Yes, parabens have been shown to cause some dermatological reactions, including allergic ones, but they might not be quite as bad as we all seem to think. That said, they are on the ‘Ingredients to Avoid’ list in most cases, along with Imidazolidinyl Urea and Diazolidinyl Urea, the most commonly used preservatives after parabens, well-established as the primary cause of contact dermatitis (American Academy of Dermatology), and also formaldehyde precursors. Indeed, there is a lot of fear around the use of chemicals of any kind in our products, including ones that purport to be ‘natural’. However, many chemicals, as I’ve learned from Cosmetics Unmasked: Your family Guide to safe cosmetics and allergy-free toiletries, are not as terrible as we might think.
At the end of the day, however, we absolutely must have chemical preservatives in our natural products. A top ingredient supplier, Essential Wholesale, outlines their philosophy about the need for preservatives. But this isn’t really about philosophy, belief, or hope, but rather, the science. Essential Wholesale makes some bulk bases for suppliers and has increasingly tried to create the most natural and organic formulations possible, but even products rated 98 percent organic still contain a chemical preservative, namely, phenoxylethanol, often with Tetrasodium EDTA. Essential wholesale knows, as all formulators do, that you cannot sell a product without a preservative. The shelf life is minimal and the product, potentially harmful. Anything that contains water is instantly susceptible to mold, bacterial, and fungal growth in a matter of days, even if created in sterile conditions. A great blog by natural skin care company, Sterling Minerals, has fabulous posts about the chemical side of things, including fillers for mineral make-up and the absolute necessity of chemical preservatives in creams and other hydrous (water-containing) products. By the way, her post on Mineral Make-up contains a brilliant expose of the so-called ‘natural’ (ha-ha) company, Arbonne, and her incredible quest to finally confirm the presence of silicone in their mineral make-up.
Back to preservatives…many of you know that my relationship with preservatives has certainly evolved over time. I just have to say that it is incredibly difficult to find the prefect choice of preservative systems, and at first I mistakenly thought — like many do –that mere refrigeration would do the trick. Even using preservatives like potassium sorbate, I found that the preservative system wasn’t complete, and the product was still susceptible. Not only did I have to recall creams earlier on in my still very small endeavor, but I’ve since had to help customers who had used unpreserved products (made by other businesses) that had had terrible consequences for their skin. The need for not only a system, but a full-spectrum system, is critical. One preservative might have good action against molds and fungi, but not bacteria. So that preservative has to be combined with another one effective against bacteria. Then you have to find a level that will be perfect in terms of preservation but at the lowest possible percentage in your formulation so as not to cause any irritation. It’s an incredibly difficult task in some respects, especially as you try to find the most gentle chemical preservative system possible. After use of different systems, I’ve basically come around to Essential Wholesale’s recommended pairing of phenoxylethanol and Tetrasodium EDTA. Caprylyl Glycol is another component of my system that is simply an emollient base for the preservative. The phenoxylethanol basically covers the yeast and bacteria, while Tetrasoidum EDTA binds to components that enable mold to grow. Together, they act as a broad spectrum preservative system.
That said, I’m intrigued by the use of colloidal silver as a preservative, though this preservative requires a number of other chemical buffers, etc, a fact that is usually masked by labeling that purports to have a proprietary colloidal silver ‘formula’. Ah yes, but it looks so natural! Be aware also that some ‘natural’ companies are able to mask their use of chemical preservatives under the INCI name of ‘fragrance’, which is as sneaky as it gets. For a long time, I would look at Burt’s Bees ingredients list and think, “How on earth do they do it?” Well, they don’t. Now I know.
So readers, what do you want to know more about? The chemicals that are harmful and should be avoided or the ones that appear in our products, sound “unnatural” and yet are perfectly fine, even helpful? I’m all ears. Let’s start a Lilith Round Table!