Preservatives for Cosmetics – Yay or Nay

The topic of preservatives for cosmetics is always on everybody’s lips. Especially when we are talking about it as a negative inclusion to personal care products. I figured, just like almost anything else, preservatives have long been misunderstood as this harmful and toxic substance. So, I decided, lets unpack preservatives; look at the natural vs. synthetic and the advantages vs. disadvantages. This, I do with the hopes to broaden your understanding of preservatives and help you decide for yourself if it is what you would like in your products or not.


I am sure we all know what a preservative is, but for sake of the blog: a preservative is any substance that is used to kill or inhibit growth of microbes; preventing contamination and spoilage of a product.

The micro-organisms known to contaminate personal care products are as follows:

Gram Negative Bacteria
Gram Positive Bacteria
Psuedomonas Aeruginosa
Staphylococcus Aureus
Fungi (Yeast)
Fungi (Mould)
Candidia Albicans
Aspergillus Niger (non pathogenic)

Before I carry on, I would like to say that there is NO SUCH THING as a Natural Preservative. I have seen a lot of people say they use natural preservatives and I really think that’s misinformation and I will tell you why in a bit. But for the sake of this blogpost we will weigh out the advantages and disadvantages of Natural vs Synthetic preservatives.

I am really, really fussy about what I put into my skin. I believe that my skin is precious and I have worked so damn hard to get it where it is now. So, the last thing I want to do, is introduce a potentially harmful, toxic or irritating ingredient into my skin. With that being said, before I started making my own products, I was super duper cautious. So, I understand the need to want something that is “pure” from synthetic ingredients and potentially hazardous preservatives. But, to be honest, No preservative is worse than having a preservative.



It is wonderful for all skin types, even those with acne . It is an antiseptic, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-viral, and even anti-parasitic. – BUT NOT A PRESERVATIVE


This is wonderful for killing bacteria and fungi in the product. – NOT A PRESERVATIVE EITHER


Is an excellent anti-oxidant and can help prevent degradation of a product. However, once exposed to air or light it begins to degrade, so it must be supported with another preservative since it does not kill bacteria. – SELF EXPLANATORY AS TO WHY IT IS NOT A PRESERVATIVE


It is a natural anti-microbial and anti-bacterial, and is great for the skin. It is a great moisturizer due to it having humectant properties – DOES NOT PRESERVE


This is a great anti-oxidant and helps to prevent decomposition of the product. – NOT A PRESERVATIVE


It is a natural antibiotic, anti-septic and preservative found in many skin preparations. However, this ingredient is not as natural as some think. It is mainly synthetically produced from Grapefruit Seeds under a chemical synthesis involving catalysts and reagents under extreme heat to create the aforementioned extract. It also is known to contain methylparaben and triclosan in commercial preparations. And the natural extract has not been shown to provide any antimicrobial protection whatsoever. So typically it is the latter of these two inserted contaminants that are preserving the skincare product. – NOT THIS EITHER


This can be considered natural since it comes from a natural source. However it is again synthetically altered to create the preservative used in many skin care products. This ingredient can give a shelf life of up to 6 months, maybe a year, but that is pushing it. But again, once jar is opened, product needs to be used within 30 days. Also this ingredient is very rarely used alone but in combination of another preservative because it supports only the prevention of mold and yeast. It will not stop bacterial growth. – NOT A SUSTAINABLE PRESERVATIVE


The reason why I am so against these natural preservatives that I have seen people use, is that they do not offer broad-spectrum protection. Among the most effective natural preservatives are essential oils and various herbs such as rosemary, clove, thyme, cinnamon, tea tree, lavender, neem, grape seed, etc. Which are more organism specific than their synthetic counterparts. This means they (natural preservatives) may be effective against one organism, but not another. They must be carefully blended to create a synergistic effect against a range of organisms. The subject of natural preservatives is one that probably has more academic interest than practical or economic virtue because cosmetic preservatives have to fight a broad range of microbes. However, natural preservatives do give a wonderful marketing angle.

Look, if you are at home and you are experimenting with lotion making (which I do not suggest. You can give these a try. Maybe the trick is to make products in really, really small batches that you will be able to use up in a week or two. But if you are sourcing your products commercially, I really do advise that you steer away from products with “natural preservatives”.


Listen, this is even worse than natural preservatives. I constantly hear a lot of people say they want something that is preservative free. And all I am just going to say is that if that specific product contains ingredients that foster a conducive environment for microbes to breed, you are in danger and you should not use that product.


Among the benefits of synthetic preservatives for cosmetics is having a broad-spectrum of activity against bacteria and fungi; being consistent from batch to batch; having relatively low cost; requiring low concentrations to effectively preserve products; and generally not interfering with fragrances, lather, colour, or other aspects of a given formulation.


Drawbacks of most synthetic preservatives for cosmetics including that they are often petroleum-based. Some consumers find them irritating to the skin; and they may require a narrow pH range to be effective. For example, the notorious parabens have managed to get a bad rap in the skin care community because of claims that it is toxic. And I say ‘claims’ because, it is said that there is no clean-cut research when it comes to the toxicity of Parabens (so they say).


Parabens can be “absorbed through skin, blood, and the digestive system,” says The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, which adds that, “Of greatest concern is that parabens are known to disrupt hormone function, an effect that is linked to increased risk of breast cancer and reproductive toxicity.”

The campaign also cites research, saying, “Parabens mimic estrogen by binding to estrogen receptors on cells. They also increase the expression of genes usually regulated by estradiol (a natural form of estrogen); these genes cause human breast cancer cells to grow and multiply in cellular studies. “Parabens are linked to cancer, endocrine disruption, reproductive toxicity, neurotoxicity, and skin irritation. Since parabens are used to kill bacteria in water-based solutions, they inherently have some toxicity to cells.”


The FDA says that it is “aware that estrogenic activity in the body is associated with certain forms of breast cancer.” The agency cites a study published in the Journal of Applied Toxicology that detected parabens in breast tumors. But says, “the study did not show that parabens cause cancer.” The FDA adds that, “Although parabens can act similarly to estrogen, they have been shown to have much less estrogenic activity than the body’s natural occurring estrogen”. And the agency currently believes that “there is no reason for consumers to be concerned about the use of cosmetics with parabens.” The FDA says, “The most common parabens used in cosmetics products are methylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben.”

The FDA further notes that, “Typically, more than one paraben is used in a product, and they are often used in combination with other types of preservatives to provide preservation against a broad range of microorganisms.” Health concerns over parabens are causing many countries and the European Union as a whole to start looking at either requiring the reduction or banning altogether of some or all parabens in cosmetics and personal care products. Denmark has banned two parabens (propylparaben and butylparaben) in lotions and other cosmetics for children under three. It’s the first European country to ban parabens.


Following Denmark’s lead, last month Government Chemist reported that the European Union has notified the World Trade Organization that it intends to ban five parabens: isopropylparaben, isobutylparaben, pentylparaben, as well as benzylparaben esters of 4-hydroxybenzoic and their salts. Government Chemist added that, “Although these five substances are not used to any great extent today, the proposed ban marks a change in the way the EU regards the subject of parabens and their safety.”Government Chemist also said that the EU intends to reduce the levels of two more commonly used parabens (butylparaben and propylparaben) as well as completely prohibit their use in leave-on cosmetics and personal care products intended for children under three.


Rebecca Sutton, a scientist with the Environmental Working Group, told the Los Angeles Times that her group is also most concerned about butylparaben and propylparaben. But, on a different twist, she told them that even though parabens may disrupt hormones or mimic estrogen, which is thought to promote breast cancer in some women, “You certainly don’t want parabens to be pulled out and a more dangerous preservative to be put in. “Sometimes cosmetic companies might jump on the paraben-free bandwagon without really doing a proper assessment of [finding] the safer preservative that they ought to be adding.”


With that being said, there are many ECOCERT approved preservatives. These are non-toxic and have been approved as having no adverse effects on skin and health. An example would be one that we, at MelenialSkin use, Geoguard 221, which is an ECOCERT certified preservative for cosmetics. And works well with most formulations. Familiarising yourself with ECOCERT will allow you to keep track of ingredients that are safe to use on the body. I am a natural kinda girl but I will admit that there are some ingredients that are not natural and non-toxic, the same way there are natural ingredients which are toxic. The trick is to educate oneself so you can decode ingredients.


All in all, preservatives in cosmetics are a must have. So, do not fret when you see it on the ingredient list. Just keep in mind what kind of preservatives are being used and stick to ecocert certified ones.

This was a long one, but I hope I helped you understand preservatives and the role that they play in personal care. My biggest passion is skin health and I will try my best to always give you healthy information and correct information. Next year, I will be starting my journey towards becoming a medical aesthetician and Holistic Therapist and I am so excited! I cannot wait to be certified with a license, I think that is best for me and for you (getting you skin care advice from me). Thank you so much for walking this journey with me and validating my dream. I will continue to be truthful and put your health first.


Trending Posts