Preservative free is the new cosmetics trend… but are they safe?

Thousands of articles written by qualified – and unqualified – experts flood the internet warning us against cosmetic products containing Parabens, EDTA, Phenoxyethanol and almost every preservative for water based cosmetics there is. In most cases is all quack science, in others there might be a real reason for it. Parabens have been identified in biopsy samples from breast tumors, according to the Breast Cancer Fund. One thing scientists agree on, more testing needs to be done.

Yet there is almost no mention of the devastating effects of unpreserved water based cosmetics at all!

Many small and new cosmetic companies, have resorted to completely part away from all forms of preservatives for their water based cosmetics, in an attempt to offer consumers a more viable, less harmful option – according to them not science – to traditionally preserved beauty products, even advising consumers to place these products in refrigerators to extend their shelf life.

But the claims of “safer cosmetics free of preservatives” certainly don’t live to the expectations. Unaware consumers thinking this is the best thing after pizza, rush to snatch these apparently safe versions of their favorite cosmetics without even thinking of the thousands of dangerous bugs growing in them. Within their apparently safe preservative free environment, lotions, shampoos, makeup and even baby products, grow bugs capable of killing a healthy adult multiplying by the thousands with every hour they sit on the bathroom counter and even under refrigerated conditions.

Where there is water, there will be bacteria, yeast and mold. Just because they can’t be seen with the naked eye doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

By taking a sample of an apparently perfectly ok lotion free of preservatives, and place it in a Petri dish under the right conditions similar to the ones found in a bathroom, or a cabinet one can grow whatever it contains to a visible size. If you can see it it means they are in the thousands. No matter how sanitized and sterilized the lab or manufacturing facility where a lotion or shampoo is made is, it will always have some contaminants that must be stopped from growing. The only way to stop the growth of the thousands of strands of bacteria, yeast and mold than can contaminate and plague a preservative free lotion for example, is by adding a good set of preservatives capable of inhibiting their reproduction, even after the lotion leaves the manufacturing facility.

But adding the preservatives and pray it all goes well, isn’t enough either. Putting the cosmetic under many conditions while analyzing samples is where chemists enter the field of cosmetics. We not only formulate, we test, and analyze to make sure no matter the circumstances, within limits of course, the product stays free of contaminants. As a cosmetic chemist for By Valenti Organics my task is to analyze every lotion and water based product that leaves the lab, to make sure no bug can thrive in them and adjust the set of preservatives if needed. The fact some cosmetic companies rely solely on pure luck and not good manufacturing practices and science is alarming, scary and downright wrong, without mentioning perhaps illegal?

According to the FDA’s Cosmetics Good Manufacturing Practices,

“Laboratory controls should include provisions to ensure that:
. Raw materials (including water), in-process and finished product samples are tested or examined for identity and compliance with applicable specifications (for example, Contains Nonbinding Recommendations Draft-Not for Implementation 10 physical and chemical properties), microbial contamination, and hazards or other chemical contamination
. Samples are representative of the lot
. Current finished product samples as well as retained product samples are tested for adequacy of preservation against microbial contamination under reasonable conditions
of storage and use
. Samples of approved lots of raw materials and finished products are retained for an adequate time period
. Retained samples are stored under conditions which protect their integrity (for example, to avoid contamination and deterioration), and are retested at appropriate intervals to
assure continued compliance with established specifications; and
. Returned cosmetics are examined for deterioration, contamination, and compliance with acceptance specifications.”

By offering preservative free cosmetics, these manufacturers are inevitably putting consumer’s health in danger. If it’s true parabens may actually pose a health risk, unpreserved water based cosmetics can and will spread disease 100 times faster with probably much more devastating consequences. From simple but scaring infectious acne all the way to respiratory and life threatening ones, that preservative free lotion could make you and your baby very, very sick.

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  1. Can you post a list of preservatives used in cosmetics? I’ve seen companies using essential oils as preservatives claiming these are just enough, but I have the feeling this isn’t true. Thanks.

  2. Are preservatives needed regardless of the type of water used in the production and the ph level of the final product. For example, would a liquid castile soap need a preservative even if it was created with distilled water and the ph of the final product is over 9?

    1. Many soap making websites state that the use of preservatives in aqueous solutions does not apply to liquid or solid soap bars due to their pH.
      Would your reply then also apply to solid soap bars? I am just so confused with this. I purchased a liquid Castile soap which ingredients only list distilled water and saponified olive oil. Should I be concerned that it does not contain any preservatives. I looked at other liquid Castile soaps in the market and did not see a preservative in them either.

    2. Hi! Manuela Valenti here. I’ll be happy to answer your question.

      When it comes to soaps, the “myth” is because the pH of the soap is high, then there is not bacterial concern, and that’s not quite correct. As our wonderful head of laboratory has explained, any aqueous solution, meaning solutions that contain water or water-based ingredients, for example aloe vera juice or any other, must contain a preservative to prevent microorganisms from growing. Like he explained, organisms, such as bacteria and mold, can and will grow on a variety of pH levels, so we cannot rely on pH level alone as a preservation system. Doing so, might put consumers at risk.

      A liquid soap can grow more harmful bacteria, than a solid soap can, because a liquid soap would have a lower pH level due to the addition of water, than a solid soap would, therefore other strands of bacteria would grow more easily in it. However many manufacturers rely on the premise, because it’s a liquid soap with a relatively high pH then there is no need for a preservative, and science has proved this wrong. Unless the container is a sealed one-use pump, and not a refillable soap dispenser, then the product can be relatively safe without any preservative, as long as it remains sealed during the course of it use. But the moment the bottle is opened like it happens with many bulk dispensing liquid soaps all that “bacteria won’t grow in a high pH level liquid soap” goes out the window as these articles explain /

      Solid soaps do not require any preservatives as the potential for harmful bacteria isn’t present mostly because we let these soaps air-dry, and the fact even though bacteria might grow on the surface (not deep in the soap) it washes away with the next use. So bacteria has no time to grow and thrive as in a constantly wet solution. However a solid soap that remains in a pool of water for days or weeks can and will grow harmful bacteria.

      Many liquid soap manufacturers include preservatives in their formulations (us included), however many in the green and natural industry don’t. I believe Dial’s liquid soaps contain preservatives even on their regular non-antibacterial formulations. I know it isn’t a good soap as it contains too many harmful ingredients, but just like us, I’m sure there must be other manufacturing companies out there.

    3. Hi Manuela,
      Thank you for personally replying to my message. I extremely appreciate it!
      I recently purchased your Castile soap bar for the first time and my family and I are loving it! I am now also using it to wash my hair (which is curly and would get extremely tangled with every other ‘natural’ shampoo I had ever used).

      After reading your reply I have to say that it’s very concerning to realize that even name brand manufacturers of liquid Castile soap do not include preservatives in their formulations. As consumers it is our duty to get educated on the product we are buying and ask questions, the problem is that we often trust the manufacturer because their products can be found at a local store or we fail to ask the appropriate questions.
      You mentioned that many liquid soap manufacturers including your self use preservatives in your formulations, do you also sell liquid soap? I did not find a liquid hand soap on your official webpage.
      What is the best most natural preservative to look for when purchasing liquid hand soap? Any brand that you recommend?
      Thank you so much for your time and for educating me on this topic.

    4. Hi!
      You’re so very welcome!

      It’s very concerning, and I give you one more, most castile soaps sold commercially by big name brands are not even real castile soaps at all.

      Unfortunately the regulations are not quite clear so manufacturers are left with the myth that because the product has either a lower or higher pH then everything is fine so no need for preservatives. Finding a product at your local store doesn’t guarantee the manufacturer has completed all the required lab testing either, it just means they have a massive distribution channel and making lots of money presumably, but that’s about it. It says absolutely nothing about the quality of the product, if it’s contaminated or not, if it has been tested according to good manufacturing practices, etc.

      I should have made clear in my previous reply that we do formulate a liquid soap, not for hands but a facial soap, that is manufactured in the exact same manner as any other liquid soap is, which contains preservatives for the reasons I mentioned before. I apologize for the confusion.

      At the moment we’re not offering liquid hand soap, due to my reluctance to use more plastic bottles. If we ever figure out a way to pack these liquid soaps in more environmentally friendly bottles I’ll be happy to offer them, but we’re not there yet.

      There is a variety of preservatives that can be used in liquid soaps, that are good for both consumers and the environment. Alcohol is one of them, even though the internet has given this one a horrible reputation I still fail to comprehend. Leuconostoc/Radish Root Ferment Filtrate is the one we use the most at BVO. Potassium Sorbate and Ascorbic Acid are also good preservatives with a fairly long line of testing. And there are many, many more. Which preservatives the formulators chooses to work with, will depend on many factors, so there isn’t one size fits all type of thing.

      Ultimately it comes down to who is behind the manufacturing process and how capable and honest they are. I’ve come in contact with many manufacturing companies that don’t test their products for bacterial contamination prior to release them to consumers and many more than won’t even bother adding preservatives to their formulations at all. When it comes to cosmetics and toiletries most companies do whatever they want and hope for the best due to lack of regulations and regulatory enforcement.

      I wouldn’t be able to provide you with any recommendations in that regard, since I particularly don’t use liquid soap at all. But do look at the list of ingredients and ask questions. Try to familiarize yourself with preservatives, so you can spot them when reading the lists of ingredients.

      If there is anything we can help, please don’t hesitate in contacting us. I’m a big believer in transparency and like you, I’m a concerned consumer as well.


    5. Hi Manuela,

      Thank you so much for all of your insight regarding this issue. Finding reliable information on the internet can be a daunting task. I am very thankful to you and your team for always answering my questions in such a clear manner.

      I emailed a couple of liquid soap manufacturers (including the manufacturer of the soap that I am currently using) regarding their use of preservatives or lack there of. The response from the name brand of liquid “Castile” soap was not what I was hoping for as it did not really answer my questions. On the other hand the small business owner that produces the liquid soap that I currently use (which is made of only distilled water and saponified olive oil) answered all of my questions and although the soap does not contain preservatives the owner will be sending the product for bacterial testing early this year.

      I am trying to convince my family to transition to bar soap for hanswashing so I do not have to worry about this issue as I have not been able to find a liquid hand soap that has both safe ingredients and a safe preservative so I do not have to worry about bacterial growth. Their main concern is that a bar soap that is used for handwashing, specially in the bathroom, will harbor bacteria and be spread from wash to wash. I sure hope that in the future you are able to find a way to sell safe hand soap, maybe in glass bottles 🙂

      Thank you so much!

    6. Hi. Sorry for the late reply.

      If it helps, bars of soap do not grow pathogens as easily as people think, as long as the soap can dry between uses and doesn’t sit in a pool of water. A good soap dish can help with this task. As the soap is used the surface of the soap also washes away any possible contaminants. The secret is to hand washing with a solid soap relies on plenty of water and loads of foam. And of course repeat if necessary.

      We’re formulating liquid soaps and soon they will be available on our website. =)

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