Preservatives: don’t they get a bad rep in skincare? Why are we so worried about them? Are they really that harmful to our health? Or is this more unnecessary scare-mongering from the “non-toxic” skincare brigade?

What are preservatives?

Preservatives are ingredients added to beauty products to enhance their shelf-life. They protect us from contamination by microbes such as bacteria, moulds and yeast. Without them, cosmetic products will go off and we put ourselves at risk of skin, eye and scalp infection.

Do all skincare products need preservatives?

Any cosmetic product that contains water (aqua) needs a preservative or it will go off within a matter of days.

What preservatives are commonly found in skincare?

  1. Formaldehyde preservatives or releasers are commonly used in personal care products as they are relatively cheap and have good activity against bacteria and viruses. EU legislation governs how much can be used in skincare and low concentrations are considered safe. Preservatives in this category include: quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, and 2-bromo-2-nitropropropane 1,3 diol.
  2. Methylisothiazolinone and methylchloroisothiazolinone (MI/MCI) have a wide range of activity against many microbes. They hit the news some years ago as a cause of skin allergy in susceptible individuals. The EU no longer allows these to be present in “leave-on” cosmetics such as face creams and wet wipes. They can be found in lower concentrations in “rinse-off” products such as shower gels where they are considered to be safe.
  3. Parabens have been around since the 1950s and unfortunately received much negative press and links to breast cancer following what is now a discredited hypothesis. Extensive research shows that parabens are not toxic to human cells and are actually some of the safest preservatives in current day cosmetics. Common parabens include methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben.

But I’ve heard that synthetic preservatives are dangerous and natural preservatives are far safer and better for my skin?

As the demand for “natural” skincare grows, so does the demand for “natural” preservatives. Unfortunately, popular media has demonised synthetic preservatives to such an extent that many consumers wrongly feel choosing a product with alternatives is better. There are difficulties with “natural” preservatives which include the following:

  1. Natural preservatives often don’t have the same anti-microbial activity as their synthetic counterparts.
  2. There are fewer options.
  3. High concentrations of natural preservatives may be required to achieve the same result.
  4. Problems with skin sensitivity and allergy over time.
  5. Much more variation between product batches depending on how the product was grown or harvested.

So what should I do if I’m concerned about preservatives? Are you saying they are safe?

Ultimately, yes; but I’d also add that, personally, I think it’s an individual choice what one uses. I would stress that there is no robust scientific evidence that a natural preservative is better than a synthetic or chemical one listed above. EU legislation is careful to ensure than any chemicals we apply to our skin are safe and used in low enough concentrations to not cause us harm. I certainly have no hesitation in using a product with parabens or other synthetic preservatives and wouldn’t avoid products just by virtue of their including these ingredients.

Final message

The development of preservatives to prolong shelf-life of products was a huge turning point for the cosmetics industry. The natural beauty industry capitalises on fear of long chemical names. Cosmetic science should be evidence-based and not wrongly encourage the idea that natural is somehow safer or better. The choices we make should be based on knowledge and not fear.