Parabens Alternatives: Which Ones Are Safe And Effective?

by Gio
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 couple of 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 alternatives to them are NOT. Let’s see what science says about each one:

Diazolidinyl_urea

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

Is this a good alternative to parabens?

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

Methylisothiazolinone

Alternative #2: MCI and 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.

Is this a good alternative to parabens?

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

Benzoic_acid

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.

Is this a good alternatives to parabens?

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

Sodium_Benzoate

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 this 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.

potassium sorbate

Alternative #5: Potassium Sorbate

You’ll find potassium sorbate in rowan berries but it’s synthetically altered before ending up in your cosmetics. 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 sorbet, 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 this a good alternative to parabens?

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

thyme

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.

Is this an effective alternative to parabens?

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

rosemary

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.

Is this an effective alternative to parabens?

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

Phenoxyethanol molecular structure

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 this a good alternative to parabens?

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

preservative free cosmetics

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 this a good alternative to parabens?

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

So, what’s a good 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 cosmetics. Most alternatives fall short (when they aren’t downright irritating). Parabens won’t kill you. An improperly preserved product might. Why take the risk?

Do you use parabens, or do you go out of your way to avoid them? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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36 comments

Jen March 7, 2016 - 2:04 pm

Thank goodness, a voice of reason! I am so tired of the paraben hatred that sprouts from ignorance.

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Gio March 7, 2016 - 10:47 pm

Jen, amen! Unfortunately that ignorance is forcing brands to formulate with less safe, or worse, no preservatives at all, putting us all at risk.

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Kevin January 28, 2018 - 4:58 am

I have very sensitive skin that loves parabens. Now, phenoxyethanol is in almost everything and it causes a reaction for me.

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Gio February 2, 2018 - 4:15 pm

Kevin, oh no! So sorry to hear that. Unfortunately that’s what happens when safe ingredients get a bad rep for no reason. 🙁

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Sarah Payne (@youglowgal) March 7, 2016 - 7:51 pm

What about probiotics being used? I’ve started seeing that, too.

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Gio March 7, 2016 - 10:50 pm

Sarah, probiotics aren’t preservatives. They help the good bacteria grow, they don’t kill them.

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Dorota November 7, 2019 - 11:07 pm

Gio – small correction. You mixed probiotics with prebiotics. Prebiotics are indeed food which can only be digested by good bacteria. probiotic is alive microrganisms. And indeed none of them are preservatives!

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External Article – How Teens Could Be at Risk From Cosmetics Use – Beautifully Sweet March 11, 2016 - 3:44 am

[…] has many articles explaining about substances in cosmetic products. She has a recent article about paraben alternatives, which is a very interesting and informative article […]

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Hannah March 13, 2016 - 12:20 am

Totally agree. There really isn’t many half decent preservatives that work as well as parabens. Like I don’t think parabens are perfects,-they do have possible health risks associated with (infact parabens have been found in breast tissue of breast cancer patients) them from prolonged use, still,compared to other preservatives like the formaldehyde releasers you mentioned,I agree, I think they’re still relatively safe in low levels compared to other chemical preservatives.Like having them in your i.e. is safer than no preservatives at all. Like I would totally want them in my eyeshadows because I don’t want something thriving with bacteria near my eyes,since essential oils would burn and be way to irritating! I’ve learned from experience from bacteria contamination. Once I got an eye infection from 6 month old Maybelline mascara and had to go to the docter because my eye got pussy and blew up super puffey and my eyelid hurt.Ya, I know that was dumb to wear old mascara (and have learned my lesson)but that was with preservatives. I can only imagine if it didn’t have any! I think if I ever bought all natural mascara I’d discard it after 2-3 weeks since it would grow bacteria way sooner. Still,though,in stuff I smear all over my body Iike lotion that’s not near mucas membrains ,like eyes, I’d prefer to avoid them since they’re not that good for you.

As far as children and baby products go I still think preservatives like parabens and formaldehyde releasers shouldn’t be allowed in products intended for them. Did you know formulations for sensitive adults and babies are often the same? You’d think the baby formulation would have the “safest chemicals”.Babies and children are 10X more susceptible and sensitive than adults to chemicals,so that’s very troubling. What annoys me is that companies will remove things like that when they sell their products to places like Japan,Russia,and Europe but then make the USA their “dumping ground” for controversial ingredients.Like even if those ingredients end up not being as harmful as cracked up to be it upsets me and others that they (companies) make formulations out of less controversial ingredients for other people but then act like they cannot do the same for their own people to afford the issue! Hmmm! Well they proved they could do without certain ingredients for other countries products easily enough! No wonder the Americans are known as the “least healthy people as well as most over weight in the world”. Then IF they DO offer a safer formulation like they offer they offer other people (like Johnson and Johnson.) they charge you more for it just to avoid formaldehyde releasers in your baby products ! Another example: Kraft mac and cheese. In the USA they use artificial colors. In London they use veggie dyes. London kids are probably healthier than American ones.

P.S. Sorry for my venting! I’m just frustrated!

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Gio March 14, 2016 - 10:29 pm

Hannah, no need to apologize, the beauty world can be very frustrating indeed.

It’s dangerous that parabens are being substituting with options that don’t work as well, isn’t it? Yes, there are risks with them, too, but I think these are grossly exaggerated. You mention that parabens were found in the breast tissue of breast cancer patient. But, did you know the researchers didn’t compare the sample from that tissue to healthy tissue? This is important because, if parabens were found in healthy tissue, too, then it would mean they’re not the cause of cancer. Just because something is there, doesn’t automatically make it bad. Besides, parabens are eliminated by the body within 36 hours, so it’s unlikely they can accumulate enough to cause problems. But an improperly preserved product? Like you unfortunately found out on your own, that’s a lot more dangerous!

I agree. Baby products and food should be better formulated, as they can cause some serious health risks. There should be more stringent rules about what can and can’t be used in them. But it seems people are more interested in chasing non issues like parabens in an eyeshadow to campaign for safety where it’s really needed. At least, that’s what it feels like sometimes! Now, I’m venting, too.

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Sou March 13, 2016 - 8:46 pm

Great research. I did a similar research article on my blog on parabens as well as Talc but focused on Eczema. I found that personally having Eczema, I had no problems with products containing parabens.

Have a good one.

sou

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Gio March 14, 2016 - 5:16 pm

Sou, parabens are quite gentle, aren’t they? It’s a shame they’re being phased out in favour of less safe, even harsher alternatives.

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Hannah March 13, 2016 - 9:45 pm

I also that I’ve heard that Badger sunscreens may contain PFOA’s which are bad for skin,so that’s something to take note of. The natural ingredients in Badger products have naturally occurring antioxidants so I am guessing that the PFOA’s must not be that big of a problem,however. 🙂

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Gio March 14, 2016 - 8:09 pm

Hannah, I don’t think they are either, especially if they’re used in tiny amounts. But you’re right, it’s always good to know what’s in our products.

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audrey March 8, 2017 - 10:43 am

What about Avene? They say their XeraCalm line is preservative-free because they have special packaging (sterile) and it’s different than the usual tube, quite hard to dispense. Should I trust this preservative-free gimmick?

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Gio March 8, 2017 - 11:25 am

Audrey, mm, I’m very sceptical about this “special” packaging. I guess that, because the products come in tubes, the chance the contents may be contaminated is minimal. But you will still have to use them quickly because preservative-free products have a very short shelf-life.

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audrey March 8, 2017 - 11:31 am

Me too! And they’re charging quite a lot for this new “sterile” packaging.

By the way, do you think peptide serum (like The Ordinary’s) in dropper bottle has a long shelf-life? The Ordinary by Deciem also stated they do not use paraben in their products and I worry that the Buffet peptide serum will go bad even faster than their rosehip seed oil. What do you think about this?

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Gio March 17, 2017 - 8:53 pm

Audrey, if it doesn’t have preservatives, use it as soon as possible. It may have another preservative system so in that case it may last up to a year. Usually, though, The Ordinary will state in the instructions how log a serum last,

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audrey March 18, 2017 - 3:10 pm

Ah I see, I will look more carefully into the expiration date. Thank you, Gio!

Gio April 7, 2017 - 7:06 pm

My pleasure, Audrey. Also, if you notice any change in smell/colour/texture, throw it away.

Alejandra May 21, 2017 - 3:29 am

I made lotion that my family and I use. I make it in small batches so it is quickly used. However I am afraid of bacteria and fungus so I have been looking for a preservative. I make some other products to avoid toxic ingredients so obviously I was looking for a parabens and formaldehyde free preservative if I find one that can offer good protection against fungus and bacteria. It seems that I will need to use more than one in order for it to properly work. Do you know a good combination? For instance if I use Leucidal, what should I use it with to have full protection? And I have read about others but they also need to be combined with something else but I really don’t know about combinations. Any help or advice is greatly appreciated!

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Gio May 27, 2017 - 7:16 pm

Alejandra, I don’t recommend Leucidal, it’s not very safe: http://swiftcraftymonkey.blogspot.co.uk/2016/05/a-quick-post-about-leucidal-liquid.html

This post can help you choose the best preservatives for your products, too: http://swiftcraftymonkey.blogspot.co.uk/2010/11/preservatives-choosing-preservative.html

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Alejandra May 29, 2017 - 4:24 am

Thanks! I will take a look into each preservative. It is hard to find one that is not only free of parabens and formaldehyde but also not toxic. Many people use phenoxyethanol instead but it does not score well in EWG and it also have health side effects ☹️

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Gio June 3, 2017 - 3:52 pm

Alejandra, please, please, please, don’t pay any attention to what the EWG is saying. They’re not scientists and can’t read a scientific study if their lives depended on it. They don’t take into any consideration the concentration of an ingredient or how it is administered. If a study says that rats have died from ingesting a super high amount of one chemical, then the EWG will tell you that applying less than 1% to your skin will kill you, too. It doesn’t work that way. Everything is dangerous if used too much or in the wrong way. Even vitamin C could kill if you ingest too much of it!

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Missy March 28, 2018 - 11:44 pm

When you talk about sodium benzoate and vit C in small amounts forming benzene do you mean only if they’re in the same product, or do you mean if you use one product containing sodium benzoate and a second product containing a small amount of vitamin C, or if there is a small amount of vit C left in your skin from the C serum you used the day before? When I ask companies about potential interactions I often get the answer that ingredients in one finished product do not interact with ingredients in another finished product. Is this correct?

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Gio March 31, 2018 - 11:06 am

Missy, I’m talking about them being in the same product. Usually, cosmetic chemists will formulate their serums to avoid this problem so I wouldn’t worry too much about it. I’ve mentioned that because I want people to understand that’s nothing is either good or bad but it really depends on how it’s used.

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Why Switching To Natural Beauty Products Actually Might Not Be The Best Thing For Your Skin – Ketepaultals – Blog,News,Business,Health April 12, 2018 - 9:57 pm

[…] in that study. In addition, Feely says, further research is still needed to prove that any of the paraben alternatives on the market are any safer for our […]

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Jessica Huynh May 1, 2018 - 7:09 am

Hi, this piece is great! I’m writing a research paper on parabens and one portion of it is the alternatives and the drawbacks leading back to why parabens are the best preservatives. Are there any references to papers sourcing the drawbacks such as sodium benzoate when mixed with low concentrations of vitamin C creating benzene or the antimicrobial effects of each? It would be a huge help to me and you are presenting great facts that are already a huge help to me.

As a chemistry student and former seasonal skin care sales associate I always told customers that the facts about parabens present more good than harm and through writing this paper it really becomes more apparent. Thank you!

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Gio May 4, 2018 - 7:27 pm

Hi Jessica, so glad you find this post helpful. You can click on the links in green to be taken to the studies. 🙂 And well done for telling the truth to your customers. I agree, once you start doing the research and putting it all down on paper, the positives of parabens far outweighs the negatives.

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nino May 19, 2018 - 9:23 am

Hi, which concentration are proper for phenoxy ethanol and potassium sorbate in cosmetics?

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Gio May 27, 2018 - 6:53 am

Nino, 1% or less would be best.

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Hannah September 9, 2018 - 1:53 am

I’m just wondering about the numerous studies that have shown parabens to be endocrine disruptors and that they mimic estrogen and absolutely can gather in breast tissue? And that in another study where 1,000 breast cancer tumors were tested and parabens we’re found in 98% of those tumors.
Is this data wrong?
How can you encourage consumers to put their health at risk for cosmetics…..
I love makeup and lotion too but it’s not worth my thyroid, hormones, and any other type of gland that secretes hormones.
That’s just my opinion.

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Gio September 13, 2018 - 4:38 pm

Hannah, I’m not encouraging people to put their health at risk. I’ve already written about the parabens controversy and why the studies you cite are flawed. You can find what REAL SCIENCE says about parabens here: https://www.beautifulwithbrains.com/the-parabens-controversy/

Imo, it’s a lot more dangerous to use parabens-free products. These can easily grow bacteria and give you an infection… or worse.

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Jasmine Ako November 30, 2018 - 5:45 am

Hi, My son have eczema and I tried to use natural creams but none would work very well. His skin gets super red and itchy that he can’t sleep at night. I had to put medicine with paraben if it gets so red because I am worried him scratching and worried about infection. Now, reading about comments that baby products should not have parabens made me so concerned that for 2 years now, I use medicine for him. I am just not sure what else to use – and I don’t want him suffering.

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Gio December 7, 2018 - 11:58 am

Jasmine, I hear ya. It’s hard to help your child when there is so much misinformation out there. You’ll be happy to know there is no scientifically reliable evidence that you should avoid parabens even on children, so go ahead and use them. I’ve explained why parabens are safe here: https://www.beautifulwithbrains.com/the-parabens-controversy/

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