why use preservatives in cosmetics?

Just the mention of the word "Preservatives" in the realm of green beauty can be polarising for many, some green beauty brands claim not to use any preservatives in their cosmetics, there is much to consider when deciding how to keep formulas both safe and effective...

What are Natural Preservatives?

A preservative is a naturally occurring chemical that is added to a cosmetic product formulation to prevent the growth of microbes and therefore the decomposition of the product.


In the 1960s and 1970s, microbiological contamination of cosmetics, with high water content (creams, lotions, shampoos, conditioners and liquid soaps) led to an increasing awareness in preservation of cosmetic products. Regulation and legislation was introduced in the EU and the USA. Later, Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP), as known from the pharmaceutical industry, were introduced and these initiatives led to a decrease in intrinsically contaminated cosmetic products. Microbiological contamination can spoil the product or the micro-organism may be pathogenic and hence potentially harmful to the user of the cosmetic.
When a formulation contains any water often referred to as aqua (this includes aloe vera juice/gel, coconut water, flower waters (hydrosol) a preservative is required to inhibit the growth of mould, yeast, bacteria and fungi. Water based cosmetics can be contaminated in two ways:
  • During Manufacture
  • By the consumer during use (wet hands going into a jar to take out the product to use for example a face mask)

Contamination can cause undesired changes in the formulation like odour or colour of the cosmetic and the micro-organisms can be pathogenic and pose a health risk to the consumer.


In 2016 a UK Best-selling cleanser was recalled over dangerous levels of bacteria. Liz Earle's 'Cleanse & Polish Hot Cloth Cleanser' found to contain potentially dangerous bacteria. This leading skincare product was urgently recalled after tests revealed it contained dangerous levels of bacteria.

The Liz Earle ‘Cleanse & Polish Hot Cloth Cleanser’ is one of the UK’s bestselling beauty products and has won more than 100 awards. 15,000 tubes of the cleanser were recalled after being found to contain the bacterium Enterobacter gergoviae

The warning came from European Commission’s Rapid Alert system, which is designed to allow European countries to exchange information about dangerous products posing a risk to the health and safety of consumers. The alert said the contaminated Liz Earle product could cause skin and eye infections, particularly in users with a weakened immune system.

Enterobacter gergoviae can cause chest and urinary tract infections and in some cases has been found to be resistant to antibiotics. The bacteria is related to the E. coli strain that is responsible for almost two-thirds of resistant ‘superbug’ cases. 

This cleanser is not natural or organic product, but I fell it is still relevant to the discussion of correctly preserved cosmetics. The listed ingredients show it is preserved with: Phenoxyethanol, Benzoic acid, Ethylhexylglycerin and Dehydroacetic acid. Somehow this batch of 15,000 cleansers became contaminated. This could be due to the company releasing a batch prior to having test results, to ensure the preservative used are working correctly. The system used to produce and bottle the Cleanser may have had a contamination within the system. This is why using preservatives in any cosmetic formulation containing water is absolutely paramount.

Microbiological contamination

In mid-2013, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) investigated whether microbiological contamination may be a possible explanation for some cosmetic injuries reported to the ACCC. A regulatory audit had shown that a majority of injury reports were associated with water-based cosmetic products.

A survey of products sold by online, cottage, and retail stores/outlets in Australia saw three out of 112 products tested return high microbial counts that vastly exceeded the European Union’s safe reference limits. Further testing revealed the presence of opportunistic pathogens that caused potential safety risks to sensitised individuals.


Micro-organisms as the name suggests so small that you may not see them actually growing in your cosmetic product but that is not sufficient evidence to assume that a cosmetic is actually safe to apply to your skin. The following have the potential to be found in cosmetic products which have not been preserved or preserved insufficiently:

BACTERIA - Is everywhere both the good and the bad, some can cause infections or irritations. Each time you touch your cosmetics you can introduce new bacteria. Bacteria needs five things to grow: Moisture // Warmth // Nutrients // Time // Oxygen. Bacteria is fast growing.

MOULD - A type of fungus which requires three things to grow: Water // Oxygen // Nutrients. At room temperature mould spores grow rapidly feeding off the unpreserved product.

YEAST - Requires three things to grow Water // Nutrients // The absence of Oxygen. Plants and therefore plant matter are rich in water an infusion of plant matter into oil over a number of weeks puts the infusion at a risk from contamination by yeast.


pH is a numeric scale used to specify the acidity or alkalinity of an aqueous (water based) solution. A pH of 7 is neutral, any aqueous solution between 0-7 is acidic and any aqueous solution between 7-14 is alkaline. A pH level which is acidic below 7 inhibits most bacterial growth. Skins pH is around 4-6.5.


The date given by which the product should be used to ensure the preservatives used are still potent or active enough to protect the product from the growth of microorganisms. Depending on what the formulations is depends on the length of shelf life. An anhydrous product (containing NO water) will have a longer shelf life than a waster based product like a moisturiser. The darker the packaging the more protection the formulation will have from sunlight (uv rays) also storing a product in a refrigerator will keep a product more stable. This is exactly why we choose to house our cosmetics in Violet Glass containers using the science of biophotonics. A dry storage place will also protect the cosmetic from potential contamination.


Yes if it does not contain water, a Face Oil //  Body Balm // Lip Balm which are formulated with Botanical Oils, Essential Oils and or Butters. The best practice with these cosmetics is for antioxidant agents to be added to help prevent the oxidisation of the ingredients.


These are NOT preservatives:

  • Grapefruit Seed Extract
  • Honeysuckle Extract
  • Rosemary Extract
  • Vitamin E

Vitamin E , Rosemary, Honeysuckle and Grapefruit seed extract are antioxidants that have the ability to increase the shelf life of oils and butters but they do not stop the bacteria growing in creams and lotions. An Antioxidant helps to prevent oxidation of a product and can help to extend the products shelf life.   


Preservative Eco // A broad spectrum preservative which contains four different

  • Benzyl Alcohol
  • Salicylic Acid
  • Sorbic Acid &
  • Glycerine
Note all the ingredients can be extracted from natural sources namely pine resin, rowan berries and willow bark.

    Potassium Sorbate // Non-toxic, non-synthetic potassium sorbate. A high quality food grade potassium sorbate helps extend the shelf life and guarantee the safety of products that need preservation

    Leucidal Liquid - Radish Root Ferment Filtrate // Derived from Radishes fermented with Leuconostoc kimchi, a lactic acid bacteria.

    AMTcide Coconut // Fermented coconut fruit with lactobacillus

    Glyceryl Caprylate // Derived from Plant (Coconut / Palm)

    Totarol // a potent antibacterial, antimicrobial, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compound extracted from recycled totara wood from New Zealand

    Sodium Benzoate // Derived from the oxidation of toluene

    Potassium Lactate // Produced by neutralizing lactic acid which is fermented from a sugar source

    Benzylalcohol Dehydroacetic Acid // Broad-spectrum preservative blend consisting of:

    • Benzylalcohol (aromatic alcohol 87%)
    • Dehydroacetic acid (8%) 
    • Water (5%)

    Plantaserv S - A natural and effective broad spectrum preservative from the following extracts: 

    • Origanum Vulgare Leaf Extract
    • Thymus Vulgaris Extract
    • Cinnamomum Zeylanicum Bark Extract
    • Rosmarinus Officinalis Leaf Extract
    • Lavandula Angustifolia Flower Extract
    • Citrus Limon Peel Extract
    • Mentha Piperita Leaf Extract
    • Hydrastis Canadensis Root Extract
    • Olea Europaea Leaf Extract

    Plantaserv N - Derived from Mixed vegetable oils:

    • Glyceryl Caprylate
    • Undecylenic Glycerides 


    EcoCert // Is the international organic inspection and certification body, approves a number of preservatives: botanical herbal plants in bottles

    • Benzoic acid and its salts
    • Benzyl alcohol
    • Salicylic acid and its salts
    • Sorbic acid/potassium sorbate
    • Sodium benzoate
    • Potassium sorbate
    • Phenethyl alcohol
    • glyceryl caprylate
    • sodium levulinate
    • Benzoic acid
    • Ethyl lactate

    Cosmos (Cosmetic Organic Standard) is the standard that is used by a number of European organic 'certifying bodies'. All these 'certifying bodies' use ingredients that are approved by Cosmos:

    • BDIH - Germany
    • Cosmebio - France
    • EcoCert - France
    • ICEA - Italy
    • Soil Association - UK
    • ACO - Australian Certified Organic


    For me it is important that my products cause no harm to the end user, if a customer has a compromised skin barrier or like myself, a compromised immune system then using a water based product with no preservatives is simply not worth the health risk. I am legally required to market and sell products that are safe and microbial stability is an important part of that responsibility. Just because you cannot see a microbe growing in a cosmetic does not mean there is not one (or one thousand!) present.

    I have chosen to use the science of biophotonics (violet glass) vessels for our cosmetics, which offer maximum protection and serve to preserve against degradation by blocking out the harmful rays of light while enhancing the resonance of our bioactive ingredients. By only allowing the ultraviolet light spectrum to penetrate the glass, products can remain stable and unpreserved for up to seven months. I have elected to use a broad spectrum, naturally derived, preservative system (capable of gaining Organic Certification) I am currently trailing a water based formulation with different preservative systems.

    If you wish to avoid preservatives choosing an anhydrous cosmetic (waterless) such as our Hero product (launching 2019) is an excellent choice as this is an oil based formulation, no preservatives need to be added, just antioxidants to help prevent oxidation.

    Always read the label and contact the cosmetic brand directly with any concerns or questions about product ingredients and formulation. 

    Until next time..

    be human | be kind | be you







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