Four things to note about preservatives in green beauty products
Not all preservatives are bad. An oil-based product might not need additional antifungal or antimicrobial preservatives, but a good antioxidant is still required to keep the product from going rancid. Different types of preservatives are vital for different reasons.
In many cases, natural preservatives like sodium benzoate or potassium sorbate are highly appropriate. That being said, there are certain types of preservatives that should be avoided at all costs. For example, there's a big difference between methylparaben and butylparaben, despite their similar names.
Regulatory agencies understand the need for preservatives in cosmetics. For the most part, instead of outright banning the use of certain preservatives, studies are performed to determine a safe level of usage. In many countries, cosmetics are required to pass a preservative efficacy test, in which various strains of harmful organisms are inoculated into a sample to determine whether it has the capability to inhibit microbial or fungal activity (should it occur) quickly enough to prevent sickness. Through careful testing, it is possible to determine a safe concentration.
For example, at Evolue we use sodium benzoate at a concentration of 0.15 percent in one of our leave-on products. The International Programme on Chemical Safety reports no adverse effects to humans at doses of over 600 mg/kg of body weight per day (1 pound is approximately equivalent to 2.2 kg). At the concentrations of 0.15 percent, a person weighing about 100 pounds would have to consume nearly 5 gallons of the product to even come close to this concentration.
Perhaps one of the most complicated things to look out for on a label is reactivity risk, and preservatives aren't exempt from this. I mentioned sodium benzoate earlier, which can react with ascorbic acid to form benzene, a known carcinogen. The risk is extremely low when the product doesn't contain both ingredients to begin with (and further lowered by determining a safe minimum concentration to use) however, it is still there, and it is difficult to look out for.
#4: Natural versus synthetic
One of the most common questions that green beauty brands get asked, is if the preservatives they use are naturally sourced. Continuing with the sodium benzoate example, though it's naturally occurring in many fruits and spices, it is almost always extracted and processed in labs.
Does this make it a synthetic preservative? Would it be better for you if it wasn't processed in a lab? Consider that many essential oils require solvents such as hexane or methanol to extract, some of which are inevitably left over. The label certainly won't bring this to your attention, and it may even tout an "all-natural" message on the box.
The bottom line: Proper preservation is a major shortfall in the green beauty industry
In short, one of the biggest shortfalls in the natural industry is the lack of proper preservation. As much as I support the natural movement, I care far more about the health and safety of my friends, family, and clients.
Water-based products run an extremely high risk of developing mold, bacteria, and pathogens. Preservatives should be chosen based on great track records, substantial research, and accepted use across industries worldwide.
for some fantastic tips on how to green your beauty routine.