Ingredients 101: Chemicals are bad, aren’t they?

Lotions require preservatives

Lotions require preservatives

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.

Orange Rosewood Facial Cream

Orange Rosewood Facial Cream

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!


4 Responses to Ingredients 101: Chemicals are bad, aren’t they?

  1. Elaine says:

    I realize you are looking at the use of the perservative in just your product. But what happens if it is many products that you use? Does the ratio used go up? This happened with Sodium Laurel Sulfate. It is being pulled out many products now not due to one product being used but it being in many of the products used by cusmers.

    • lilithsapothecary says:

      Thank you for your astute comment. Believe me, if I could avoid all chemicals, I would. And that is part of the reason why I always offer chemical-free products such as my facial serums. Facial oils, or serums, are able to remain preservative free because there are no ‘hydrous’, or water, components. It is that water that gets us in trouble! Products that are ‘anhydrous’, contain no water. So oil based sugar or salt scrubs, facial oils, hair oils, body oils, and hardened oils like balms, true butters, and salves require only anti-oxidants such as Vitamin E and Rosemary Oil Extract, which prevent the oiils from getting rancid.

      That said, when it comes to creams, we really have no choice but to seek the safest possible chemical antimicrobial preservatives. The safety profile of phenoxylethanol is good, but of course, I kind of agree with you that many of our health problems (and connections to chemicals) are more a problem of accumulation than anything else. Therein lies the rub. But basically, if you are going to use creams, it is safer to put the preservatives on your skin (at 1% or less than the total formulation) than risk the havoc spreading bacteria, mold or fungi on your skin can have.

  2. Tiffany says:

    I am so glad that you posted this. For so many of us that are trying to use and create all natural products, the number one pain in the side for me when developing a new body/hair/facial recipe is the issue of preservatives. I am repulsed at the chemical stew in most commercial products, but the alternative to these preservatives is the probability that our formulations will go rancid before we can use them up.
    And the idea of mold, bacteria and/or yeast in my products is even scarier. I, like many others like me, began my natural products journey after a long sought diagnosis of fibromyalgia and candida. The LAST thing I want or need to introduce to myself or others like me is any mold or yeast in my skin and haircare.

    The problem though when I began looking for preservatives and alternatives and found out that I couldn’t quite figure out “chemical free” for products with water and I began feeling I was compromising my “natural” mission. I came to peace by deciding that it was not an option to possibly risk the growth of yuck that would take me back down the road of disease. The small amount of preservatives necessary to maintain safety was well worth my health.

    • lilithsapothecary says:

      Tiffany, I couldn’t agree with you more! I too have struggled with this, especially because I cater to people who seek “natural skin care” and do feel that my products are high quality, small batch, very benefical products. How could I then use cosmetic chemicals such as preservatives? Well, just as you said, it’s not a matter of making a decision. If you are selling, distributing, or even giving away hydrous (water-containing) products, you have absolutely no choice but to use preservatives. Even refrigeration really doesn’t cut it! So thank you so much for your reply — it helps to hear from others who have gone through similar struggles with their body care products. ~Sarah

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