Updated: Aug 14
Taiga Beauty is proud to use a wide variety of wildcrafted, organic, and natural ingredients. That's exciting for many. But, we are not fully natural. Why not? Because unpreserved or poorly preserved cosmetic products are a serious public health concern. And yet ‘preservative-free’ product claims abound? Some people even believe that preservatives are not only unnecessary but potentially harmful.
Today, I've been thinking about why I've decided to create "clean" products that may or may not be "all natural". For me, the game-changer is preservatives. Preservatives have gotten a bad name - but they are necessary. Well - not necessarily in anhydrous formulae, but definitely in anything containing water. All it takes is one small group of bad microbes to turn a beautiful cream into this (image from Soap Queen)
Certain packaging can also help out with lowering your preservative requirements. For example, aerosols have less contact with air and the consumer, therefore, require much less preservation. This means anyone formulating has a lot to consider beyond ingredients and good manufacturing protocols and practices.
Consider any formulation with water (aqua) that doesn't list a preservative in the ingredients. This should be a big red flag. If the product is water-based, stable and lives through its shelf life with a preservative-free claim, they’re lying. Some companies will hide their preservatives as "fragrance". Another trick is using ingredients that have been preserved with a paraben, and not listing the paraben in the ingredients (not legal practice in Canada).
Common conventional preservatives
The big pro for synthetic preservatives is their broad-spectrum effectiveness at very low concentrations (about 0.3%). Many synthetic preservatives are actually less allergenic than natural ones because they are needed at such low amounts. For the cons, most of the health scares for cosmetics seem to lie within the ingredient category. Most importantly, a properly preserved product will always be safer than an unpreserved or poorly preserved product. Example, would you rather find out you have an allergy or a staph infection?
Parabens are one of the most vilified ingredients in the cosmetic industry but remain widely used because they’re very effective at a low dose, especially compared to all the other preservatives out there. They have no smell or color, are very easy to use, and are generally well tolerated. All of this seems to come from a 2004 study which found traces of parabens in breast tumors. This study didn’t compare levels of parabens in normal breast tissue to cancerous breast tissue. Instead, conclusions were based on the assumption that parabens were found at a higher level in individuals with breast cancer.
Most of the conclusions related to adverse health effects were made from anecdotal assumptions or had really unrealistic methods. Just because it's seen in tissues doesn't mean it's causing harm. More studies need to compare paraben concentrations in healthy tissues to diseased tissues, and to determine the actual biological effects
In cosmetics, many paraben types have been tested to be well tolerated on our skin up to levels of 25%. In contrast, these ingredients typically range from 0.01 to 0.3% in a product. After extensive testing, parabens seem to be the least allergenic preservatives on the market. But, because of some of the research mentioned above, there’s been incredible pressure on the industry to find alternatives. Unfortunately, the alternatives are often more allergenic… which isn’t good news.
After parabens, these ingredients are the next most common preservatives and are often used now as a paraben replacement and is greenwashed by making ‘paraben-free’ claims on their labels. Formaldehyde, in general, was once commonly used as a preservative due to its effectiveness, but due to toxicity, allergenicity and carcinogenicity concerns, this ingredient type is no longer used. Instead, formaldehyde donors were developed. I'm not inclines to use these at all!
Phenoxyethanol is a synthetic that has become the primary paraben replacer in more natural formulations due to its effectiveness at a low concentration in end formulas. Sadly, there’s not a whole lot of toxicology-related research on phenoxyethanol and there’s been a growing number of skin allergies related to this ingredient.
More Natural Preservatives
The biggest con for ‘natural’ (e.g. sodium benzoate) preservatives are that they’re less effective than the above synthetic preservatives. Most are not broad spectrum and have to be used at a much higher dosage to be effective. In addition, many natural preservatives can be quite allergenic, especially at higher concentrations. Natural preservatives are generally a lot more expensive than their synthetic counterparts. Most natural preservatives are weak acids such as salicylic acid, sorbic acid, lactic acid, citric acid, benzoic acid, etc.. They’re typically only stable under a pH of around 5-5.5, which can pose a challenge for some products. Finally, natural preservatives can add a scent or color to your product, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
NOT a preservative
Antioxidants are not preservatives and are popping up more and more in natural water-based formulas, mostly with home and Etsy crafters. While antioxidants can be used to extend the shelf life, they do not have antimicrobial qualities. Examples of common antioxidants include grapefruit seed extract, rosemary extract and vitamin E.