A Cosmetic Chemist Explains What We're Getting Wrong About Preservatives In Beauty
If you're on SkinTok (or the side of TikTok devoted to all things skin care and beauty), I'm sure you've been fed one of Javon Ford's videos. He's a cosmetic chemist and has grown an avid following (this beauty director included!) for his videos that thoughtfully explain product formulations, current trends in skin care, ingredient breakdowns, and more.
Throughout the episode, you'll hear us talk at length about clean beauty, what the industry is getting wrong, and consumer misunderstandings. And one of the things I love most about this episode is that both Ford and I clearly hold the position that no matter what your opinion on the "sides" of clean, natural, or mainstream beauty, much of the "debate" just comes down to personal choices. Neither of us believes in shaming those choices, full stop.
The episode is a lesson in nuance—including one insight on preservatives, and the idea of "preservative-free beauty." It's just one example of many that we discuss, so if you find any of this interesting, tune in to the episode to learn more.
What we're getting wrong about the preservative debate.
The most hotly debated class of ingredients in beauty? That's got to be a preservative (followed by silicones, which we also get into in the episode).
"Preservatives are, by definition, the most potentially hazardous ingredient in cosmetics. In order to kill bacteria, you need to have something strong enough to stop their growth. Microbial, mold, and mildew growth is actually a natural process—it's not unnatural for these things to grow in water, and nature wants organisms to thrive and prosper," he says.
Yes, it's natural for these things to grow in water. Anyone who leaves food out on the counter too long knows this to be true. But the problem in the beauty space is that we often have unrealistic expectations of what we expect our products to do. We want them to be all-natural but also to able to pass the test of time while sitting in our bathrooms. Imagine leaving a piece of fruit in your bathroom, then coming back a year later expecting it to be perfectly intact and ready for consumption? Not likely, huh?
"[And people want to avoid preservatives,] but in modern conventions, products are shelf stable for over a year. And keeping something shelf stable for years, especially natural ingredients and botanicals, is actually not natural," he says. "So what people have to understand is to have a preservative-free product, that means it essentially becomes perishable, that you have to refrigerate, use up within two weeks, and at that point it just becomes food."
But that's not to say that people who don't want to consume preservatives in any capacity are wrong. It just means that they need to understand the side effects of that. "And if you, for whatever reason based on personal beliefs of what ingredients you accept, don't use preservatives, then that's OK, but you have to accept the caveat that the products just aren't going to last as long," he says.
For more nuanced insights into formulations, tune in to the episode.
Alexandra Engler is the beauty director at mindbodygreen and host of the beauty podcast Clean Beauty School. Previously, she's held beauty roles at Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Allure.com. In her current role, she covers all the latest trends in the clean and natural beauty space, as well as lifestyle topics, such as travel. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.