Preservatives & Cosmetics

Sebastian Bula

There is a growing desire for natural ingredients which poses a challenge, as natural emulsifiers, surfactants and preservatives are often a lot more volatile to work with than their synthetic counterparts

“Consumers expect high performance from their skincare. They have been exposed to and are therefore accustomed to the consistent and smooth texture of synthetic formulations”, says Scott, “one that lathers perfectly, isn’t greasy, smells beautiful, and glides on the skin”. But he believes there is a growing desire for natural ingredients which he says poses a challenge as, natural emulsifiers, surfactants and preservatives, basically all the ingredients you need to make a nice homogeneous cosmetic cream are often a lot more volatile to work with than their synthetic counterparts. “We can manipulate synthetics to behave how we want, and smell how we want, but nature’s offerings are far harder to tame”. Certain plants says Scott like soapwort for example will create a very mild and gentle lather, but from a tactile perspective, it is not nearly as impressive as the visual drama of a synthetic ingredient such as sodium lauryl sulfate, a surfactant that creates big and impressive bubbles. “However”, he adds, “people with sensitive skin swear by the skin health benefits of soapwort”, and sodium lauryl sulfate now carries health warnings on some products in the US.

In the past, synthetic ingredients have been the preferred choice of cosmetic brands over natural ingredients because of their reasonable price point. However stresses Scott, there are other benefits. “Synthetic preservatives for example are far easier to use, more predictable in what and how they preserve, and offer better broad spectrum protection, meaning they target a wider variety of bacteria and fungi”.

Preservatives are an essential component in a cosmetic for a variety of reasons: They help preserve the goodness of the ingredients for longer; thwart the growth of bacteria and fungi in your product that if left unchecked would both reduce the efficacy of its ingredients, and pose a danger to the health of the user. “If you have broken skin, any bacteria or fungi growth can cause infection”, says Scott.

Natural preservatives require a lot of experimentation. They need to be put in at higher levels, and more often than not, one or two varieties are needed to be used in combination to attain broad spectrum coverage.

“Natural preservatives require a lot of experimentation, they need to be put in at higher levels, and more often than not one or two varieties are needed to be used in combination to attain broad spectrum coverage, says Scott. “There are many natural preservatives that have anti-microbial and anti-oxidant properties including essential oils, plant extracts and vitamins and there are a few new natural preservatives on the market such as naticide that works very well used in isolation”. He adds, “They won’t give you the shelf life of synthetic preservatives, although if employed properly they can preserve formulations for up to two years – which is actually really more than you need”. Many companies, says Scott, use natural ingredients in combination with synthetic preservative systems because they are easier to use with other ingredients and less expensive. This is usually when a company states that their products are 99% natural.

Some natural skincare proponents argue that when a product is saturated with synthetic preservatives it loses the intrinsic nutrition and vitality of the ingredients and that they are more likely to irritate the skin than natural preservatives. They believe that natural preservatives have the benefit of working synergistically with the other natural ingredients to keep them both fresh and their skin enhancing nutrients intact. Scott says, “This can be true depending on what ingredients and preservatives are used, but usually synthetic preservatives are usually put in at around 0.5%- 1%, and that is not very high”. Green goers are more concerned of the cumulative effects of using small amounts of a lot of synthetic chemicals in skincare, personal care, food that will overtime compromise one’s wellbeing and the health of the environment.

More recently companies working with natural preservatives are opting for special packaging systems called airless pumps to reduce the amount of air and also bacteria entering into a product, allowing them to use less of a preservative. Scott says, using this kind of packaging can help preserve more sensitive formulations, but a fairly rigorous preservative system is still required.

The debate over the safety of synthetic ingredients including preservatives also is helping raise the green flag. Parabens were widely used preservatives in skincare up until recently, since they have been linked to many health problems including cancer. There are many more synthetic ingredients under the microscope by various beauty police groups, such as the Environmental Working Group in the US. The wellbeing and green revolution happening globally reflects the demand for natural and environmentally friendly products, and skincare is no exception. The natural and organic beauty business is booming and chemists who can come up with solutions to making modern organic formulations are highly sought after. Consumers desire every part of a formulation to be natural.

Scott says, “Botanicals have been used for thousands of years so we have a good understanding of their dangers and benefits, whereas many of the synthetic chemicals used in skincare we don’t have the basic set of safety data on. There is no denying the basic synergy that humans have with plants, when we employ them in skincare, they are healing, nourishing and rejuvenating”.

There are endless scientific studies to support the efficacy of plants in skincare. For example many studies show that the chamomile flowers when used in skincare is anti-inflammatory, making it a formidable ingredient for people with inflamed or sensitive skin. “Plants are great for the complexion”, says Scott “and they also have further benefits than just cosmetic. Essential oils for example are touted to help balance the mind and body through their scent”.

Loose labeling laws in the cosmetics world mean that companies have poetic licence to call their products natural and organic, when they may contain only a tiny percent of a natural ingredient.

Loose labeling laws in the cosmetic world mean that companies have poetic license to call their products natural and organic, when they may only contain a tiny percent of a natural ingredient. Ingredients that say “naturally derived” can also mislead the consumer. Many natural ingredients have been manipulated to become more workable in a formulation, but that will render them no longer natural, although companies claim that they come from a natural source. Coconut oil for example is rich in beneficial fatty acids, but when it is processed into Coco Betaine, a popular surfactant, it no longer carries these natural skin enhancing properties. Scott says, the only real way to know that your product is completely natural and free of synthetic ingredients is if it is certified by an organic regulating body such as the ACO or OFC. “How natural a consumer wants a product is completely individual. Some people are happy if a product is 90% natural, with 10% synthetic, others want it 100% organic without as much as a drop of impurity. At New Directions we can cater for all our client’s needs and their personal thresholds for how natural a product should be. We have products that are predominantly natural and also products that are100% certified organic. But of course the more natural it is, the more expensive it is going to be”.

For products that don’t bear the certified organic stamp, it is a good idea to become your own scientist. The percentages of natural content and synthetic content do not have to be labeled on products unless the manufacturer wants to tell you (and unless they want to make claims that it is ‘certified organic’). One fool proof way of identifying the nature of a product is to assess if the ingredients list your product looks more like a biology class than chemistry class – if it looks more like the first, it’s a good sign that it’s fairly natural. Ingredients are also listed in order of content, so hopefully those botanical sounding ingredients predominate at the top of the list. In terms of scent, there is a big difference between fragrance oils and essential oils. If the label reads grapefruit fragrance oil, not Citrus Paradisi (the botanical name for grapefruit essential oil) or grapefruit essential oil, then it is synthetic.

Scott says there are ways to help keep your more natural creams fresher for longer. Firstly he says to keep your paws out of your creams. “Every time you put your fingers in your products you introduce bacteria. So if possible use a spatula or cotton wool bud. Keeping your products in the fridge will also help”. However he says most products by reputable companies using natural preservatives should have a shelf life of at least one year and give you a minimum of six months once opened. He also recommends buying products as you need them, keeping them as fresh as possible. “If your product changes colour, smell or consistency it’s a sign that the formulation has become unstable, then it’s a good sign that it’s probably time to bin it”, says Scott.

Examples of natural preservatives

  • Grapefruit Seed Extract
  • Rosemary Extract (anti-oxidant)
  • Vitamin E (anti-oxidant)
  • Essential Oils
  • Naticide (a new ‘natural’ preservative that is very effective in most formulations)
  • Ethanol

Synthetic preservatives

  • Parabens
  • Phenoxyethanol
  • Hydromethylglycinate (although often it is termed, ‘naturally derived’)
  • Germall Plus
  • Diazolidinyl Urea
  • Iodopropynl Butycarbarnate
  • Propylene Glycol
  • DHA (Dehydroacetic Acid)
  • BHT (Butylated Hydroxytoluene)
  • Captan
  • Hydroquinone
  • Phenoxyethanol (Phenol and Phenolic Compounds)
  • Alkytrimethyl Ammonium Bromide
  • Formaldehyde (in the form of MDM Hydantoin)
  • Irgasan DP 300
  • EDTA Calcium Disodium
  • Boric Acid
  • Tricocarban

Synthetic preservatives accepted by organic governing bodies for organic and natural products.

  • Potassium Sorbate (a food grade preservative)

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