• Janus Chan

Welcome to Cosmetic Terminology 101: Preservative-Free

Cosmetic keeps evolving over time and there are different new terms. Sometimes they have been misinterpreted. In the coming weeks, we are going to share with you what these terms really mean, how they evolved to today’s trend and what are the popular misconceptions about them.


The first one is “Preservative-free”.



Why preservatives in personal care are necessary?


Most personal care products, such as cleanser, toner, serum, lotion, cream, etc., contain water and different nutrients at pH of 6-7 and are kept at temperature of 25-30 Celsius degrees. This provides an ideal environment for most microorganisms to grow. Hence, the need for preservatives to keep the skin products for safe application. Yet, some personal care products claim to be “preservative-free”.

What is meant by “Preservative-free”?


No preservatives

Some personal care products don’t need preservatives. For examples, oil-based or anhydrous products containing no water are not at risk of being contaminated by microbes. And still, some antioxidants would need to be used to prevent them from turning rancid.


Free from synthetic preservatives

Synthetic preservatives include paraben, formaldehyde donors, phenol derivatives, etc. Here, instead of using such synthetic preservatives, natural ingredients with ability to protect personal care products from microorganism growth are used.


Why “preservative-free” has become such a popular trend?


Synthetic preservatives long used in the personal care industry have been found to cause other health issues despite their effectiveness in prohibiting the growth of microorganisms.


We give below some examples:

  • Parabens - for being estrogen mimic and endocrine disruptor. Five of them - Isopropylparaben, Isobutylparaben, Phenylparaben, Benzylparaben and Pentylparaben - have already been banned in the EU[1], while others are highly regulated.

  • Formaldehyde donors such as DMDM hydantoin, quaternium-15, and imidazolidinyl urea, for being carcinogenic.

  • Phenol derivatives, such as phenoxyethanol, for being skin allergens.


What are the common misconceptions about using preservatives?


Preservative-free means no preservative

As mentioned earlier, it is highly unlikely to have hydrous personal care products that contain no preservatives.


Natural preservative means preservative-free

Some cosmetic manufacturers claim their products are self-preserving or contain no preservatives because they use only natural ingredients for antimicrobial purposes. Most of these natural preservatives have other functions, eg, hydration. However, if the main purpose of adding the natural ingredients is to preserve the products, they should be regarded as preservatives, even if natural.


Products with extreme pH or air-tight containers do not need preservatives

Some personal care products with extreme pH or air-tight containers are at lower risk of being contaminated. However, product quality could change over time due to temperature, humidity, or some other reasons. We, therefore, believe developing and deploying a preserving system for these products is still essential.


Antioxidants are preservatives

The primary purpose of adding preservatives and/or antioxidants to any personal care product is to keep the product in good quality. However, they function differently. Preservatives prevent the growth of microorganisms, while antioxidants protect the products from oxidizing or becoming rancid.


No preservative is needed if personal care products are kept in the fridge

This is so silly. Just imagine what would happen if you kept some fresh meat in the fridge for a month. You will have to keep it in the freezer! Similarly, keeping lotion or cream in the fridge will only delay the growth of bacteria for some time, not forever!

And we are unlikely to keep personal products in freezers anyway.


The devil is in the detail

Most manufacturers of personal care products do disclose ingredients fully nowadays. Consumers are advised to read the list instead of just relying on claims from manufacturers. If you are not familiar with the chemical names, just remember a few that you prefer not to have in the products or google them.

[1] https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_14_1051

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