A beauty addict such as yourself probably knows every nook and cranny and every last shelf of her favourite cosmetic shop by heart, and has very keen powers of observation that are indispensable when there are sales. Yes, the beauty addict is a huntress… a fearsome predator… (I’m always trembling a bit when I walk by a cosmetic shop like sephora when there are sales… it’s scary! I told you, I’m curious, but not very brave…)
The “no preservatives” trend
That “jungle”, so dangerous and hostile to most men, is where you feel at home; nothing escapes your expert sight… so you’ve probably noticed a wave that has been crashing over the world of cosmetics for three or more years now. I’m talking about the appearance of a certain indication on cosmetics packaging: the famous line “no preservatives”.
Some brands go on and on about this in all their media (showing off with it on their website, catalogue, packaging) while they don’t really have anything else to show for themselves. (Without this, without that, without without without… If there’s nothing in there, why are you even selling it?)
Speaking as a formulator, in most cases I find this practice somewhat questionable (just my opinion 😉 ). Remember that any cosmetic product that contains water and is supposed to remain usable for more than 2-3 weeks is required to have a preservative. Required.
A preservative is a cosmetic ingredient of which just a little bit is added to protect the product, so you won’t get bacteria growing in it… (Want a photo of that?) I repeat: this is required with conventional packaging!
But the parabens scandal has shaken the beauty planet so forcefully that preservatives in general have been demonised and turned into the worst evil on earth, the one cause for all disease ever, it’s probably also their fault that they stopped filming “Friends”, while we’re at it.
Because yes, ladies and gentlemen (all 2% of you), preservatives have become undesirable and bad luck bringers. Let the witch hunt continue! But then again, without preservatives, you’d have to strain your bank card to buy new cosmetics every other week. I have a feeling that some of you would probably like that prospect just for the sake of shopping ( shopaholics please raise your hand… 😉 ) but it’s not frankly the most practical way… “No time for it, I need to keep my blog going!” So, are they really all that bad?
The preservative paradox
A preservative is an agent that destroys the bacteria, fungi that can grow in a product. Essentially, it’s a product that acts against living things… So preservatives need to be active and effective, but effectiveness means a risk of irritation. It’s like a household product: you want it to work well, you want it to get rid of all the stains and get everything clean without much effort… and in exchange for that, you have to be careful not to get it on your skin, because it’s corrosive or irritant. (That’s a bit of an exaggerated metaphor, of course. 😉 )
That’s why you can’t expect a preservative not to be irritant, because that means it’s not active. Nor expect it to be more active, because that might make it too irritant to your skin. Preservatives need to be picked with that balance in mind, activity versus no irritation. You need a compromise. Then the rest is a matter of dosage… of finding a dosage that protects, but doesn’t irritate.
The cosmetic legal trick
But what I think is questionable is the dishonesty of certain brands who claim not to use preservatives even though they do. What they’re doing is just using a legal loophole. In the formulator’s arsenal, there are certain ingredients with anti-bacterial and fungicidal properties that are not officially considered preservatives, but are considered aroma compounds and the like.
And so, using this trick, you get products that do have preservatives, but that also “trick” their consumers into believing they’re preservative-free. Moreover, these preservatives aren’t any less irritant either, they just happen not to be widely hated yet… or not widely enough known… whichever you prefer.
Mind you, I’m not saying preservatives that aren’t preservatives aren’t effective. I just think cosmetic brands should stop treating consumers like idiots, and stop stigmatising preservatives. Whether it’s for biological or non-biological cosmetics, natural or not, preservatives are indispensable in modern day cosmetics. We should stop blaming them… Yes, they can be irritant, but like I said, it’s a matter of having the right dosage, enough to protect the product but not enough to produce side effects.
And yes, some of them should definitely be avoided. Others are more benign, but aren’t effective enough… (another post coming LOL) This is particularly the case with biological formulas, which are the main focus of my research… It’s not easy being a formulator…
So the indication “without preservatives” is absolutely misleading… Don’t be fooled. It relies on legal vagueness. The only exception I know of is one where special containers are used that are more protective than airless bottles, which are being offered by AVENE ( a french cosmetic brand) with a system called DEFI, short for “Dispositif Exclusif Formule Intacte” (Exclusive Intact Formula Device). It’s a kind of tube that makes it possible for the product to remain completely sterile throughout its usage. But for 90% of cosmetic products, preservatives are a must. So keep your eyes open. 😉
What about you? Do you look for this phrase? Are you worried about preservatives? Are you like “oh no, preservatives! Run for the hiiills!”, or more like “preserva what now? Pfff, big deal. I’m going back to bed, and don’t wake me up for stupid things or I’ll bite!”