A “Preservative-free” cosmetic, why not? But what does this mention really mean? How is the formula protected from bacterial damage or microbiological growth? What replaces parabens or other preservatives listed by the official nomenclature of cosmetic ingredients? And what confidence can be placed in these products?
This "Without preservative" mention is seen more and more on cosmetics labels, not only those claimed as organic or natural. It is trendy, and it comes with a positive a priori assumption by consumers. Nevertheless, some precautions must be thought of, as, if preservatives are in many cosmetic products , it is for a reason. Further, the "Without preservative" mention may be used for very different reasons.
Preservatives, for what pupose?
Preservatives are used to guarantee the sanitary safety of cosmetic products . Keep in mind that the basis of a cream, a shower-gel, a body-balm is an emulsion of fatty chemicals in water. Without preservatives , this mixture would soon become (few days may be enough) a breeding ground for bacteria (some being very dangerous, pathogens, for human health), and fungi (mould and yeast). Preserving a product is necessary; the manufacturer is liable for it, and the consumer’s safety is at stake.
Preservatives: what are they?
These substances are chosen for their bactericidal , antifungal and biocide properties, i.e. their ability to kill living microorganisms. Quite often, they are synthetic molecules, though some natural preservatives are used, extracted from plants: plants also have to fight against microorganisms to survive. Fruit or the rowan-tree, for instance, produces sorbic acid, an antifungal agent, while essential oils from ylang-ylang and jasmine contain a bactericidal chemical, Benzyl Alcohol …
Preservatives: why are they a concern?
They are there to kill living organisms. These organisms are dangerous bacteria and fungi, right, but they are living entities. It is true to say preservatives are killers. Killers rarely do it gently. In the war to secure our cosmetics, some of them may even go to produce important "collateral damage", i.e. undesirable effects , such as irritations, allergies, even potential or known toxicity with high dosage.
Preservatives: why do some receive bad press?
They are all evaluated, for efficiency and toxicity, through scientific studies and experiments, which allow sanitary authorities to issue regulations, and industry to use them accordingly. Some media reports have fingered out some substances: Parabens would be carcinogenic, Phenoxyethanol is a glycol ether … This focus on two kinds of substances has put many others aside. When considering the balance advantages/disadvantages of others, this may be a shame, especially when the studies, which led to suspect some products, have sometimes be counterbalanced by other studies, even disproved by sanitary authorities.
A suspicion aroused in the public at large about preservatives , and the cosmetic industry, in touch with its consumers, has been quick to answer their worry. One of them is the "Without preservative" mention.
Without preservative: what does it come for?
It is useful to read thoroughly the claims on labels, in hindsight, and to know how to understand them, just to be sure not to deceive oneself. This one fits exactly, as it may have quite different meanings:
• This cosmetic product needs no preservative.
Dry formulae (powders, eyeshadow …), which do not contain water, are very stable products, the least prone to microorganisms proliferation. In the same way, oils blends (serum, moisturizing oils …), which are also water-free, need only anti-oxidants to prevent them to go rancid. In such a case, this mention in no way is a "plus" as compared to competitors’ products that do not contain preservatives . It is not a piece of information for the consumer, just relevant to an ad point.
• The product does not contain any preservative listed in the official list of ingredients for cosmetics.
Manufacturers who want not to use disputed substances have found other ways to get similar results.
> Alcohol as an antiseptic (which, in addition, may be listed as "of natural origin") may then be in significant quantities in "without preservatives" formulae, though it is potentially harmful for the body (it could be harmful also through the cosmetics), though it is known to dry epidermis , and, as such, it is not recommended on dry and/or sensitive skins.
> Some essential oils may also be used thanks to their bactericidal properties, which come atop their other properties as active agents in the product. However, their known allergenic potential makes them unlikely widely used preservatives .
> Lipoaminoacids and enzymes are also used more and more due to their bactericidal properties. Even though no harmful effect for the human health is suspected for these substances, experts (including CosmeticObs-L’Observatoire des Cosmétiques’) think we still lack the necessary distance and scientific data to assess their true efficiency. Then the mention does not mean there is no preservative at all to guarantee the safety; it means there is no preservative listed in the official list of preservatives . Some side effects, likely or known, may occur, which shall be thought about.
• Other means than preservatives are used to prevent the product from contamination.
A suitable packaging may be the right answer. The single-application packs or airless pump bottle, which prevent any exposure to air or light, make it possible to have small quantities of preservatives , or no preservative system at all. A new "dual package" system is marketed, in which the oily phase and the water-based phase are supplied in two different containers, the user mixing them just before use. There are also products treated by Ultra-High Temperature (UHT) … All these means have some interest, even though the life span is generally quite short after opening.
• No preservative at all in the product.
Some products are sold with the "Without preservative" mention, which indeed contain no preservative at all, neither any substitute or means for preservation. Then, the mention is true, but, as the product has absolutely no protection against contamination or against microorganisms proliferation, it may be unstable, even dangerous for the health. Have a look at the report on "Without preservative" products , by the French General Directorate for Competition Policy, Consumer Affairs and Fraud Control ( DGCCRF ) and the French Agency for the Sanitary Safety of Health Products ( Afssaps ).