The Good Shelf

by Sophie

Skin sensitisation is becoming more prevalent around the world and there is a growing group of consumers who are becoming expert label readers as a result. We look into preservatives, how they affect skincare and what you should be looking out for if your skin is starting to suffer.

Everyday, we see a new brand emerge, and most of them are hopping on the green trend. Parabens are the most well-known and widely-used preservative in cosmetics to experience cancel culture within the green beauty industry. As a petrochemical-based preservative, we have seen more than enough proof about its hormone-disruptive properties and how it can lead to reproductive issues as well as breast cancer. 

However, although parabens are in the limelight, it is not the be-all and end-all. There’s an abundance of chemicals used in personal care products that are harmful to the body. Even within seemingly
green products, some ‘natural’ alternatives have a negative impact on our health. 

Lucy Vincent Marr is the founder of sans[ceuticals], leading luxury natural beauty brand by the name which literally means ‘without.’ As a fountain of knowledge in the world of genuine clean beauty, we felt there was no-one better to get down to the nitty-gritty of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ preservatives. 

Let’s go back to the basics. Preservatives – they prevent the growth of toxic microbes and moulds, and so, are proven to be vital in personal care products. “The biggest effect that preservatives usually have is skin irritation, but some widely used preservatives have larger health concerns. Parabens are probably the best-known ones – there is evidence that they may disrupt the endocrine (hormonal system). Some preservatives also release formaldehyde, which is a known carcinogen,” Marr says.

And of course, greenwashing brands will use alternative ingredients that do not necessarily mean the formulas will be gentle. “By the nature of the function they perform, preservatives are not gentle ingredients, even completely natural ones like, say, tea-tree oil.” 

Tea-tree oil, marketed and often used for its antibacterial properties, is a common natural treatment for acne, dandruff, and athlete’s foot. However, due to its qualities, it can cause allergic reactions and irritation, especially if it is not diluted properly and used in its essential form – “The key when formulating clean products is to choose preservatives that offer maximum protective benefits while being as benign and non-irritating as possible and ideally in the lowest concentration possible. It’s a fine balancing act. To go back to tea-tree oil as an example, you could use it as a preservative, but the concentration would need to be around 4 per cent for it to be effective, which would be really irritating on the skin, and your product would smell intensely of the oil.”

At the other end of the alternative preservative spectrum, sits Phenoxyethanol. “It has long been regarded as one of the milder ones, but is starting to come under the spotlight for concerns that it may have carcinogenic (cancer-causing) activity.” 

Clean Preservatives 

If you’re going to lather product on your body, why not make it safe enough to eat? Marr discloses that she uses food-grade preservatives in her products. The function is the same; to inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria, mould and micro-organisms. 

Sodium Benzoate

“Widely used as a pickling ingredient, we use sodium benzoate mainly in wash-off formulations.” Benzoic acid is found naturally in plants like cinnamon, tomatoes, berries, plums, apples and cranberries as well as in fermented dairy products like yoghurt. Although sodium benzoate is synthetically made by reacting sodium hydroxide with benzoic acid, it is an FDA-approved food additive that is heavily relied on in the food and beverage market. 

Potassium Sorbate

“Potassium Sorbate is an odourless and tasteless salt widely used in food, drinks and personal care products.” It releases sorbic acid when it is dissolved in a solution, which then works as the active compound against moulds. It is only is effective in acidic solutions as it works best at pH 4.4 and loses efficacy at pH6. 

Dehydroacetic acid

An organic compound, usually in the form of an odourless white crystalline powder, “Dehydroacetic acid has one of lowest ratings on the Environmental Working Group’s schedule of ingredients.” Used in very low concentrations, it helps to stop the growth of microbes in cosmetic products. 

The Future

“There are some terrific developments coming up in fermented preservatives, which we’re very interested in. Vegetable-derived pentylene glycol is one that we’re looking at for future formulations.” Within water-inclusive formulas in which micro-organisms can live in, pentylene glycol works as a moisture-binding antimicrobial agent, increasing skin-hydrating qualities and providing a brighter and smoother complexion. “In the past, all glycols were derived from petroleum, but new technology has allowed it to be derived from sugarcane or corn.” This sustainably produced sugarcane-based pentylene glycol is the first ‘green’ alkanediol able to preserve cosmetics as the sole antimicrobial agent, which is a big deal in itself. On top of this, it increases the bioavailability of active ingredients and provides exceptional moisturising qualities for the skin. 

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