Preservative Predicaments in Facial Skin Care


Consumers have an overwhelming choice of facial skin care products, ranging from efficacy-driven pharma to purely natural brands. If good marketing of product attributes drives the initial purchasing decision, pleasure of using the product drives the re-purchase and brand loyalty.

British women are known to prefer convenient product concepts; they select products on the strength of the formulation fragrance, texture and comforting skin feel. My clients consider the data on efficacy, but product choice is an emotional matter. Bargains and all-in-one products are popular, and consumers often have instant expectations—they become disillusioned rather quickly.

People remember experiences, not product attributes. Product acceptability is dictated by the first touch and immediate appearance on the skin, how it smells, what packaging it comes in and the “first moment of truth.”

Preservatives are Necessary

The question of preservatives is a conversation-changer. The myths portrayed in the media—about sensitization, endocrine disruption or resistance to bacteria—have made my clients consider preservatives negatively. Preservatives are key for consumer benefit to prevent irritation or infection in the eye area; they inhibit the growth of fungi and bacteria in the products.

Inadequate preservation is seen as a consumer health issue, a matter of ethical and regulatory obligation for manufacturers in order to ensure the product microbiological quality and safety. “Free-from” marketing campaigns have not been beneficial in educating consumers. I assure my clients, preservatives are necessary and safe, but do not engage in a conversation about preservative myths unless I encounter allergies in the clinic.

Safety, Allergies and Cumulative Risk

Denmark has a pragmatic approach to human health for guidance. Recently, the Danish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ran a project to assess the hazard and risk of preservatives. They found most preservatives are safe for use in their current permitted concentrations.

Its review of 53 preservative types used in cosmetic products identified an allergy risk in just three preservatives: DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea and thimerosal. Apart from allergy risk, their use was deemed safe. The assessment was made on a single product containing the maximum permitted amount of the preservative.

The use of parabens has decreased significantly; phenoxyethanol is now the most commonly used preservative. This means consumers are likely to be exposed to this compound through multiple products, however the exposure risk is unclear.1 My approach to this issue is to recommend personalized skin care routines based on two or three skin care brands; ideally, brands belonging to the same commercial family.

Some preservatives have been shown to cause an allergic reaction. I have clients that are allergic to methylisothiazolinone (MI), which the EPA has lobbied to be banned. Methylisothiazolinone is a powerful synthetic biocide used in skin care and sun care. All products containing MI should be clearly labeled with an allergy warning and its use in consumer products should be limited.

Exposing consumers to substances known to be highly allergenic when applied directly to the skin is not ethical. The EU Commission’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety also issued an opinion stating that the current clinical data indicate 100 ppm MI in cosmetic products is not safe for consumers. No safe concentrations of MI for induction of contact allergy have been adequately demonstrated for leave-on cosmetic products.2

Storage and Green Preservatives

Preservatives play an essential role by keeping cosmetics safe for use during the product’s life. I encourage clients to inspect product shelf-life—both expiration dates and period after opening. The latter deals with the contamination after the product has been opened versus physicochemical stability of the unopened product. Some of my clients write the date of opening on the packaging. This is even more important for products, which do not contain synthetic preservatives, as green preservatives might be weaker and have a shorter life span.

Natural cosmetic formulators continue to search for workable “green preservative solutions.” Food ingredients are proving popular to meet the European paraben-free demand. Reliability of natural-based preservative systems is paramount as they can lack in performance or are not affordable. Supply is often limited or volatile due to crops being dependent on favorable climatic and environmental conditions. However, green technologies are in vogue due to pressure from various stakeholder groups on finished product manufacturers to improve their sustainability.3

Good practice is to always store skin care away from light and heat. I recommend products in airless pumps and tubes rather than jars, and whenever possible, limit exposure to air to avoid oxidization. Luxury night and eye creams are often an exception and using a spatula to apply the product is recommended, though it rarely happens in real life.

The preservatives debate is here to stay. Rather than constant bans, the industry must develop specific risk-assessment approaches and educate consumers about risks and trade-offs of skin care preservation.


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