Preservatives get a bad rap. And with good reason, to a degree: Many preservatives are associated with health risks, including everything from irritating the skin to disrupting the endocrine system. Some of them even cause cancer. Because of this, many people prioritize “preservative-free” when it comes to their skincare products. As it turns out, however, preservatives aren’t all bad. In fact, some of them are pretty important.
Here’s a closer look at the problem with preservative-free, along with how preservatives play a vital role in ensuring product safety.
The “Chemical-Free” Conundrum
Given the choice between preservatives and preservative-free, the answer seems like a no-brainer. After all, why would you use a product with chemical ingredients, when you could stick with natural instead? In reality, though, the issue isn’t so straightforward.
For starters, all skincare contains chemicals, contrary to common misconception. Explains skincare guru Rachael Pontillo, “Water is a chemical, air is a chemical, you and I are literally made of chemicals. There’s a BIG difference between ‘chemicals’ and toxicants–and while ‘chemical-free’ might look pretty on a label, it has absolutely no meaning in reality.”
Wanna know more? Check out Rachael's "reality check" video on preservatives in skincare (Can't hear it? Click on the full screen button then "unmute" at the bottom right):
The Power of Preservatives
Not only that, but when it comes to skincare products containing water and botanical ingredients, preservatives are essential to avoiding spoilage. Continues Pontillo, “Any product that contains water, and botanical material MUST contain a preservative it if is going to have any shelf life at all...Products containing water must contain a broad spectrum (meaning that it kills and/or inhibits the growth of bacteria, mold, and yeast) preservative in order to be safe, and prevent contamination.”
And while the skin’s innate protective mechanisms can help prevent microbial infection, they’re not foolproof. Preservative-free products open the door to pathogens, leading to public health and wellness concerns ranging from skin irritation and boils to eye infections and blindness.
Echoes cosmetic chemist Bruce Akers to Well+Good, “I worry about a lot of those products that say [they’re] preservative-free. If it’s oil-based that’s fine, but if it’s water-based it’s made by someone who’s either lying or doesn’t have the knowledge needed to describe what’s happening.”
The Information Imperative
But even oil-based skincare products can benefit from preservatives, insists Pontillo. Why? Because while “anhydrous” (AKA water-free) skincare products made with plant-based emollients and essential oils can’t grow bacteria, mold and yeast, they can be contaminated.
Furthermore, just because a beauty brand claims to be preservative-free doesn’t mean its suppliers are. Stacy Malkan, author of Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry and a co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics told Well+Good, “Suppliers are not required disclose everything in their products, so beauty brands need to pay attention to make sure they are getting the cleanest possible ingredients. Many companies I know do their own testing (or at least spot testing) to make sure the raw ingredients they are buying from suppliers are not contaminated or preserved with chemicals.”
Additionally, legislation varies from country to country regarding the listing of ingredients, with some laws allowing brands to omit ingredients which make up less than one percent of the product and others permitting brands to make up their own names for ingredients thereby masking the presence of preservatives.
In other words, many preservative-free skincare products are potentially hazardous, while undisclosed preservatives may be lurking in others.
The overall takeaway? It’s not about whether or not preservatives are present, but rather about which preservatives are used and how they’re marketed by beauty brands. Nneka Leiba, deputy director of research for the Environmental Working Group (EWG), told Well+Good, “It’s really important that we push people away from the idea of preservative-free. What we really want to see is innovation and testing to find newer preservatives that are safer.”
We'd love to hear from you! Join the discussion on Facebook by clicking on the blue Facebook icon.