natural preservatives in skincare: are they really safer?

Preservatives are a necessary evil. If you don’t want fuzzy little bacteria to grow in your fave moisturizer, you need to use some sort of poison (for them, not us) to kill them off.

But, why do brands have to use stuff that releases formaldehyde or parabens, I hear you ask? Can’t they use something natural?

(Fun fact: parabens are naturally found in blueberries.)

Surely, there must be natural preservatives out there that are safe for us but hamrful for bacteria and fungi. Or not?

Here’s the list of the most common natural preservatives used in your skincare products (and what’s wrong with them):

Do You Know Some Preservatives Release Formaldehyde?

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The Full List of The Most common types of natural preservatives

Good news: some plant extracts have antimicrobial and antifungal activity, so they can be used as preservatives.

Bad news: they’re a lot weaker than traditional preservatives.

Let’s take a look at the most common ones:

Natural Preservatives #1: Antioxidants

Did you know that the fats and oils in your cosmetics can oxidize (i.e. become rancid) when exposed to oxygen (by the way, oxygen is in water, too)?

Antioxidants, including Vitamin E and rosemary extract, slow down this oxidation process so that your products will last longer.

But, antioxidants can’t kill bacteria and fungi. They’ll keep your creams fresh and good as long as no bacteria find their way inside. But if one does, they can’t stop it from growing and giving you an infection.

Verdict: antioxidants aren’t proper natural preservatives. They help other antioxidants in the cream last longer, but don’t protect against germs and bacteria.

Related: Common Antioxidants In Skincare Products

Natural Preservatives #2: Essential Oils

Essential oils, including tea tree oil and neem oil, have antimicrobial properties, so they can kill bacteria.

The catch? They don’t kill a wide range of bacteria. You’ll be protected from some fuzzy creatures and completely exposed to the dangers of others.

There’s worse: to kill those few bacteria they can actually deal with, you need to use a big dollop of essential oils. In such high concentrations, they can seriously irritate your skin!

Verdict: when used as natural preservatives, essential oils are super harsh on your skin and can often cause irritations.

Natural Preservatives #3: Grapefruit seed extract

This one is controversial. The seeds and pulp of the grapefruit undergo a synthetic process, so the extract that comes out of them isn’t strictly natural. But, anything undergoes a synthetic process these days, so if you’re picky, you won’t be able to use anything. Just saying…

Grapefruit seed extract has some antimicrobial activity. So yes, it can kill bacteria.

The bad news? It’s weak. You can’t use it alone. It needs the help of other preservatives to do the job well.

Verdict: Grapefruit seed extract is a weak natural preservative. Don’t use it alone.

Are natural preservatives safe and effective?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying natural preservatives are 100% useless. They work, but not as well as synthetic preservatives.

Natural preservatives have their own problems, too: you need to use a higher amount to kill a smaller range of bacteria. And even so, your natural products will spoil a lot sooner than your synthetic products. That’s why organic creams and toners have such shorter shelf lives!

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Tips for naturally preserved cosmetics

NOTE: The tips below apply to ALL beauty products. But, you must follow them even more religiously for natural, weakly-preserved products.

If you wanna go ahead and use natural beauty products, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Always store your cosmetics away from light and heat: they make your products go bad faster.
  • Go for products packaged in tubes. Avoid jars: they’re easier for bacteria to contaminate and their contents are often exposed to light and air (see previous tip).
  • If you want to a cream housed in a jar, be quick and use a spatula: don’t use your fingers – they may contaminate the cream with bacteria.

Do you go out of your way to buy products with natural preservatives despite their shorter shelf life or are you ok with using synthetic ones? Leave a comment below and let me know.