Preservatives in Skin Care

Why Do We Need to Preserve Skin Care Products?

The skin care world has been shaken up in the last few years by the general public and their changing views towards preservation. A generation or two ago, no one even considered what might be in the cream that they were slathering onto their faces, but today with the web at our fingertips, people are starting to ask questions. One of the most common questions is why do we need to preserve the products that go onto our body? Read on to learn more about natural preservatives in skin care, what does not need to be preserved and why, and what is not a preservative at all, but may be lurking in your skincare!

What is a Preservative?

A preservative is any ingredient, natural or synthetic, which is added to a product (be it food, skincare or drugs) to keep them safe from spoilage. They are there to ensure that we do not become sick, get irritated skin, or even infected. Preservatives in skin care have the same important job. Anyone who has ever stuck a mascara wand in their eye and ended up with an eye infection can testify to this!

What Causes Bacteria to Grow?

The science community is in agreement that yeast, fungi (mold) and both types of bacteria look at skin care formulas like a Viking looks at a smorgasbord! The more exotic an extract, the sweeter the honey, the quicker they breed! They grow very quickly in unpreserved products, often without being visible. So, that lovely lotion you may have purchased, that does not disclose preservatives on the label is not “trendy” or “cool” because it manages to be sold as “preservative free.” It either has hidden skin care preservatives in it, or it has mold or something growing in it. Plain and simple. This is probably the most common problem with people trying to make things at home, or customers trying to buy “natural products”. Look, I feel for you! When I began making skincare 18 years or so ago, I was so scared of bacteria that I would only use anhydrous products. (those without water). I was allergic to many of the traditional preservatives like parabens, and had reactions to some others that I never actually did figure out! As a result, I chose to use anhydrous products like balms, facial oils, single oils like the Ayr Skin Care Virgin Marula Oil or Tranquility Dry Body Oil. A few classes into skincare formulation and I understood exactly what it was, and that preservatives were necessary. The trick was then to find the right ones for each product that I was making.

What Do We Need To Preserve, and What Don’t We?

Any product containing water, or water-based products like glycerin, honey, hydrosols, floral waters, juices, or aloe vera must contain a broad spectrum preservative. When we are talking about “broad spectrum” it means that the blend of preservatives in skin care products must be able to protect your product from gram negative and positive bacteria (invisible to the naked eye), as well as mold and yeast. These products can be toners, shampoos, creams, lotions, but the one thing they will all have in common is that they contain ingredients that will grow bacteria. If your products contain extracts, aloe, honey or other “bacteria food” they need a pretty strong preservative system. If they also contain a substantial amount of clay (clay masks come to mind) then they almost always contain several very strong skin care preservatives in order to protect the product. Products without water or water-based ingredients normally do not need a preservative. A good example of an exception to this rule would be something like an oil-based sugar body scrub. If it will be in a humid environment like a bathroom, or come into contact with wet fingers, it requires a preservative to keep it safe.

Then Why Bother With A Water-based Product?

There may be a few of you reading this who immediately will think,

 “well, then why even bother using water-based products?” This is all purely a matter of personal choice. I love using our Virgin Marula Oil because it offers a lovely conditioning, softening quality to my skin, but even so, I still personally use my night cream and day cream. As I have matured, my skin has become drier, and it seems to cry out for moisture! I like to use my night cream, for example, because the water in it works as the perfect carrier for water-based ingredients like peptides and humectants like glycerin, vegetable propanediol and panthenol (vitamin B5). My skin happens to love these ingredients, and so I combine into my regime a combination of marula oil, serums, and creams. Now that we have talked about why a preservative is needed, let’s take a look at how you can decode the labels and find the skin care preservatives on them.

How to Understand a Skin Care Label

  • In the USA, ingredients on a label must be listed in order of quantity used in the formula. When reading a label, skip about halfway down and read to the end. This is where most preservatives lie: in the 1% and under area of the product.
  • Beware of any product label that contains any amount of water-soluble ingredients if it does NOT list a preservative, or says “preservative free”. If it sounds too good to be true: It is!
  • Look for food-grade preservatives in skin care products. Many newer preservative systems include things like potassium sorbate, lactic acid, and sodium benzoate, or grain or sugar alcohols to help preserve skin care. You may recognize names like witch hazel, grape or sugar ethanol or alcohol. Ayr Skin Care does not use alcohol because we find it too drying on sensitive skin, but many other companies do use large amounts of alcohol, which may allow them to use less of other preservatives. One of these alcohols is called “Alcohol denatured” and appears on many labels. It is one of the alcohols to be concerned about in skincare, and contains ethanol or ethyl alcohol.
  • Some companies are using things like neem oil, some essential oils like oregano, tea tree, or rosemary, and even cinnamon to help preserve their products. With care, some of these can help with preservatives systems, but should not be used as the only source of preservation.
  • While tocopherol (vitamin E), grapefruit extract, and rosemary extract offer some antioxidant properties, they are NOT PRESERVATIVES in skin care products. They help with extending the shelf life of products, and protecting delicate natural oils in those formulas. We use tocopherol in most of our products, but it is not a preservative.
  • Be wary of the ingredient “parfum” or “perfume” or “fragrance”. These are broad terms that the FDA allows to be used to cover a broad amount of undisclosed ingredients. Often times the fragrance ingredients actually contain preservatives like benzyl alcohol. Benzyl alcohol is a good example of something which is naturally derived, but can still cause skin sensitivity and reactions in many consumers. It is an aromatic alcohol used as a fragrance component, but also used as a solvent and preservative. Since I have so many allergies, I personally avoid anything with this ingredient name.
  • Look for “acids” and “salts” that work as preservatives in skin care. As parabens have gone out of fashion, a host of new preservatives based upon natural acids have come onto the market. Dehydroacetic acid is an organic compound which is non-paraben, and not a formaldehyde donor. P anisic acid (or draconic acid) is one of the isomers of anisic acid, which is naturally found in anise. Ayr Skin Care uses caprylhydroxamic acid, which works well with many formulations. Many items you will see that start with “sodium” are actually part of a preservation system. Good examples of this are sodium levulinate or sodium anisate (again from anise).

The Challenge as a Formulator

When choosing a skin care preservative system for a new product there are many factors to consider. It’s not a matter of making something and dropping in any preservative. Each type of product is unique, and requires thought. Each product will also require an antimicrobial and something that is effective against mold and yeast. Let’s look at an example of potassium sorbate. Potassium sorbate (the inactive salt of sorbic acid), is only active at a low pH. While it shows some activity against mold and yeast at a pH of 5, it is only about 35% active at that pH. In a pH of 4, it is 85% active. And, while being very effective against mold and yeast, potassium sorbate is not antimicrobial, so it is useless against bacteria. It is often paired up with one or two other preservatives to make a solid blend that is broad spectrum. You can see that pH, product type, and a blend of preservatives are necessary to consider before products are made.

Necessity for Safety

Preservatives in skin care are necessary. They are included in our products to keep us safe. No matter how safely we make a cream in the lab, and no matter how our products pass microbial testing in microbiology labs, the second that a dirty finger or additional water is introduced into the container, the balance between preservative and microbes is compromised. As a result, Ayr Skin Care is moving towards airless pumps and airless jars for its products. Awaken Eye Serum uses an airless pump that disperses just the correct amount to do both eyes. It is sanitary, and allows us to use the best natural skin care preservatives that we can use. Our new Restore Night Cream is the first of our products to come in an airless jar, chosen for the same reason. It dispenses the right amount of product with the push of a finger, and keeps those fingers out of the jar!

Remember, that the risk of using preservatives is far less than the risk of not using them!



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