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Safe and effective natural skin care preservatives are few and far between. So many skin care products still contain chemicals, despite studies proving how harmful they are. Trying to find products that are safe, natural and effective can feel like navigating through a maze with lots of dead-ends.
Difference Between Natural and Organic
First, let’s go over the difference between natural and organic. Even if a product is labeled as “natural,” it likely still includes many harmful chemicals. The term natural isn’t regulated by any formal body, so companies can use this term to describe whatever chemicals they choose.
When trying to buy natural products, look for the term “organic.” Products advertising that they’re “organic” are regulated and, therefore, a better bet if you’re looking for safe and wholesome skincare products. One downside is that many beneficial skin care ingredients, such as clays, are not organic. This means that you may have to try to navigate the murkiness of ‘natural’ products.
[Learn to Read Ingredients Lists]
Natural Skin Care Preservatives
Preservatives are one of the primary sources of harmful chemicals in skincare products. Some companies choose unquestionably organic and wholesome preservatives such as tea tree oil, lemon, honey, propolis, rosemary, vitamin E, or grapeseed extract, but these have varying levels of effectiveness. These are only used in products that can have a very short shelf-life or that are kept refrigerated.
If you’re looking to create your own organic skin care products, these preservatives could be viable options, but for they generally don’t work for large companies that need to ensure their products will last for long periods of time on store shelves.
What should these big companies use? Good question. Some of these companies choose to use preservatives that are as close to natural and safe as possible. Others still try to slip the harmful chemicals in. As a consumer, you need to take your safety into your own hands and be aware of which of these preservatives are safe.
Listed below are some of the most common “natural” skin care preservatives and whether or not they’re safe.
Common Preservatives Used in Natural Skin Care Products
You won’t find this preservative listed on labels as “Preservative Eco” (the trade name). Instead, it’ll be listed as four separate ingredients: benzyl alcohol, salicylic acid, glycerin, and sorbic acid. What’s it made from? Those four ingredients.
All of the ingredients are found in nature in various plants, such as pine resin, rowan berries, and willow bark. It is a non-paraben, non-formaldehyde, non-isothiazolone based preservative system (all three are known to be harmful when found in skincare products).
This preservative can be found in a wide variety of products, particularly creams. It has a low odor profile and is compatible with products ranging from pH 3-8. Find it in oil-in-water, water-in-oil, and water-based formulas.
Is it safe?
Yes. This natural preservative meets Ecocert and COSMOS Standards, two reputable organic cosmetics certifiers. Just make sure it’s not in any products you’re using on children under 3, because benzyl alcohol can be potentially irritating to infants.
Geogard 221 or Cosgard
This preservative is made up of benzyl alcohol and dehydroacetic acid. Geogard 221 and Cosgard are trade names for this preservative, so it’ll be listed on the label as benzyl alcohol and dehydroacetic acid.
Geogard 221/Cosgard is a synergistic blend of an organic acid and alcohol. The two ingredients are both organic compounds that are accepted for use in natural and organic cosmetics. This preservative system has a wide range of potential uses is effective in products with a pH of 2-7, and it does not include parabens, formaldehyde, or isothiazolone.
Is it safe?
Yes. This preservative system is Ecocert approved. Make sure it’s not in any products for children under 3, because the benzyl alcohol can potentially be irritating to infants.
Naticide or Plantaserv Q
Naticide or Plantaserv Q are trade names for this natural preservative. You can find it listed on labels as Fragrance or Parfum. Generally these terms are red flags, however, Naticide is a safe compound used in natural and organic cosmetics. You may be able to identify it by its sweet vanilla almond scent.
This preservative is vegetable derived and has a wide range of uses. It is effective at preventing various yeasts and molds from growing in products with a pH of 4-9. Naticide/Pantaserv Q is popular with natural skin care companies from Australia and New Zealand.
Is it safe?
Generally yes. There haven’t been any reports of issues; however, it is not Ecocert or COSMOS approved yet. Plus, there’s the issue of identifying it because it’s listed as “Fragrance” or “Parfum” on labels. There are over 4,000 chemicals that these terms could refer to so you can’t be sure whether they’re safe or not.
The fact that parabens are harmful is pretty widespread nowadays, but some natural cosmetics companies still try to slip them in under consumers’ noses. They’re extremely effective at preventing bacterial and fungal growth, so they’re very common.
Watch out. Parabens go by a bunch of different names, but some of the most common are methylparaben, ethylparaben, butylparaben, and isoparapben.
Are they safe?
No. Parabens are known carcinogens and endocrine (hormone) disruptors. They can mimic the hormone estrogen, which studies show plays a role in the development of breast cancer and urogenital abnormalities. Yuck. Avoid these like the plague.
These substances appear under many different names on labels, such as “polyquaternium-11.” They all contain a quaterny ammonium compound in their chemical makeup.
You can find them in a wide variety of products such as moisturizers, body washes, hand soap, deodorant, sunscreens, and acne treatments. In addition to being used as a preservative, quats are often used as a conditioning agent because they give skin a slippery and smooth feel.
Are they safe?
Quats were long considered safe, but recently they’ve been raising some concerns. The Association of Occupational and Environmental Clinics has classified quats as “asthmagens,” meaning that they can trigger asthma attacks and cause new cases in those who are asthma-free.
Certain quats are even more dangerous. Quaternium-15 is believed to be the worst because it releases formaldehyde, a known carcinogen that also can cause allergic reactions. Benzalkonium chloride has been found to disrupt the natural function of hormones, as well as being linked to developmental and reproductive toxicity.
At the very least, quats have been known to cause skin irritation, so why take the risk?
To avoid quats, avoid products with the following ingredients:
- Benzalkonium chloride
- Cetalkonium chloride
- Cetrimonium chloride
- Lauryl dimonium hydrolysed collagen
- Stearalkonium chloride
- Diethyl ester dimethyl ammonium chloride
- Dialkyl dimethyl ammonium methyl sulfate
- Hydroxethyl methyl ammonium methyl sulfate
- Chemical DTDMAC (ditallow dimethyl ammonium chloride)
- quaternium- 26 and other numbers
Methylchloroisothiazolinone (MCI) and Methylisothiazolinone (MIT)
These two preservatives emerged as alternatives to parabens, but when it comes to natural and organic skin care, they aren’t much better. You can find MCI and MIT in wrinkle creams, body lotions, firming day creams, hand creams, shampoos, conditioners, and mascaras.
Are they safe?
No. MCI and MIT are one of the most skin-irritating ingredients on the market. They’re known to cause redness, rashes, skin inflammation, blotchiness, burning, and itching.
Dermatologists have recently seen an increase in allergic reactions to these chemicals. They are second only to nickel in causing dermatitis, a condition where the skin becomes inflamed as a result of touching an allergen. The reaction could occur immediately or hours after application.
Mercury isn’t commonly used, but you can find it in some skin-lightening creams. It’ll likely be listed under the name “thimerosal.”
Is it safe?
No. Mercury can damage brain function even at low levels, so definitely avoid products that use mercury as a preservative.
As you can see, some natural preservatives are considered safe, such as “Preservative Eco,” Naticide/Plantaserv Q, and Geogard 221/Cosgard. While others, such as parabens, quats, and MCI/MIT are not.
What do you think about preservatives? Do you purposely avoid them?
This article was written by Kelly Foulk:
Kelly Foulk is a holistic lifestyle and wellness expert. She transitioned to natural and organic beauty over half a decade ago and since then she’s helped many others make the transition as well. Kelly previously was the owner organic hair care brand Ethos Hair Care. When she’s not sharing her knowledge of organic beauty, you’ll find her practicing yoga or meditation.