative on the label, that’s a major red flag.
Are any preservative-free skincare products safe?
This is a tough one, because I want to say yes. Theoretically, products that do not contain any water shouldn’t need a preservative. Plant-based emollients like butters (shea butter, mango butter), carrier oils (jojoba oil, rosehip seed oil), waxes (beeswax), and essential oils cannot breed bacteria, mold, or yeast on their own, and therefore shouldn’t need a preservative. And the majority of products like these on the market are, in fact, preservative-free skincare products.
Even so, some skincare makers are choosing to add preservatives to anhydrous products. You might ask why, since I just told you they can’t breed microbes. Well, just because they can’t breed them doesn’t mean they can’t become contaminated with them from improper manufacturing practices, packaging, or storage; or mistakes made by consumers like storing them in a humid bathroom, leaving bottles or jars open, or removing product from jars using fingers. Air and waterborne microbes can contaminate anhydrous products, and cause them to grow pathogens, therefore increasing risk. In fact, a recent review found evidence of P. aeruginosa and S. aureus in several anhydrous products.
Does that mean all anhydrous skincare products should be preserved? Not necessarily–there are ways to package products that prevent contamination. Customer education and proper expiration dates also go a long way. Even though the majority of contamination in products like these occurs from consumer contamination, brands are required to do everything they possibly can to ensure safety–and in the end, the customer is always right.
I don’t blame you! I avoided them for years because I was afraid of making a mistake while using them. The good news is that while natural preservation is complex, it’s not rocket science. In my course, Create Your Skincare, we talk a lot about how to work with natural preservatives (including how to choose the right system for your products), and ensure product safety. And I’m also there to help you if you do make a mistake and need help getting it right. Anhydrous products can be great, but they can also be limiting–and many people benefit from a combination of water and oil-based products.
Click HERE to learn more about what you’ll learn in Create Your Skincare.
Did you learn anything new in this article?
Tell me about it in the comments below!
Image 1 by Claudio Pistilli