The confusion in the natural beauty world is real. When I opened the first eco-chic beauty boutique in the country in 2007, every natural beauty brand sent their products for review. Clients from all over the world seek my help to "clean up" their beauty products. I had to research every ingredient in every natural product I received.
Can you imagine?
Go through your products and really read the ingredients (not the marketing that says it's eco-friendly or sustainably
I can't tell you how many clients came to me with eye infections from using natural mascara or eye cream that didn't have the right preservatives. Or those whose organic face oils dried their skin because of an overload of essential oils that weren't extracted and proportioned properly. Or the people who waited months for the bumps, redness, and irritation caused by "natural" fruit acids to heal.
Natural brands are always screaming about how there are no regulations for ingredients in the U.S., so conventional brands get away with adding a lot of not-good-for-you stuff into their products. Well, if there were regulations as strict as in other countries about testing beauty products for stability, efficacy, and bacteria and fungal growth, 90 percent of those same natural brands wouldn't make the cut.
The words that cause hysteria in the green world — parabens, sulfates, phenoxyethnol, phthalates — are SO 2007. Even huge conventional beauty giants have removed these ingredients from their products, and many others are bound to follow.
For all the good it's doing, the green beauty industry keeps looking for ingredients to burn at the stake; the witch hunt for the next life-ending, cancer-causing preservative is misleading and doesn't make any sense. When clients and colleagues started asking me about "naturally sourced preservatives," I realized it was time to draw the line and speak up.
People need to be educated on what ingredient names actually mean instead of relying on beauty dictionaries or ingredient rating websites that indicate that something might not be safe enough. (What does "moderately safe" even mean?)
So. Here we go. My first step toward educating everyone on the things they should care about when it comes to green beauty:
What's the difference between naturally sourced and synthetic preservatives?
There's a lot of confusion around preservatives in the modern beauty world. Considering their purpose in cosmetics — to quite literally inhibit life as we know it — it's reasonable that they're often singled out on ingredients labels. Despite the natural concern we feel, however, they're absolutely essential in nearly all products. The difficulty is understanding what makes a preservative cross the line from being practical to being harmful.
Here are a few things to keep in mind:
Not all preservatives are bad. An oil-based product might not need additional antifungal or antimicrobial preservatives, but a good antioxidant is still required to keep the product from going rancid. Different types of preservatives are vital for different reasons.
In many cases, natural preservatives like sodium benzoate or potassium sorbate are highly appropriate. That being said, there are certain types of preservatives that should be avoided at all costs. For example, there's a big difference between methylparaben and butylparaben, despite their similar names.
Regulatory agencies understand the need for preservatives in cosmetics. For the most part, instead of outright banning the use of certain preservatives, studies are performed to determine a safe level of usage. In many countries, cosmetics are required to pass a preservative efficacy test, in which various strains of harmful organisms are inoculated into a sample to determine whether it has the capability to inhibit microbial or fungal activity (should it occur) quickly enough to prevent sickness. Through careful testing, it is possible to determine a safe concentration.
For example, at Evolue we use sodium benzoate at a concentration of 0.15 percent in one of our leave-on products. The International Programme on Chemical Safety reports no adverse effects to humans at doses of over 600 mg/kg of body weight per day (2.2 pound is approximately equivalent to 1 kg). At the concentrations of 0.15 percent, a person weighing about 100 pounds would have to consume nearly 5 gallons of the product to even come close to this concentration.
Perhaps one of the most complicated things to look out for on a label is reactivity risk, and preservatives aren't exempt from this. I mentioned sodium benzoate earlier, which can react with ascorbic acid to form benzene, a known carcinogen. The risk is extremely low when the product doesn't contain both ingredients to begin with (and further lowered by determining a safe minimum concentration to use) however, it is still there, and it is difficult to look out for.
4. Natural vs. Synthetic
One of the most common questions I get is whether the preservatives I use are naturally sourced. Continuing with the sodium benzoate example, though it's naturally occurring in many fruits and spices, it is almost always extracted and processed in labs.
Does this make it a synthetic preservative? Would it be better for you if it wasn't processed in a lab?
Consider that many essential oils require solvents such as hexane or methanol to extract, some of which are inevitably left over. The label certainly won't bring this to your attention, and it may even tout an "all-natural" message on the box.
In short, one of the biggest shortfalls in the natural industry is the lack of proper preservation. As much as I support the natural movement, I care far more about the health and safety of my friends, family, and clients.
Water-based products run an extremely high risk of developing mold, bacteria, and pathogens. Preservatives should be chosen based on great track records, substantial research, and accepted use across industries worldwide.