What’s the deal with preservatives?

Posted by Teresa Foo on

We have seen over the years that many consumers are turning away from cosmetics that contain preservatives. We are referring to all forms of parabens, phenoxyethanol, potassium sorbate, sodium benzoate, and so many more. Why and how did that happen? Let’s look at the issue.

What is the role of preservatives? Why do we need to have preservatives in our cosmetics?

Example of an ingredient list:

In a nutshell, ‘a preservative is a substance that is added to products such as foods, pharmaceuticals, paints, biological samples, wood, beverages etc. to prevent decomposition by microbial growth or by undesirable chemical changes.' (source

The key words are ‘prevent decomposition by microbial growth’. So preservatives are added to cosmetics to prevent growth of microbes. And what are these microbes that we are referring to? Bacteria (Gram+ and Gram-) and fungi (molds and yeast). Yes, these are commonly found in cosmetics especially in products that are NOT properly preserved or NOT preserved at all. Not only do these microbes affect the integrity of the cosmetic products, they pose a danger to the health of the users especially those who have sensitive skin, compromised skin and with weakened immune systems. When you don't see them, it doesn't mean they are not present. Putting the products in the fridge do not prevent microbes from proliferating. It simply delayed their activity. Once you take them out of the fridge, they will start to proliferate within 30 minutes!

How did the ‘No preservatives’ in cosmetics started? It started with the public mistrust of parabens reported in a clinical study released in the 2004 paper by Dr. Philippa Darbre from University of Reading. In the study, Dr. Philippa Darbre reported that parabens were found in breast cancer tissues. However, parabens were among OTHER substances found in the breast cancer tissues and till this date, studies are still ongoing to determine the link. This is further clarified by the American Cancer Society and Cancer Research UK.

Parabens can also be found naturally in our food such as blueberries, carrots, chamomile, green tea, cucumber to name a few. We are avoiding parabens (synthetic type) in skincare (which is used approximately 1% or lesser) and yet consume them daily in our food. Shocking but it is the truth!

What happened after the public mistrust of parabens? It eventually caused cosmetic companies and manufacturers (even food products) scrambling to replace the parabens. Phenoxyethanol is another commonly used effective synthetic preservative and this has also come under scrutiny. This is also largely due to a study conducted in 1997 which reported serious adverse effects (“produced significant reproductive and developmental toxicity in studies in mammals”) (source). The dose in question is at 2.5% which caused the adverse effects. However used at the lowest permitted percentage, there were no side effects reported. This article compared phenoxyethanol to water. (source). The findings were again picked up by the press, social media and the fire just catches on.

The International Journal of Toxicology have released a report stating that phenoxyethanol is safe to use in cosmetics at concentrations below 1%. (source)

From what we have discussed so far, we can only conclude ‘The dose is the poison’.

We want cosmetics to be sufficiently preserved so that we can safely use them without any side effects. There are many preservatives that are used in natural and/or organic cosmetic formulations that are both synthetic and naturally derived. Natural cosmetic formulations will use a combination of preservatives to ensure a broad spectrum coverage (bacteria, mold and yeast). So the next time when you see an ingredient in some names that you cannot pronounce (topic for next blog post!) or under fragrance (because of trademark name), it can be the preservative. Do not be alarm. You can be assured that there is some form of preservation system in place.

Remember, cosmetics that contain water, hydrosols, aloe vera, proteins, infusions, extracts, etc are susceptible to growth of microbes. Creams, lotions, gels, toners, scrubs, shampoos, conditioners, eye serums, mascaras are just some of the cosmetics that contain at least one ingredient of the above mentioned. If these products are not properly preserved or no preservation system is in place, it could only mean one thing: USE AT YOUR OWN RISK!


Our founder, Teresa Foo, has a Certificate in Natural Cosmetics Preservation. Our products that contain water, hydrosols or will come into contact with water have preservation system in place. This is to ensure the integrity of the products and safety of our users.

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