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Preservatives in cosmetics – explained!

Many people seem to think that preservatives are the scariest of all cosmetic ingredients. To  give you the scoop on why you need them and what they are, I’m sharing this article which was written as an introduction to cosmetic formulators.

Why you need cosmetic preservatives

There are two primary reasons you need preservatives.

1. To stop microbes from spoiling your products.
2. To stop microbes from causing disease.

The microbes that can infect your formulas primarily include bacteria, mold, and yeast. In small quantities they don’t represent much of a problem but when they multiply, look out. Bacteria like Pseudomonas can cause all kinds of health problems including skin and eye infections, toxic shock, strep throat, and even food poisoning. Yeast like Candida albicans can cause thrush. And many other bacteria can cause your products to smell awful, change color or otherwise break down. (This is what stability testing is for).

The following is a list of common preservatives used in cosmetic and personal care products.

Parabens

Parabens are the most commonly used preservatives. They are derivatives of p-hydroxybenzoic acid and go by names like Methylparaben, Propylparaben, and Butylparaben. They are typically supplied as powders and can sometimes be difficult to incorporate into a system due to the water solubility limitations. They are effective against a broad spectrum of bacteria and fungi. They do have pH limitations and are not effective against all microbes so you usually will need an additional preservative.

Formaldehyde donors

Formaldehyde derivatives are the next most common preservative. These compounds interfere with membrane proteins which kills microbes. They are effective against bacteria, fungi, and mold. Bad press and real safety concerns have led cosmetic chemists to stop using formaldehyde. Instead ingredients that dissociate into formaldehyde when put in a water solution are used. These are compounds like DMDM Hydantoin, Imidazolidinyl Urea, and Gluteraldehyde. They are most often used in surfactant systems.

Phenol derivatives

Phenol derivatives have been used in cosmetics for many years and can be effective against a range of microbes. Unfortunately, they are not as effective as the previous ingredients so their use is limited. The most common examples is Phenoxyethanol.

Quats

Compounds that contain nitrogen and have a positive charge when placed in solution are called quaternary compounds (or quats). Many of them demonstrate an ability to kill microbes. This include ingredients like Benzalkonium Chlroide, Methene aommonium chloride, and Benzethonium chloride. Their cationic nature makes them less compatible with anionic surfactants which limits their application & use.

Alcohol

Ethanol is a great preservative but you need to use it in high levels and it faces significant environmental restrictions. Other compounds like benzyl alcohol, dichlorobenzyl alcohol, and even propylene glycol all have some anti-microbial effect. In lower levels, these compounds are less effective at preserving products.

Isothiazolones

Synthetic compounds like Methylchloro- Isothiazolinone and Methyl-Isothiazolinone are effective at incredibly low levels. They have been shown to work at a wide range of pHs and in many different formulas. There use has been stymied however, by at least one study that suggested it could cause skin sensitization.

Organic Acids & Others

Various other compounds are used as preservatives but all face some limitations not experienced to the same extent as the previous ingredients discussed. Some of the most important include Sodium Benzoate, Chloracetamide, Triclosan, and Iodopropynyl Butylcarbamate. Pyridine derivatives like Sodium pyrithione and zinc pyrithione are used to kill the bacteria that causes dandruff.

Why cosmetic preservatives are vilified

More than any other ingredient, preservatives are most often called out as the worst ingredients you can use in a formula. Even people who know nothing about chemistry have likely heard about the “evil” parabens and formaldehyde.

Preservatives are designed to kill cells. That’s why they are effective. Unfortunately, that’s also why they are potentially hazardous. They don’t easily discriminate between good human cells and bad microbial cells. But ultimately, the risk from using preservatives is significantly lower than that of using unpreserved cosmetics. There are safe levels of “toxic” chemicals. All chemicals can be deadly if you’re exposed to a high enough level. How many people die from water exposure (e.g. drowning)?

Remember, it’s the dose the matters!

To be sure, cosmetic science research is ongoing in the field of preservatives since many things previously deemed safe have been reclassified as hazardous. Suppliers who can come up with even safer preservatives will likely make a lot of money. Hopefully, they’ll do it soon but there do not appear to be any promising materials on the horizon.

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{ 1 comment… add one }

  • Eileen June 9, 2014, 10:38 am

    Thank you for this compact, easy-to-understand overview of preservatives. Unfortunately, it won’t do anything to dissuade the “extremists” from their belief that all chemical preservatives are harmful, but perhaps it will influence those people on the fence to take a more realistic and fact based approach to the subject. Chemistry is in us and all around us, but so is fear of the unknown and mistrust of the misunderstood. Rational explanation will hopefully trump knee-jerk emotionalism and help people get over their fear.

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