If I were Shakespeare, I would continue on with “…That is the question.”
But I am not Shakespeare, and it’s really not a question.
Preservatives have gotten a bad reputation. And let’s be honest, many of them deserve it. From formaldehyde donors, to endocrine disruptors, to compounds that react either with what they are preserving or your own body to create cancer causing chemicals, many common preservatives are not so great for you.
This is why there is such a rise in the claims of ‘preservative free’ or ‘naturally preserved’ products. But are they really preservative free? Are they safe? I mean, bacteria, mold, and fungi aren’t exactly something you want to be spreading around on your skin.
Some things really don’t need a preservative. Those nasty critters mentioned above need water to grow. So if you have a product made entirely from oils, with no chance of water getting into it, then it doesn’t need to be preserved. Our body butters, deodorants, and lip balms are good examples of this. Made with oils, not used in the shower, and applied with dry hands. Those are legitimately preservative free, and absolutely safe.
I know, I know…you’re saying “But, don’t oils go bad? Doesn’t it still need a preservative?”
Nope. When an oil goes bad (rancid) it’s due to a process called oxidation. This is a natural chemical process in which molecules lose electrons. In order to slow this process, we add – you guessed it – an antioxidant, which works to prevent oxidation by donating electrons to the molecules that lose them. It has nothing to do with preventing the growth of unwanted critters in your shower gel.
On the other hand, even if something is oil based, if it is likely to get water in it, it needs a preservative. For example, our body polish. It’s made with oils, but is used with wet hands in the shower or by the sink. It needs to be preserved – unless you enjoy rubbing bacteria and mold all over your skin. That goes double for products such as lotions, facial cleansers, and gels that contain water.
So how come some companies make water based products and claim they are preservative free? Well, there are three main things I can think of.
- They are selling single uses packaged under sterile conditions.
- They are lying liars who are lying to you.
- They don’t care about your safety.
Of these three, the first is the most legitimate scenario. A single use packaged in sterile conditions and sterile packaging should be safe. Unfortunately, the second scenario is the most common. After all, preservative free is a big selling point. So large companies pay copious amounts of cash to have new compounds formulated that both smell good and have preservative properties. These compounds are classified as ‘parfum’ or ‘fragrance’…because they are. However, they also kill bacteria, mold, and fungi…because that’s what they were formulated to do. Companies can now use these compounds in place of their traditional preservatives and legitimately claim to be ‘preservative free’. I will leave it to your judgement as to whether something that kills bacteria and also smells good is a fragrance or a preservative.
The third scenario, thankfully, is almost non-existent. There are occasionally misinformed or uneducated local makers, but on the whole no one is deliberately selling products they know will go bad.
“But what about ‘naturally preserved'”, you ask. “What does that even mean?”
Naturally preserved is slightly misleading terminology, but true enough. An oil based or dry powdered product that, due to its nature, doesn’t need a preservative because there’s no water for critters to grow in could use this claim. The product is ‘naturally preserved’ because the nature of its ingredients prevent bacteria, mold, and fungus from growing. Basically, it’s a marketing term.
So we’ve learned that some products don’t actually need preservatives, and some do.
“But…But…preservatives are BAD!”, the internet yells. “Cancer, disease, horrible, unnamed side effects!”
Not really. Older preservatives can be quite horrible, no question. In fact, many have been banned in recent years. But there are several newer ‘natural’ preservatives that (so far) seem to be safe. Many indie makers, myself included, use these. They can be tricky to work with and they are more expensive (which makes the final product more expensive), but they are effective and safe. So no, internet, not all preservatives are bad. And when it comes to water based products, they are non-negotiable.
Do you have things you try to avoid in your skincare? Why? Tell me in the comments below!