With every news cycle, it seems there’s a new warning in the world of harmful ingredients in personal care products. Last month, The New York Times reported on methylisothiazolinone (MI), a preservative you might find in everything from baby care wipes to lotions to sunscreen to mouthwash. This ingredient has been known to cause highly allergic reactions among children and adults — so much so that manufacturers are scrambling to reformulate their products that contain it.
Until I began making my own products, I was quite ignorant in the variety, importance and range of preservatives in body care products. When I made my own soaps and lotions, I’d use them immediately so there was no need for preservatives. But once I began making products for companies that needed a longer shelf life, I learned about the importance, range and safety of preservatives.
So, what is a preservative and why are they so important in beauty products?
A preservative deters the growth of bacteria, yeast and mold, and prevents chemical change in the product over time. There are more chemical preservatives (like MI) than natural ones because natural ones tend to expire sooner. Preservatives are essential in skin and hair care products for stability, odor, appearance, texture and most importantly, safety. Companies are always looking for a way to extend the shelf life of their products and without preservatives, cosmetic products can become contaminated, leading to product spoilage and possibly irritation or infections.
The top five most popular preservatives in personal care products are:
Parabens used to be the most common preservative because they’re so effective and inexpensive, but in recent years they’ve been shown to mimic estrogen, causing breast cancer tumors and increasing prevalence of early puberty in girls. In 2013, Methylisothiazolinone made the “Allergen of The Year” list, and in 2014, formaldehyde-releasing preservatives made the list and was deemed a carcinogenic leading many manufactures to reformulate.
Companies are scrambling to keep up with the scientific data, public concern and customer demands to remove harmful chemicals that irritate skin, cause rashes or even physical ailments like sore throats. This often leaves them with limited sources for preservatives, or very inexpensive ones.
On the other hand, natural and organic brands tend to use more naturally based preservatives like:
Alpha tocopherol (also known as vitamin E)
So why don’t all companies use food grade or nonchemical preservatives in their products?
The continued use of more toxic preservatives comes down to two factors: cost and shelf life. Parabens and MI are known for their very low costs and for the ability to hold a product stable for many years, which is why natural products that don’t contain these tend to have a shorter shelf life. All “natural” and organic products should be marked with expiration dates, and a responsible company will go through the following tests before the product hits the market: microbial testing, a preservative challenge tests and stability testing.
When you’re shopping for hair and skin care products, read labels and know your preservatives. Buy from companies you know and trust, and look for expiration dates on products that use natural preservatives. The product might smell and look good, but contain bacteria or fungi that are dangerous to your health. Oil-based products like lip balm and salve generally don’t contain water and can easily be made preservative-free. It’s water and oxygen that causes bacteria, yeast or mold, so any product that is water based like shampoos, lotions, etc. have preservative in it. It’s up to you to decide whether you’d like to use products that contain chemical preservatives or a natural alternative.