Preservative – Why do we need them?

Preservative – Why do we need them?

This is one of the most controversial ingredient classes in cosmetics. Mention preservatives and most people think of parabens or at least those that know a little bit. Honestly, most people fear the word parabens but don’t actually know what exactly they are. Let’s start with the basics before we get through the paraben minefield.

A preservative is an ingredient that prevents a product from microbiological contamination. Simply put, it prevents germs like mould, bacteria, and fungi from growing in your product. They are used in most products that you use daily, food, medicine, and cosmetics. The main reason to prevent any bugs from getting comfortable in your product is to ensure product safety. The kinds of micro-organisms that can grow in a cosmetic product can cause severe health issues. The main micro-organisms found in cosmetics are Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Staphylococcus aureus, Candida albicans and Aspergillus brasiliensis.

These names are a bit of a mouthful, but they do cause harm. If you use an eye cream and it gets contaminated with Pseudomonas aeruginosa, you could get pink eye due to the close application to the eye area and the finger used to apply could get abscesses under the nail or nail infections. This is a less severe example and there are more examples, but often old contaminated makeup is blamed for eye infections and this is due to the microbial growth over time. You may not think this is too serious as it is treatable, but what if it happens in a baby product. Or even an elderly person with a compromised immune system. The micro-organisms don’t care where they come from, they throw a party in any host body they find.

The cosmetics are not made with these micro-organisms, so you may be wondering how they even get into the products in the first place. That would be due to us using them. Do you wash your hands thoroughly every time before you open your jar of cream? If you have traces of Pseudomonas aeruginosa on your hands it can get transferred into the product.

How do you get traces of Pseudomonas aeruginosa on your hands? Easy. It is found in our soil, on our pets and general environment. If you’ve been playing with your dog in the garden and quickly pull out a weed in the flower bed, you can get traces of it on your hands. You may get a phone call that distracts you and then you grab your cream and forget to wash your hands in between.


So what happens when it gets transferred into the product?

If there is a good preservative system, the preservative will kill it off before it starts to grow. If there is no preservative, then it’s party time. Cosmetics contain lots of water, they are in an ideal pH range and contain wonderful plant extracts or oils which are a feast for microbes. Add to that the wonderful warm conditions of your dressing table, or even better, the tropical humidity of your bathroom and before you know it, you have new colonies and cultures in your house that you didn’t invite.

It is a legal requirement for all cosmetic products that are sold on the market to be safe for use. As you gathered by now, the potential for microbial growth is not safe for use and that is why cosmetics contain preservatives. I get shivers when I see preservative-free claims made on products, especially the trend of home-made products being sold as organic because it is made in the kitchen, but often these people don’t know the science behind cosmetics and make products that are actually unsafe for us. We believe they are safe because they are made in the kitchen, but a lot of bombs can be made in the kitchen to.


There are quite a few different kinds of preservatives. Let’s tackle the paraben issue first.

Parabens are the most widely used preservatives in cosmetics. They are also used in food and medical products, like your cough syrup (especially alcohol-free types). They also have the longest history of safe use in cosmetics. In 2004 a report was issued by a scientist stating that parabens caused cancer. Paraben traces were found in the breast cancer tissue that was being evaluated. There were many flaws in this report. I won’t get into all of them, please see the Parabens 


After that report was published the author of the report actually made a public statement saying that the media took the report out of context. They did not link cancer to the parabens. A quote from one of my favorite authors, Terry Pratchett, sums up what happened – a lie can run around the world before the truth has got its boots on.

The media frenzy that followed led to the start of the parabens = cancers and various lobby groups petitioned cosmetic companies to stop using parabens. Consumers insisted they wanted paraben-free cosmetics and so the industry bowed to the enormous pressure and started using alternatives.

Since that study, numerous more studies have been done by various scientific institutions, regulatory bodies, ingredient suppliers and independent researchers. Not one study could replicate the findings and to date, there is no evidence that parabens have a link to cancer. They have officially been declared as safe.

This doesn’t go down well for the surge of ‘natural’ products that came onto the market. They would prefer you to keep thinking parabens are dangerous so rather use their paraben free product.

Why didn’t the cosmetic industry fight back? They tried and numerous articles were published and hence the extensive extra testing was funded, but by the time the results were out, the frenzy was in full swing. The teardrop of truth was lost in the oceanic hype. Have you ever gone past page 2 in Google searches to find a trusted information source? How do you know it is credible when lobby groups pose as credible but actually aren’t?

Moving along to the other alternatives. Parabens still don’t fall in the natural category as they are synthetic, so alternative options were also investigated to fit in with the natural and organic movement in products.

Phenoxyethanol is the most popular paraben alternative. It is also synthetic but was initially approved for natural and organic cosmetics. This was changed and for certified organic cosmetics phenoxyethanol is no longer allowed. This is only due to the fact that it is synthetic, not because it is harmful. Its popularity comes from the ease of use and it is not pH sensitive. It is usually used at a max of 1% in the formulation. (1g in 100g of product)

Organic acids such as sorbic acid and potassium sorbate are often used in natural cosmetics. The biggest issue is that they are very pH sensitive and must be used at pH lower than 6. If the pH is higher than 6 then it becomes ineffective. Optimal performance is at pH lower than 5. Most cosmetic products are between 5,5 – 7. This range makes these preservatives not as effective. They should also be used in combination with other preservatives for best protection as they do not inhibit all micro-organisms.

Alcohol is also a great natural preservative but very high amounts are needed to be effective in cosmetics. At least 15 % is required and this is not practical for the various products.

If you search the internet you will come up with many suggestions including vitamin e, grape seed extract etc to be used as natural preservatives. Once again the actual amounts needed are not feasible for cosmetic products. Grape seed extract may have preservative properties in its 100% form, but dilute that into the cosmetic even at 5% and you lose the preservative effect. Read very carefully when you research information on the internet. For reliable and scientific information you can refer to the reference list at the back of the book.

I often used to get clients that argue with me about the information they got on some website that is actually incorrect. I usually respond that when I Google a headache I’m either dead or pregnant according to the internet and that usually gets the point across. There is as much misinformation out there as there is factual information. The trick is to sieve through them and start recognizing the credible sources.

In the industry, there are so many choices derived from fragrance technology and more that act as preservatives suitable for natural products. There is a lot of research going into new preservative systems, but that is not the sole focus of this book so I will not go into more detail on that.

The preservative used in the recipe book (link to book) and ready to go kits (link to shop tab for kits) is a phenoxyethanol blend. The reason I use this is that it suits most products across many ranges. You do not have all the equipment to ensure that your pH is in the perfect range so the phenoxyethanol is the best choice.

On that note, when I make all the recipes I take pH into account, so most of these will come out within the suitable pH range that is good for your skin and hair. The only caution is that it is temperature sensitive, so you will notice in the recipes that are heated up, the preservative is always added at the end, ideally below 40 C.

This blend is available for purchase on my website. View Product

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