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Myth No. 4 - Preservatives don’t have a place in natural skincare.

When I busted Myth No. 3, I briefly mentioned the importance of preservatives (even synthetic ones) in hydrous (water-based) products to curb the growth of harmful micro-organisms like bacteria, mold and yeast. So why am I writing about preservatives again? The answer is because it is often THE critical safety component missing in many formulations that are publicly sold (or even in DIY “recipes” online).

This is going to blow your mind, are you ready? Just because it’s selling on the shelf of a beauty counter, IT DOESN’T MEAN THE PRODUCT IS SAFE. Our country’s healthcare regulator simply doesn’t enforce this level of oversight. And unless the end user knows to critically assess the product label, a spoiled product cannot necessarily be distinguished by an average consumer.

As a Certified Natural Skincare Formulator, when I review the labels on the back of skincare products (and even food products), if I see the word “Aqua” or the likes of any water-based ingredients like “Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice” (Aloe Vera Gel) or bug food such as “Honey” or “Milk”, my eyes will instinctively start skimming for the presence of preservatives*. 

Here are a couple of natural or nature identical ingredients that can be found in common preservatives for “clean” skincare products:

  • Benzyl Alcohol
  • Salicylic Acid
  • Glyceryl Caprylate
  • Potassium Sorbate
  • Sodium Benzoate
  • Glyceryl Undecylenate
  • Dehydroacetic Acid

Sometimes, there is a need for a mix of preservatives, for the follow reasons:

  • Broad vs. narrow-spectrum - Broad spectrum preservatives are effective at inhibiting the growth of bacteria, mold and yeast; however, some preservatives are not broad-spectrum and are only effective against a selection of these nasty bugs (e.g., only bacteria and mold, but not yeast), and thus a combination of preservatives is required to ensure appropriate and sufficient coverage.
  • pH range - Each preservative is effective over a specific pH range. If the final formulated skincare product has a pH outside of this range, the Formulator must either adjust the pH of their final product so it falls within the preservative’s effective pH range, or choose a different preservative with a suitable effective pH range.
  • Formulation suitability - Generally speaking, preservatives are special characters. By that I mean many of them come with a distinct scent or color, may react differently to different temperatures, or simply may not be compatible with other ingredients in the formulation.

Given all of these factors, there's really no "one size fits all" holy grail preservative out there. It takes patience, knowledge and experience on the part of the formulator to find the perfect preservative system for each formulation. And because many of the harmful micro-organisms can't actually be seen by the naked eye, a Preservative Efficacy Test (PET) carried out in a laboratory setting is the only way to tell whether the chosen preservative system is actually effective at ensuring a safe formulation is created.

Though this is just the tip of the iceberg, now that you have this important knowledge, you are well on your way to distinguishing safe natural skincare!

*It is possible for water-based formulations to be safely produced without the use of preservatives. This method of "self-preservation" is achieved by using what is called "hurdle technology", a complex method relying on the cumulative strength of a multitude of techniques such as the use of heat during the production process to minimize the initial bug count and the addition of chelating agents to disrupt cell walls and isolate metal ions to inhibit the growth of the micro-organisms. That said, hurdle technology requires a high investment of time, money, experience, knowledge and effort on the part of the formulator and thus, only limited brands on the market can afford to undertake this technology effectively. The use of preservatives is a far more common and simple time-tested approach.


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