Preservatives: Parabens and Alternatives
Let’s start with a plain simple fact. There can be no safe cosmetic or skin care product without an effective preservative system. Without preservatives, your everyday cleanser, cream, lotion, or toner would be loaded with bacteria, mold, and fungus, making them unsafe for your skin. A product with “preservative free” claim is either potentially harmful or blatantly mislabeled.
The most commonly used preservatives in skin care products are the parabens, as they offer significant protection at very low doses while at the same time being affordable. They come in a variety of forms, such as the methyl, propyl, and butyl paraben. The past decade, however, there has been media frenzy on the “risks associated with estrogenic effects of parabens, with potential to induce tumor in breasts.” The stories on their potential harmful effects have found wide circulation that the public has lately been avoiding products with parabens.
Are parabens really that bad? In a word, no. Despite the demonization of parabens, the government regulatory agencies around the world have taken the position that in the small amounts used in personal-care products, parabens do not pose a significant health risk. There is no legitimate scientific reason for consumers to avoid cosmetic products that contain parabens.
If for your peace of mind you would rather avoid anything suspect, the good news is that there are safe and effective alternatives to parabens. However, for the natural purists, the bad news is that there are no available 100% natural broad spectrum ingredients that can adequately provide the required product preservation.
Following the paraben scare, these are a few of the ingredients that have emerged as the most commonly used, including products with natural and organic claims:
Phenoxyethanol - The most widely used paraben alternative, phenoxyethanol is an effective and very stable antimicrobial. It isn't as good at preventing growth of fungus and mould, so it is often combined with an anti-fungal preservative such as potassium sorbate or diazolidinyl urea.
Potassium Sorbate - Approved by Australian Certified Organic (AOC) for use in organic skincare products, potassium sorbate inhibits moulds and fungus, but only kills a few bacteria, so it is often combined with phenoxyethanol. It is non-toxic and non-sensitizing.
|Airless containers help increase shelf life.|
Natural Preservatives - There are natural alternatives that offer limited antibacterial protection. Grapefruit seed extract, essential oils of thyme, oregano and tea tree, as well as rosemary and neem extracts are protective against some strains of bacteria and rancidity. Unfortunately though, on their own, they don’t protect from all forms of bacteria and fungi.
Although most products have an indicated expiry date of 2 to 3 years from manufacturing date, once opened, their shelf life can be as short as 30 days, at most 6 months. So many people contaminate their creams by not following simple hygiene rules, like washing hands before applying skin cream. Some of the bacteria that can infect cosmetics can cause allergic reactions resulting in irritation and itching of skin. When this happens, the usual assumption is that the allergic reaction was caused by any one of the ingredients. The possibility of microbial contamination is rarely considered.
Packaging design can also play a role in extending product shelf life. The new advanced airless containers prevent product degradation from air exposure, and have hygienic design that helps protect the product against contamination.
This was published in the August 21, 2012 issue of Manila Bulletin Lifestyle Section. The author is the CEO of SkinStation. He received the 2011 Outstanding Chemist Award from Professional Regulations Commission for his achievements in the field of cosmetic chemistry. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.