Preservatives in cosmetics, friend or foe?

We are all familiar as consumers in the role preservatives play in keeping our food safe and we are all very versed in which foods go where (cupboard, fridge, cool dark place) but most of us have never given much thought to the role of preservatives in skincare or how we can best store our products for safety and longevity. 


Woman applying face cream

Photo by Monstera from Pexels


Why preserve skin care products?

Preservatives are vital in most cosmetics products to keep them fresh and safe. Without preservatives skin care manufacturers would need to make most products, keep them refrigerated and ensure consumers use them within a few days. Obviously this scenario is not feasible for manufacturers or consumers. Skin care products which contain any water based ingredients can be a breeding ground for bacteria, yeast and fungus. If you look at the ingredients list on any face cream, hand cream or body lotion for example you will often see Aqua as the top ingredient or at least in the top five. These products should have a preservative added for your safety.

Antioxidant vs Preservative

Anhydrous, or all oil based products such as Keegan & Co’s moisturising + cleansing balm, do not need a preservative as these types of products do not allow for the growth of bacteria, yeast or fungus but they do require an antioxidant, in the case of Keegan & Co’s products this is tocopherol, a form of vitamin e. Antioxidants prevent oxidation of a product but since vitamin e also helps with free radical damage of skin cells it is the perfect addition to all skin care products and so it is also used in any Keegan & Co. product which contains oil or oil and water.

Are there different types of preservation ingredients?

Yes, as with any product there are different types of ingredients which will act to preserve skin care products. Some preservatives are best suited to inhibit bacterial growth, some are better at inhibiting fungus and yeast and some are considered broad spectrum which means they work well against all three. It is for this reason that you may see a few preservatives listed on a skin care products ingredients list. At Keegan & Co. we use a well known, used and well tolerated broad spectrum preservative which is eco and COSMOS certified. 

But surely all of these preservatives can’t be good for our skin or bodies?

In Europe there are strict guidelines and regulations which govern which ingredients, including preservatives, are suitable for use in skin care and in which quantities. Normally a broad spectrum preservative is added at a level of 1% in any product which contains water. This is considered not too much and not too little in order to safely protect your products and not cause any irritation or adverse effects. So in a 100g bottle of body lotion only 1g will be preservative and only tiny amounts will be applied to your skin. Plus, the potential adverse effects of not using preservatives such as bacterial infections, eye infections, fungal and yeast infections outweigh the benefit of adding preservatives to protect you and your family.

Are there good and bad preservatives?

Some preservatives have come under scrutiny in recent years but you can be safe in the knowledge that in the EU we have some of the strictest regulations regarding cosmetics and which ingredients can and can’t be used. This applies to any product entering the EU market so even if an ingredient is not banned in, for example the USA a US manufactured product containing that ingredient wouldn’t be allowed to be sold in the EU. Examples include

Formaldehyde: Banned in cosmetic in the EU due to its carcinogenic effects

Parabens: Many are banned in the EU or EU sold cosmetics due to possible hormone disrupting effects 

Phenoxyethanol: Not banned in the EU but regulated at 1% or lower concentration and not for use in the nappy area of children and babies. Read EU parliament questions regarding this here. There is no conclusive evidence of this ingredient’s negative effects but many choose to avoid it in favour of other preservatives.

Methylisothiazolinone (MI): Banned in the EU for use in leave-on products and restricted in use for wash off products such as shampoos. MI has been proven to cause allergic reactions and irritation so those with sensitive skin may choose to avoid this ingredient or if irritation occurs with a product check for this particular ingredient. Read about this here.

In contrast there are safer and better tolerated preservatives which cosmetics formulators can use. Keegan & Co. uses a broad spectrum preservative which is free from formaldehyde, parabens, phenoxyethanol and methylisothiazolinone and which is cosmos and eco certified. COSMOS stands for "COSMetic Organic and Natural Standard", which sets certification requirements for organic and natural cosmetics products in Europe. The standard is recognized globally by the cosmetic industry. 

What else can consumers do to prolong the shelf life of their products?

  1. Store your cosmetics in a cool, dark place preferably away from steam and moisture. In your bathroom try to store them in a cupboard or box.
  2. Some choose to invest in tiny cosmetics fridges which they place by their bed (birthday present perhaps!)
  3. Flushing toilets and your face care products are not a good combination. Need we say any more?
  4. Wash your hands before dipping them into your products. 
  5. Buy fewer products and use them. Having lots of half full jars leaves space and time for bacteria, yeast and fungus to grow.
  6. Check the use before date or period after opening and make sure to use your products in this time frame.
  7. Get to know the labels and ingredients in your products and if irritation occurs check for cosmos or eco certified preservatives in place of others and see if these suit your skin better.

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