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Preservatives: What Are They & Why Do We Need Them?

In the past decade, the word “preservative” has become a loaded term in the personal care industry. Certain types of skincare preservatives were linked to health concerns, and they stopped being commonly used. This caused many people to assume that the entire category was something to be feared and avoided, or that we should only seek out natural preservatives in our beauty products. But what’s the truth?

As part of Perricone MD’s five-part series to demystify the suddenly ubiquitous concept of “clean beauty”—a growing trend that involves personal care companies formulating without potentially harmful ingredients, as well as being completely transparent with consumers about the ingredients they do include in their formulas—we’re taking a deeper look into the hot topic of skincare preservatives.

Just what are preservatives? Why do we need them in our beauty products? And, which skincare preservatives are the safest and most effective? Keep reading.

What are preservatives?

Preservatives are chemical or natural molecules added to personal care products (including moisturizers, shampoos, makeup, body care products, etc.), and food items to extend the shelf-life of the formula and to keep the product fresher longer. They also keep you safe from potentially harmful (and just plain gross!) mold, yeast, and bacteria growth in your products. After all, no one wants a staph infection from their skincare cream.

Why do we need them in skin care products?

Preservatives: What Are They & Why Do We Need Them? | Perricone MD

If a personal care product contains water, a preservative is a must-have. Just like your wet shower grout is a haven for icky mold, the water in a skincare formula is an extremely inviting environment for microorganisms to grow and flourish.

Most products contain water.

The truth is, there are very few skincare products that don’t contain water. A bar of soap might not contain water, and a straight-up facial or hair oil also doesn’t contain water. Without water, there’s nothing for microbes to feed on and spread, so these products don’t necessarily need preservatives.

The pH of a product matters.

A product’s pH also plays a role in whether it requires a preservative. (A little refresher course: pH is a scale that measures something’s acidity or alkalinity with 1 being most acidic and 14 being alkaline or basic). Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) products such as glycolic acid peels are so acidic, they aren’t a good living environment for microbes. On the other end of the spectrum, products with a high pH, like castile soap, aren’t appealing to organisms either. It’s those products with a pH right in the middle range that can make a great home for fungus, mold, and bacteria—if there’s no preservative present.

How you apply your product can also contaminate it.

The other reason we need skin care preservatives? The way we use our products. If we stored our facial lotions and serums in the refrigerator and never touched them with our bare hands, then our beauty products probably wouldn’t need preservatives. But let’s be honest here: Most of us keep our products in our steamy bathrooms, our gym bags, or even our hot car. We don’t always use those little spatulas that come with some jars of face cream, preferring to dip in with our fingertips. Preservatives exist to give us this convenience and flexibility, and the peace of mind that what you’re using on your skin hasn’t spoiled or started hosting some scary germs.

Preservatives: What Are They & Why Do We Need Them? | Nourishing Moisturizer | Perricone MD

What about natural preservatives?

When a beauty brand touts an all-natural preservative in its products, the formula most likely includes plant-based ingredients that have antiseptic and antibacterial properties, such as thyme or eucalyptus oils. While botanicals do kill microbes, they have their limitations. They may not be “broad-spectrum preservatives,” meaning they can’t effectively kill a wide range of different microbes.

Preservatives: What Are They & Why Do We Need Them? | Perricone MD

There are also skincare preservatives that are technically synthetic (man-made), but derived from a natural source. For example, tocopheryl acetate is a lab-produced derivative of natural vitamin E. Food-grade preservatives are also widely used in skin care products today. An example: sodium benzoate. It’s naturally found in fruits such as apples, but the skincare preservative is manufactured in a laboratory, in order to be more stable and effective.

Which preservatives are considered bad?

The preservatives with the worst press are formaldehyde, formaldehyde-donors (a.k.a. formaldehyde-releasing preservatives, which are ingredients that slowly release small amounts of the gas throughout a product’s lifespan), and parabens.

Despite a few small animal studies linking parabens to health concerns, the FDA has not banned the use of parabens in products, citing not enough evidence to show it’s harmful to human health. But because consumers are very concerned about both parabens and formaldehyde (and its donors), Perricone MD does not use any of these skin care preservatives in its current product lineup.

Which preservatives are considered safe and effective?

There’s a long list of skin care preservatives that are known to kill bacteria without posing risks to your health (or skin). Many of them have added bonuses, too. In addition to eliminating potentially dangerous microbes, they also add something beneficial to the formula. For example, polysorbate-20 is a preservative that helps emulsify skin care products—enhancing that luxurious, spreadable feeling we want in a face cream.

Here, some synthetic and naturally-derived skin care preservatives that are commonly used in cosmetics today:

  • Phenoxyethanol: a commonly-used preservative in cosmetics that works on a wide variety of microorganisms.
  • Tocopheryl Acetate: a derivative of vitamin E, which is also an emollient and a potent antioxidant.
  • Caprylyl Glycol: an emollient with some antimicrobial properties.
  • Sodium Benzoate: a preservative that is often combined with other preservatives to be even more effective.
  • Polysorbate-20: naturally found in fruit, but the synthetic version used in cosmetics is stable and non-irritating.
  • Sorbic Acid: used in both food and cosmetics.
  • Ethylhexylglycerin: derived from glycerin, a humectant ingredient, which makes the preservative a good skin conditioner.

For Perricone MD, the main criteria when choosing a skin care preservative is that it doesn’t irritate skin, causing an immediate reaction such as an itchy rash. You can trust that Perricone MD skin care products include state-of-the-art preservatives that are safe, stable, and effective.