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The Scoop on Preservatives

Chances are pretty good that you’ve heard a lot about preservatives in your cosmetics and personal care products. Since there’s a lot of contradictory info out there, we thought we would address some of the questions and concerns you might have.

What are preservatives?

Preservatives are ingredients that control the growth of microbes, yeast, and fungi, which water-based products are extremely susceptible to. They can extend the shelf life of a product from a few days to a few months or even 1-2 years. While preservatives keep products from developing dangerous levels of toxic microbes, they can also cause allergic reactions and other sensitivities. Some studies suggest that certain preservatives can even disrupt the endocrine system, bio-accumulate, and promote cancer.

What are the most common preservatives being used?

The ones you will probably have heard most about are parabens, including ethylparaben, propylparaben, methylparaben, and butylparaben. Parabens are bioaccumulative and have been found in a small number of breast cancer tumors. Parabens are present in many shampoos, deodorants, and lotions. Then there are formaldehyde-releasing preservatives such as quaternium-15, imidazolidinyl urea, and diazolidinyl urea, often found in nail polish and nail hardeners. Formaldehyde has been identified as a probable carcinogen and is banned in cosmetics in Sweden and Japan. Finally, if you buy more natural brands, their preservative of choice tends to be phenoxyethanol, which is generally considered safer than parabens but still poses some health concerns. Some essential oils and plant-based substances are naturally anti-microbial, but not at the low concentrations considered safe for skin products.

Should I try to avoid preservatives?

Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives should definitely be avoided. However, the jury is still out on parabens and phenoxyethanol; you’ll find plenty of authorities on both sides. If you want to wait for more conclusive testing, you may want to avoid them.

Help! I can’t find any products without preservatives.

There are some, but they are often expensive and quick to spoil. Dry and water-free (oil-based) products don’t require preservatives the way water-based ones do, but oil-based formulas are often stickier and slower to absorb. There are a few ways you can minimize your exposure to preservatives without sacrificing your beauty routine. The first – and by far least expensive – is to make your own personal products. Natural scrubs and moisturizing treatments are relatively easy and cheap to make, and you can make small amounts that you can use up in a few days (stored in the fridge). Minimizing commercial product use will also drastically lower your exposure to preservatives.


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