safe and effective parabens alternatives

You’d think that getting rid of parabens would make cosmetics safer.

Quite the opposite, my friend. Badger sunscreens, Kutol hand and body lotions, and Nutek baby wipes are just some of the products that had to be recalled in the past few years because of bacteria or yeast contamination! Imagine opening your fave moisturizer and find mold staring at you. Not. Cool.

This is happening because parabens are safe, but many of their alternatives are NOT. Let’s see what science says about each one:

Parabens Alternative #1: Formaldehyde-Releasing Preservatives

The name says it all: these preservatives work by releasing formaldehyde. You know, that toxic and carcinigenic stuff used to embalm dead bodies (so creepy!). No wonder they’re so effective. Any unfortunate bacteria, fungi, or yeast that should come across any of these preservatives will die quickly.

But, it doesn’t really make much sense to ditch parabens in favour of something that can release formaldehyde, does it? The amount of formaldehyde they release is so tiny, it won’t do you any harm but still, you’re probably already scrolling down the page to find more appealing alternatives.

If you have sensitive skin, you totally should. These preservatives are very irritating.

How do you recognize them? Look for these names on the label:

  • 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol
  • Diazolidinyl urea
  • DMDM hydantoin
  • Hydroxymethylglycinate
  • Imidazolidinyl urea
  • Quaternium-15
  • Trishydroxymethylnitromethane

Are Formaldehyde-Releasing Preservatives A Good Alternative To Parabens?

No: formaldehyde-releasing preservatives are as effective but much more irritating. The trade off ain’t worth it.

Related: Do Parabens Release Formaldehyde?

Struggling to find skincare products that don’t irritate your sensitive skin? Download your FREE “Skincare Ingredients To Avoid” cheatsheet to find out what the most common culprits are and cut them out of your skincare routine:

Parabens Alternative #2: MCI & MIT

That’s short for Methylchloroisothiazolinone (MCI) and Methylisothiazolinone (MIT), two very powerful preservatives. MIT is a biocide, i.e. it can kill microbes, germs, fungi, and bacteria. MCI has anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties, too.

The catch? They’re the most irritating preservatives currently used in cosmetics.

Are MCI & MIT A Good Alternative To Parabens?

No: MCI and MIT are as effective, too, but often cause allergies and irritations. Not worth it.

Parabens Alternative #3: Organic Acids

Organic acids are fast becoming the new “hot” preservatives on the block. They include ingredients such as salicylic acid, benzoic acid, and sorbic acid, most of which can be naturally derived. For example, salicylic acid can be extracted from willow bark while sorbic acid from the fruit of mountain ash.

Benzoic acid is the most popular – ironic because it’s a source of parabens! Parabens are in p-hydroxybenzoic acid, a type of benzoic acid.

These organic acids have anti-microbial properties BUT they are limited. They interact only with the cell walls of microorganisms, so can only kill fungi, not bacteria. That’s why they must be used with other bacteria-killing preservatives.

Are Organic Acids A Good Alternatives To Parabens?

Not on their own: organic acids only protect from fungi, not bacteria.

Parabéns Alternative #4: Sodium Benzoate

Sodium benzoate is growing in popularity, too. But it has the same problem as organic acids: very effective against fungi and yeast, not so much against bacteria.

One more thing: when used with low concentrations of vitamin C, it forms benzene, a known carcinogen. Hardly a safer option than parabens!

This happens only when vitamin C is barely present. A high amount of vitamin C paired with a tiny quantity of sodium benzoate is perfectly fine. No benzene. Phew!

But, just to be on the safe side, store your vitamin C serums and creams in a cool and dark place. Light and heat can promote the benzene-forming reaction, too.

Is Sodium Benzoate A Good Alternative To Parabens?

No: sodium benzoate only protects from fungi, not bacteria. And, when paired with low concentrations of vitamin C, can form carcinogenic benzene.

Parabens Alternative #5: Potassium Sorbate

You’ll find potassium sorbate in rowan berries, but it’s synthetically altered before ending up in your skincare. It’s very effective at killing fungi but struggles with bacteria. It can’t be used on its own.

To make matters worse, potassium sorbate isn’t very stable. Once you open a cream or serum preserved with potassium sorbate, you should use it as soon as possible. Compare that with parabens that keep your lotions and potions safe for years. I know which one I’d rather use!

Is Potassium Sorbate A Good Alternative To Parabens?

Not on its own: it’s more unstable than parabens and protects only from fungi, anyway.

Parabens Alternative #6: Essential Oils

Lots of essentials oil – I’m thinking clove, thyme, and tea tree – have great antimicrobioal properties. They can easily kill bacteria and fungi – when used on their own.

In cosmetics, they don’t work as well. For example, one study has found that clove basil essential oil was very effective at killing microorganism in hydroliphic (water-based) formulas. In lipoliphic (oil-based) formulas, not so much.

There’s more. Even in the right formula, you have to use a high concentration of essential oils to kill nasties. But these – you guessed it – are irritating.

Are Essential Oils A Good Alternative To Parabens?

No: essential oils work well only in certain types of formulas and at high concentrations that can cause irritations.

Parabens Alternative #7: Antioxidants

Vitamin E, grape fruit seed extract, rosemary and other kick-ass antioxidants are often mistaken for preservatives but they are NOT.

It’s true they help products last longer – by preventing the oils and fats in your lotions and potions from oxidazing and going bad too soon.  But, they CAN’T kill bacteria and fungi.

Are Antioxidants A Good Alternative To Parabens?

No: antioxidants help products last longer, but they can’t kill the microorganism that should find their way inside them.

Parabens Alternative #8: Phenoxyethanol

Phenoxyethanol is the new preservative on the block – and already super popular. You can find it in green tea, but the type used in cosmetics is usually synthetic (what a surprise!).

Phenoxyethanol is great at killing Gram-negative bacteria, but it’s weak against yeast and mold. It can’t be used alone.

On the plus side, it’s one of the gentlest preservatives available and rarely causes irritations or allergies.

Is Phenoxyethanol A Good Alternative To Parabens?

Not on its own: phenoxyethanol protects well against bacteria but not yeast and fungi.

Parabens Alternative #9: Preservative-Free

This is the worst of all. I don’t get why anyone thinks it’s a good idea to make, sell, or buy preservative-free products. That’s just asking for trouble.

These products offer NO protection at all against bacteria, fungi, and germs that end up in them. If they do, an irritation is the nicest thing that can happen to you.

Even if you’re lucky to escape a rash or an infection, these products have incredibly short shelf lives. Once opened, you need to use them within a month or so. Can you finish them that fast?

Is Preservative-Free A Good Alternative To Parabens?

No way: no preservatives means no protection. The risk of an infection is always around the corner.

What’s The Best Alternative To Parabens?

There is not one preservative that’s a good alternative to parabens. Those that work against a wide range of microorganisms are irritating. Those that are gentle only kill bacteria OR fungi. The best bet is a complex made up of several preservatives that can, together, kill any nasty little thing that should dare enter into your lotions and potions.

The Bottom Line

Parabens are still the safest, most effective preservatives used in skincare products. Most alternatives fall short (when they aren’t downright irritating). Parabens won’t kill you. An improperly preserved product might. Why take the risk?