If you’re into clean beauty, you may be on the hunt for an easy-to-comprehend cosmetic preservatives list. Something that helps you quickly assess whether a preservative checks out or if you should ditch the overall product altogether.
With a constant flux of new research overwhelming the cosmetics industry, the topic of cosmetic preservatives and other synthetic ingredients are being evermore scrutinized.
It is a well known fact in health circles that the FDA regulates as little as eight ingredients in all certified cosmetic products across the board. As soon as it was scientifically proven that a few commonly adopted preservatives were harmful to our skin or carcinogenic, many health enthusiasts began to boycott the use of preservatives entirely.
While some synthetic preservatives are harmful for your skin, not all of them are and not all natural preservatives are healthy either.
Why Do We Need Cosmetic Preservatives?
Humanity has been using preservatives in all sorts of preparations since the discovery of fire. Smoking food, drying nuts and fruits, salting meat and storing perishables in honey or vinegar are all ancient ways to extend the shelf life of these goods.
Without preservatives, cosmetics, food items and many other similar products would perish before you could make use of them. Unless you have the privilege of being able to create your own cosmetics, and can make a fresh batch every time you need to use them, then you’ll need to make use of preservatives.
Using the wrong preservatives OR ignoring their use entirely in cosmetics both can result in adverse health effects, such as:
- Allergic Reactions
- Skin Infections
- Skin Cancer
- Breathing Problems
- Dry Skin
- Skin Irritation
The three primary reasons preservatives are necessary are as follows:
Protect Against Oxidation
As perishable items age, they become increasingly more oxidized and begin to deteriorate.
Eating or applying anything that is overly oxidized allows for the release of additional free radical oxygen species into our systems. This in itself can lead to cancer and many other hazardous conditions, as free radicals tend to damage bodily tissues and increase inflammation.
This kind of oxidation is also another way in which one can rapidly speed aging. It promotes the development of wrinkles, scarring and poor skin function. Preservatives will keep your makeup or any skincare product from oxidizing, preventing a build-up of free radicals.
Prevent Microbial Activity
It is a common myth to many that makeup and other cosmetics have no effect on us because they are applied externally. This is simply not true.
The amount of cosmetics that you ingest accidentally through application and use would startle you (such as lipstick or perfume). Not to mention, the skin is a semi-permeable membrane, absorbing a large portion of what you place on it.
If you use cosmetics without preservatives, rather soon they will spoil, becoming a perfect home for multitudes of organisms. Putting this on your skin will infect your skin with one or more fungi, bacteria and other pathogens. This will cause acne, reactions, rashes, irritation and (especially in the case of mold) it can cause respiratory and neurological problems.
Extend The Shelf Life Of Cosmetics
Nobody who is living a modern lifestyle has the time to sit and make fresh batches of cosmetics for themselves on a weekly basis! Preservatives, as the name suggests, preserves the quality of perishable goods and allows us to use large amounts over longer periods of time.
Cosmetic Preservatives List: The Good, Bad, and Ugly
Not all preservatives are unhealthy for you.
This section should provide some clarity between the preservatives that are alright for your health and those that are not.
Friendly Preservatives: The Good
See any of the below on the list of ingredients? Good. The below make it on our list of clean preservatives that help rather than harm.
For those of you making your own natural beauty products at home, the below preservatives are a good place to start.
Ascorbic acid, commonly know as Vitamin C, is used a preservative in cosmetics to prevent deterioration. It achieves this by having antioxidant properties, protecting against free radical damage as well as inhibiting certain enzymes that promote decay.
In various clinical trials, ascorbic acid has been tested to effectively improve the quality of cosmetic products without a single negative side effect.
If anything, Vitamin C is used by our bodies to bolster our immune system and protect against free radicals. It was also shown that ascorbic acid has anti-aging properties such as protecting skin, reducing wrinkles, decreasing skin roughness and enhancing the skin’s elasticity.
A word of caution about ascorbic acid:
While ascorbic acid is safe for you, sodium ascorbate (a salt made with ascorbic acid) appears to create tumors in animals. Vitamin C also has a tendency to react with copper or iron salts, causing the release of free radicals, rather than their prevention.
Vitamin E, like ascorbic acid, is a master antioxidant and is capable of preserving cosmetics from oxidation. Vitamin E specifically prevents the oxidation of fats and contributes to the functioning of the skin.
There is more than one form you can find Vitamin E in, namely alpha tocopherol and gamma tocopherol. Both of them are good for preventing oxidation, but gamma tocopherol proved to be largely more effective than alpha.
Gamma tocopherol contains added benfits such as protection from cancer, cell damage and inhibiting metabolic by-products and toxins in the body.
This ingredient is one of the best natural preservatives that your cosmetic products could contain. Humanity has used beeswax for thousands of years, dating further back than ancient Egypt.
The benefits of beeswax are highly extensive, with no negative side effects. Here are some little known facts about beeswax:
- As well as working effectively to preserve their state, beeswax improves the appearance and consistency of your cosmetics such as lipstick, soaps or sunscreen.
- Beeswax is a great emulsifier, creating stable oil and water mixtures. It improves the consistency of ointments, creams, conditioners, shampoos, soaps and much more.
- The natural constituents of beeswax protect your skin from UV damage and sunburn, working just as effectively as sunscreen.
- Beeswax creates a protective film over skin, aiding the dermal barrier, retaining moisture and maintaining natural skin pH.
- It does not cause allergic reactions, but instead helps to soothe them.
- Has anti-inflammatory and anti-biotic properties, preventing swelling and burning as well as sterilizing any infected areas on the skin.
- Keeps cosmetics fresher for longer and ensures they remain for longer period of time on the skin.
- Keeps solids at a stable temperature.
- Improves skin elasticity.
- Reduces skin dryness.
Much like beeswax, honey has many of the same preserving properties. Honey does not create as thick a film or work as well an emulsifier as beeswax, yet if added to a cosmetic preparation, will no doubt enhance the end results.
Essential oils of plants with preservative antioxidants and phytochemicals have also been used since ancient times to preserve cosmetics.
The benefits of essential oils go beyond preservation. They also aid in skin function and depending on what you use, will help to prevent scarring, protect against infections and add a pleasant aroma.
Common preservative oils include:
- Tea Tree
- Grape Seed
- Grapefruit Seed
The only issue with essential oils are that many of them are volatile, meaning that they degrade easily in heat. Volatile essential oils need to be used in combination with other stable antioxidants that can help them to stay fresh for long.
Clays such as bentonite clay have preservative benefits, largely owing to the clays natural tendency to bind to negatively charged particles.
Many organisms (especially fungi) are negatively charged and bentonite clay acts to render them useless before drawing them out of our systems.
Clay also aids emulsification of powders and in cosmetics, bentonite clay was shown to promote a sparkling cosmetic finish (ideal for eye shadow).
Furthermore, clays helps to protect skin from radiation and help to enrich the skin with trace minerals.
Potentially Toxic Preservatives: The Bad
The below preservatives are recognized by the FDA and the Food and Drug Administration as safe; however there is a sizeable amount of contrary research for each one posing the opposite view.
If I were you, I would proceed with caution around these ingredients.
Copper has a few beneficial properties for our bodies. It aids the immune function by stimulating the growth of fibroblasts, a type of immune system cell. Copper salts will also help to deliver anti-inflammatory ingredients to deeper layers of the skin.
This being said, if copper is paired with dangerous ingredients, it will also allow for those to penetrate the skin deeper.
Another little known property of copper is that it rapidly speeds up the oxidation of both Vitamin C or Vitamin E. Both of these antioxidant vitamins work hand in hand to protect the skin and ensure that it functions optimally.
Applying copper onto your skin may interfere with yours skin’s natural levels of either of the above vitamins, as well as releasing vast quantities of free radicals in the process. Copper salts found paired in cosmetics with ascorbic acid will also contain large amounts of free radicals.
BHA & BHT
Both BHA (Butylated Hydroxyanisole) and BHT (Butylated Hydroxytoluene) are recognized as safe by US safety boards, but not by the EU. Both these compounds have been proven to be endocrine disruptors and potentially carcinogenic.
Benzoic Acid, Sodium Benzoate & Benzyl Alcohol Relatives
Another family of certified safe “natural” compounds, Benzoic Acid, Sodium Benzoate and other related salt compounds are extracted from benzyl alcohols.
While manufacturers continue to place these preservatives in everything from cosmetics to preserved meats, they were proven to cause DNA damage, mutations, and cytotoxicity in lymph glands in vitro.
Propionic Acid & Propionic Salts
Propionic acid is a by-product of many fermented goods, produced by the bacteria that ferment the foods. While there is research that states this preservative can help for weight loss and diabetes as a probiotic supplement, it was also shown to suppress immune function.
Whenever your immune function is suppressed, it allows bacteria and other infections to flourish as a result. Propionic acid does not protect against all microbial activity, making it not one of the best choices.
Definitely avoid this is you have cancer, an auto-immune disease or any chronic illness.
Salicylic Acid & Derivatives
Salicylic acid is used topically to treat skin conditions such as psoriasis. It works to reduce swelling and redness, as well as unblocking the pores of the skin.
A study showed salicylic acid was excellent at exfoliating, but naturally, using too much of it is not healthy. Since this compound is so good at stripping away dead skin, it will burn you if you apply too much of it.
If you have normal skin, salicylic acid will also dehydrate your skin, making not an optimal choice for cosmetics.
Sorbic Acid, Calcium Sorbate, Sodium Sorbate & Potassium Sorbate
Not to be confused with Ascorbic Acid, Sorbic Acid has been shown to disrupt the membranes of the mitochondria. A study was done on strains of fungi to promote the effectiveness of it as a preservative.
However, if this compound can disrupt their mitochondria, there’s a good chance that it will also disrupt our own. If that is the case, this preservative would create rapid aging in us as well as energy loss and a weakened immune system. Our mitochondria produce energy as well as control cell longevity.
It’s best to avoid this preservative until further research surfaces about it’s interaction with human skin and DNA.
Hazardous Preservatives: The Ugly
The below preservatives have been clinically proven to be malicious to you and your well-being. Avoid these at all costs!
Formaldehyde is registered as a known human carcinogen with the US National Toxicology Program.
Manufacturers have largely removed it for use as a preservative from cosmetics due to the fact that it causes skin irritation, tiredness, insomnia, coughing, respiratory problems and cancer.
Some cosmetic ingredients release formaldehyde as a by-product.
Be sure to avoid:
- Diazolidinyl urea
- DMDM hydantoin
- Imidazolidinyl urea
- Polyoxymethylene urea
- Sodium hydroxymethylglycinate
This compound was proven to cause contact dermatitis in those with Psoriasis. This implies that those with other similarly sensitive skins would also develop worse skin conditions from using cosmetics containing Zinc Pyrithione.
Parabens are some of the biggest health hazards when it comes to choosing cosmetics, food, hygiene products and even pharmaceuticals.
Over a decade ago, scientists were already noting that in many cases of breast cancer, high levels of parabens and their bi-products were found in the cancerous tissues.
Around the same time, they could see that parabens were preventing proper function of the male reproductive organs, reducing levels of testosterone, decreasing sperm count drastically and ultimately encouraging prostatic cancer.
A closer look at parabens revealed that not only do they cause these cancers in our bodies, but they wreak havoc on our hormones.
Whether ingested internally, inhaled or applied on the skin in cosmetics, parabens have been shown to inhibit aromatase and estrogen sulfotransferase. Both of these enzymes are necessary for the body to maintain a healthy balance of androgens.
There has also been a correlation made between healthy estrogen sulfotransferase activity and reduced breast cancer growth, suggesting that parabens promote breast cancer growth by inhibiting this enzyme.
Parabens have also been shown to cause damage to the endocrine system, which also alters our hormones as well as disrupts our metabolism.
On top of that, it is shown that out of the large amounts of parabens that people ingest daily (either internally or externally), only a small portion of them get excreted. In other words, parabens accumulate inside the human body, causing more damage over time.
And that’s not all…
Further investigation into the metabolic side of parabens has shown that they actually create fat and are likely to be one of the largest contributors to the global obesity epidemic.
It’s becoming very clear that parabens ought to be avoided as much as possible, particularly in cosmetics. Steps should also be taken to regularly detox parabens from your system as contamination comes from many unavoidable sources in current society.
Inorganic Sulphites, Sulphates & Sulphides
Sulphates, sulphites and sulphides are highly toxic. To outline this point, a study was undertaken on rats where the rats were injected with a couple of these toxic preservatives. The rats died within 3 hours of administration.
A common sulphate used in cosmetics (particularly shampoos and moisturizers) is known as Sodium Lauryl Sulphate. While not quite used in high enough amounts to kill you, SLS is a skin irritant which will cause rashes and inflammation.
Ultimately, it is not that all preservatives are bad, nor that all natural preservatives are good. Preservatives are necessary to prevent illness and allergies, and knowing what preservatives to use and how to use them will pay off greatly when on the search for safe cosmetics!
Last modified: September 22, 2022