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The use of preservatives in natural cosmetics

This is an interesting subject. It certainly pays off to have a base of knowledge about preservatives, to always choose a better-quality product and be sure of the effects it will have on your health. These days, a lot of brands advertise as “preservative free”. Personally, I recommend a careful assessment before believing such claims, unless it is in fact a wax or oil based product (in which case preservatives truly are unnecessary; microorganisms are unlikely to thrive in such). Proceed with caution when faced with empty marketing promises or plain false advertising: often, the preserving ingredient also has other function in the concoction, and conserving is its secondary purpose.

Or perhaps, there really isn’t a preservative added, in which case, how can we safely judge when the product starts going off and doing us more harm than good?

Appearances can be deceiving. Not many people know that bacteria and microorganisms thrive the most in the crystal-clear water. If you carefully read some mineral water bottle labels, you will often find warnings that the water is best refrigerated after the opening and consumed within 48 hours.  Water too can go off, unlikely as it might seem. Hence, if you return home after a long time away, it’s worth letting the tap run for a while, before feeling up the kettle, so that the stagnant water from your pipes gets out first. Consequently, almost all non-oil based products have to be preserved somehow; that applies to flower water, creams, balms, butter, gels, fluids and toners alike.

So, what can successfully preserve a natural cosmetic? Vitamin E or a drop of an essential oil will often suffice in the oil-based products.

I, however, advise some caution when dealing with essential oils, as not all of them agree with everyone, which is a topic for another post.

It might be useful, always to check if the particular cosmetic in question has ingredients approved by Ecocert (a European organisation certifying natural cosmetics). Some examples of such harmless preservatives include sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate, and are often found in those truly natural brands.

Lately, there has been a new preservative on the market, also approved by Ecocert, but far more efficient, which means that much less of it is needed in the mix. You will find it as two entries on the ingredients list, that create it when combined: Benzyl Alcohol and Dehydroacetic Acid.

It is worth to remember that preservatives, as natural as they may be, should figure closer to the end of the ingredients list, which means that there is less of them then the components for which we actually buy the product. It might be simple, but I would rather state the obvious, after recently finding a make-up base with a paraben as a first item on the list…

Friendly conservatives aren’t always labeled as such on the packaging- sometimes there simply isn’t enough space for a certification.  It is best to be familiar with the substances used in cosmetics and able to recognise them.

Which names of preservative should you look out for and avoid?

Don’t even get me started on parabens. In my opinion, their presence completely disqualifies a product and you are unlikely to find parabens in your typically natural brands, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t encounter some other nasties.

The most frequent offenders include:

Phenoxyethanol – a potential skin irritant; can cause an allergic reaction and adverse effects on the nervous system have been known.  This substance is not recommended during pregnancy or lactation.

Disodium EDTA – can also irritate the skin.

These two, I see most often in products from ‘natural’ shelves. I purposely abstain from naming more, as it can be rather challenging and confusing for the consumer to remember lots of the chemical jargon. If you are on a quest of conscious shopping, to find the most natural, high-quality products, such list will completely suffice. If some substances raise your doubts- check them. The easiest option is to find trusted brands that uphold your values, so that you can rest assured that the cosmetics you feed your skin with, are truly pure.

I understand the views on preservatives are many, and the subject is somewhat controversial. I merely present you with my opinion on the matter, based on personal experience, acquired knowledge and cooperation with cosmetic technologists.