Preservatives in skincare

Preservatives in skincare

This is a very long-overdue post, but somehow it didn’t feel right to bring up the use of preservatives in skincare until now. Those who have followed the brand for a while know I loathe scaremongering when it comes to controversial ingredients, and preservatives are no exception. However, as the global pandemic has made us all suddenly aware that microorganisms exist everywhere; in the environment, on our skin, on our clothes…I feel the time is right to take an in-depth look at preservatives and why they’re necessary in skincare products.

Where the beauty industry is concerned, microorganisms are a problem for products which contain water – Cleansers, toners, serums and emulsions… (virtually in everything!). Microorganisms have the ability to multiply and to grow very quickly, and unfortunately, skincare products are their perfect breeding ground.

The first question that tends to spring to mind when discussing the use of preservatives in skincare, why is it so important to have a microbiologically clean product? When a product is “contaminated” it can present an unpleasant odour, gas emissions, a strange colour, the formula can separate and/or we start to see a decrease in its efficacy.  In worse case scenarios, however, the offending product can even be harmful to us, causing symptoms such as rashes, redness, itchy skin and pustules – A worrisome issue if the product in question is for use around our eyes.

Therefore, in addition to beauty brands working in a sterile environment and strictly complying with GMP regulations (Good Manufacturing Practices), the use of a preservative is necessary to avoid all the nastiness that can arise from a contaminated product. In other words, it is potentially more harmful to apply a preservative-free formula than one that contains an effective preservative blend at the recommended dose.

Here are a few quick facts to help you navigate the uncharted waters of preservatives in skincare.

  1. A “preservative free” product might contain preservatives such as sorbic acid or benzoic acid, which are less well-known but still classified as preservatives.
  2. Although preservatives have a higher risk of causing allergic reactions than other ingredients, some do have good safety profiles.
  3. The two product categories that we need to be extra cautious about are formulas for the eye area and for use on children.
  4. Propolis and some essential oils have antimicrobial properties but high doses of them are required to work as preservatives in formulas, which is non-viable in most cases.
  5. Sometimes the word “Parfum” on the label refers to a blend of essential oils which have an antiseptic action and suppliers offer them as an alternative to traditional preservatives. Personally, I’m a bit sceptical about them because they do not provide broad spectrum protection, the doses must be higher than usual and this is a big no-no for sensitive skins.
  6. Very acidic or alkaline products are extremely hostile territory for bacteria so there is little need to use an extra preservative. Unfortunately, the pH of the final formula matters greatly and your skin will thank you if you opt for products with a skin-friendly pH 5 or thereabouts.
  7. On the face of it, Grapefruit seed extract seems to be a “great” natural alternative to parabens. However, further testing has shown that it contains both triclosan and synthetic solvents. So unfortunately, it’s not that great after all.
  8. Radish root ferment filtrate is another seemingly effective natural preservative. However, what the label doesn’t show is that it contains salicylic acid, making it a no-go during pregnancy.
  9. Sometimes under the “paraben free” claim, we find that the product contains other preservatives such as methylisothiazolinone and methylchloroisothiazolinone. These both have a track record of causing allergies.
  10. If you want to get really nerdy about the use of preservatives in skincare, you can find more info from official sources such as


One thought on “Preservatives in skincare

  1. Parita says:

    A great article Pedro! Preservatives are definitely a sensitive topic in the “green beauty” industry but oh so very important from shelf life point of view. Would love to hear about your favorite preservatives and thoughts on Parabens!

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