What We’re Getting Wrong About Preservatives In Beauty, From A Cosmetic Chemist

by Jerald Dyson

The most hotly debated class of ingredients in beauty? That’s got to be a preservative (followed by silicones, which we also get into in the episode). 

“Preservatives are, by definition, the most potentially hazardous ingredient in cosmetics. In order to kill bacteria, you need to have something strong enough to stop their growth. Microbial, mold, and mildew growth is actually a natural process—it’s not unnatural for these things to grow in water, and nature wants organisms to thrive and prosper,” he says.

Yes, it’s natural for these things to grow in water. Anyone who leaves food out on the counter too long knows this to be true. But the problem in the beauty space is that we often have unrealistic expectations of what we expect our products to do. We want them to be all-natural but also to able to pass the test of time while sitting in our bathrooms. Imagine leaving a piece of fruit in your bathroom, then coming back a year later expecting it to be perfectly intact and ready for consumption? Not likely, huh? 

“[And people want to avoid preservatives,] but in modern conventions, products are shelf stable for over a year. And keeping something shelf stable for years, especially natural ingredients and botanicals, is actually not natural,” he says. “So what people have to understand is to have a preservative-free product, that means it essentially becomes perishable, that you have to refrigerate, use up within two weeks, and at that point it just becomes food.”

But that’s not to say that people who don’t want to consume preservatives in any capacity are wrong. It just means that they need to understand the side effects of that. “And if you, for whatever reason based on personal beliefs of what ingredients you accept, don’t use preservatives, then that’s OK, but you have to accept the caveat that the products just aren’t going to last as long,” he says. 

For more nuanced insights into formulations, tune in to the episode. 


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