While synthetic preservatives are still quite common, natural preservatives are beginning to attract more attention. More consumers are interested in adopting a lifestyle that’s healthier, both for themselves and for the environment. This has led to an increased demand for preservatives made without parabens and formaldehyde releasers. This is especially true in the United States, the world’s biggest cosmetic market.
In general, preservatives are expected to become a larger market. As companies slowly phase out chemical preservatives, natural preservatives are taking their place. A key to choosing non-toxic products lies in understanding what kinds of preservatives there are, and how they work!
Why We Need Preservatives
Some dismiss the need for preservatives in beauty products altogether. However, the ingredients in our cosmetic products are much like food: they don’t last forever.
Eventually, these ingredients go bad, especially in humid climates. “Going bad” refers to a product developing bacteria, fungi, and yeast, or becoming rancid. Humid climates accelerate the growth of bacteria and fungi, since they add moisture to the environment – microbes often thrive in humid places.
This is especially true for natural or raw products, which use natural ingredients that are biodegradable. So no matter how fresh a natural ingredient is, it will eventually decay – often more rapidly than a synthetic ingredient. Oxygen can also easily degrade certain ingredients, which means an airtight seal is a necessary partner to natural preservatives.
We can also unintentionally contaminate our products when we use them. Products that come in jars, for instance, require us to dip our hands directly inside our creams or gels. If we don’t wash our hands beforehand, we can introduce bacteria into our cosmetics – and this bacteria can then grow and multiply.
This poses a problem for us: products that develop harmful bacteria can lead to skin irritation and infection, blindness, serious illness, and even fatalities. There have been numerous reports of serious illnesses caused by cosmetics that were used after not being properly preserved.
Besides allowing harmful microbes to thrive, a product without preservatives can become rancid, too. Rancidity can show up as discoloration, brown spots, weird textures, and odd smells. These are all logical reasons for why we need preservatives in our skin care products! In fact, even “preservative-free” products require natural preservatives at the very least.
PRO TIP: Using products from pumps tend to be more sanitary; this includes eye creams, face creams, and serums. With a pump, you won’t be introducing outside bacteria into the product. Water-based cleansers and toners can also be tricky without a pump, since they contain a much higher water content.
How They Work
Preservatives are essential because they work to prevent the growth of microbes in our personal care products. While they don’t control bacteria indefinitely, they extend the shelf life of products. Preservatives help keep our products usable for longer than just a few weeks – often for months – continually re-sterilizing products if we accidentally introduce bacteria into them.
Cosmetics without preservatives tend to go bad quickly. We should expect to use them soon after purchasing. When we make DIY products, we should use them up quickly or add natural preservatives and store them in our refrigerators. Without any kind of preservative, we might find our creams growing mold or smelling rancid overnight!
Types of Preservatives
Companies have a range of options to choose from when adding preservatives to their products. They generally fall into three categories: natural preservatives, natural preservatives manufactured synthetically, and chemical preservatives. Read on to discover our breakdown!
Natural preservatives are derived from plant sources. These ingredients are taken directly from plants without any chemical alteration. Companies may steam or distill plants to obtain an extract and oil, or use the plants themselves. Natural preservatives include herbs, citric acid, botanicals like honeysuckle, and essential oils. These natural ingredients often contain antimicrobial properties that help stave off bacteria.
B) Natural Manufactured Synthetically
These natural preservatives are found in plant sources, but they are often recreated in labs. It may be simpler and more cost-effective for companies to obtain synthetically made versions. Natural preservatives that are made synthetically may include parabens, phenoxyethanol, benzyl alcohol, and benzoic acid. Be sure to buy organic when using a formula made with synthetic naturals.
Parabens come from para-hydroxybenzoic acid: this acid occurs naturally in fruits and veggies, like blueberries! Phenoxyethanol comes from green tea. Benzyl alcohol is found in numerous fruits and teas. Benzoic acid is found naturally in cranberries, strawberries, apples, and yogurt.
Chemical preservatives are made entirely in labs, so you won’t find plant sources in these ingredients. They include formaldehyde releasers such as germall plus, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, and diazolidinyl urea.
Antioxidants can fall under natural or chemical preservatives. While they’re not traditionally considered preservatives, they help prevent a product from going rancid due to oxygen exposure. Some natural antioxidants include vitamin E, vitamin C, polyphenols, and flavonoids. Synthetic antioxidants include butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) and butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA).
The Shift to Natural Preservatives
The preservative market is set to grow substantially by 2024 – just 4 years from now. A huge subset of this market are natural preservatives, including safe natural preservatives made synthetically. The market for organic acids as natural preservatives, for example, has increased in the last couple of years. And it’s expected to grow even more!
There are multiple reasons why consumers are beginning to demand that more natural alternatives be used in their skin care products. Here are top things to consider when analyzing the preservatives in your personal care products:
Many consumers are increasingly aware that several preservatives come from petroleum, such as butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT). As consumers are trying to become more eco-conscious, they’re moving away from petroleum-based products. This is in an effort to stop supporting fossil fuels.
#2: pH compatibility
Natural preservatives often work across a wide pH range. Some, like citric acid, actually help stabilize pH. Synthetic preservatives often tend to work within a narrow pH range. As pH is an important factor in skin health, working with only a limited range may lead to skin irritation.
#3: Skin irritation
Some of the more popular chemical and synthetically-made preservatives may cause skin irritation. Phenoxyethanol, for instance, can cause skin irritation if used in multiple products at once. While it tends to be safe in concentrations of 1% or less, layering products that use phenoxyethanol can affect your skin negatively.
#4: Possible health concerns
There are concerns among consumers that parabens and formaldehyde-releasing ingredients can cause health issues in the long-term. Parabens can mimic estrogens in the body, which can lead to “ a host of metabolic, developmental, hormonal and neurological disorders.” Not to mention, parabens have been found in breast cancer tissue. This suggests that there might be a link between parabens and cancerous growth, though more research is needed to strongly confirm this.
Formaldehyde-releasing ingredients work by releasing formaldehyde over time to protect a product. While these ingredients properly preserve your cosmetics, they can harm your health. Formaldehyde in and of itself is a human carcinogen. Using it over long periods of time is linked to long-term health effects.
The most that natural preservatives are linked to is skin sensitivity and possibly breakouts. This occurs if you have an allergy to natural preservatives or develop an allergy to them. Sometimes an ingredient simply doesn’t agree with your skin, synthetic or otherwise.
Time after time again, we find that using your money to support your values can steer the market in different directions. Companies are prepared to listen to consumers who demand that natural preservatives be the new norm. That’s why new research is going into finding natural preservatives and finding different ways to formulate them. In the meantime, there’s a ton of natural preservatives available – so keep an eye out!