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NOW READING Preservatives in Skincare: The Case For Why You Need Them
September 10, 2019

Preservatives in Skincare: The Case For Why You Need Them

Preservatives in skincare seem to get a bad rap these days – they’re chemicals, they’re unhealthy, they’ll cause cancer! But does the science bear it out? What exactly is it that preservatives do and why are they in are skincare? Worse yet, what’s the alternative? We hash it out for you.


There’s a lot of chemophobia and fearmongering in skincare marketing. The perception that “chemicals” are harmful and dangerous has driven the rise of the “clean beauty” category, which seems to thrive on the philosophy that if you can pronounce it, it’s healthy and good, but if you can’t, then it must be toxic and bad. And of all cosmetic ingredients with long, scary-sounding science names, preservatives seem to draw the most suspicion.


Should you really worry about preservatives in skincare?


In my opinion, you should be more worried about skincare that doesn’t contain preservatives.


Why are there preservatives in skincare?


It’s right there in the name. Preservatives preserve the products they’re in. But from what?


From nasty stuff that you don’t want anywhere near your face. Preservatives in skincare are there to prevent the growth of bacteria, yeast, and fungi (mold!!) in the products.


preservatives in skincare


It’s an important job, considering that skincare products tend to present a nice, moist environment in which bacteria and fungi can grow, and are exposed to any bacteria or mold spores in the air or on your hands or tools every time you open a jar or bottle or scoop out any product. Bacterial and fungal contamination can lead to nasty breakouts and reactions. You don’t want these little guys growing in your serums and creams.


Contamination could happen even before you unseal your brand-new product, too. The manufacturing process for just about any skincare product is complex. In a worst-case scenario, contamination could be introduced into the product at some point of the manufacturing process, particularly if the products are being made in facilities or according to protocols that aren’t up to the highest standards of safety and cleanliness. In those cases, your best hope is that the preservatives in the product will kill anything that made its way into the product, before the product makes its way to your face.


Common preservatives


Of all the different types of preservatives available to cosmetics manufacturers, parabens like methylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben come under the most fire. Parabens are particularly effective against fungal contamination and some bacterial contamination as well.

preservatives in skincare


There’s a widely circulated fear that parabens are linked to breast cancer. This was caused by a now-disputed study in which parabens were found in breast tumors. The study didn’t conclude any causality and didn’t compare paraben levels in normal, healthy tissue, but flash the C word and panic ensues. However, the FDA does not consider parabens in cosmetics to have an effect on human health. The Cosmetics Ingredient Review deems them safe in products up to 25%. Parabens are typically used in cosmetics in concentrations of 0.01 to 0.3%, a lot less than 25%.


More potent against bacteria though less effective against fungi, meanwhile, are preservatives like DMDM hydantoin, imadozolidinyl urea, and diazolidinyl urea. Other common preservatives you might encounter are isothiazolinone, a broad spectrum preservative that protects against bacteria, yeast, and fungi; and phenoxyethanol, which is generally considered less potentially sensitizing.


preservatives in skincare


Due to the different levels of efficacy individual preservatives have against particular types of contamination, you’ll often find more than one preservative in any given product. Multiple preservatives are generally combined to form more broad spectrum preservative systems.


You may notice that all the preservatives discussed above have those long, scary-sounding science names to them, making them an easy target for “clean beauty” marketing. But know that they are all in common use and have been deemed safe as used in cosmetics.


In some cases, however, certain preservatives, like any other cosmetic ingredient, might cause sensitivity or reactions in some people. Your skin, independent of any EWG scaremongering, might hate parabens or isothiazolinone or phenoxyethanol or anything else in a skincare ingredient list. In the case of preservatives, there are preservative systems that have been found to be less potentially sensitizing, like the combination of 1,2-hexanediol and caprylyl glycol.


preservatives in skincare


On the other side of the coin are the “natural preservatives.” Generally featuring plant extracts with antimicrobial properties, these natural preservative systems can be a good idea in theory. In practice, however, they have a lot of weaknesses, as some K-beauty users discovered during the Benton Contamination Incident of 2014. Natural preservatives are less stable than synthetic preservatives, making the products they preserve less stable as well.


There’s also the question of extract potency. Extracts aren’t standardized across suppliers. Some might be mostly water (or whatever solvent was used in the extraction process) with little of the extracted substance in them. It’s hard to know what you’re getting unless you have direct insight into a cosmetics manufacturer’s supply chain.




The most promising avenue “preservative-free” skincare can take is airless packaging. Airless pumps prevent the products inside from ever being exposed to air, therefore theoretically eliminating the need for antibacterial or antifungal protection. Personally, though, I still don’t think airless pump packaging offers 100% protection. As I mentioned above, contamination can happen at the point of manufacture. And a properly preserved product can stand up to normal everyday use and exposure to air and fingers.


Preservatives in skincare: The bottom line


I’m a fan of preservatives in skincare and have been ever since I started getting serious about skincare and reading up on ingredients. The potential risks of standard preservatives are iffy at best, unsupported by research or regulatory bodies, and typically propagated via misinterpretations of research. Meanwhile, the risks of bacterial growth and mold colonies in my skincare are very real. The choice between unpronounceable substances in an ingredients list and chunks of stringy mystery growth in my serums is clear to me. I’ll take the preservatives I can’t pronounce any day.


What’s your personal stance on preservatives in skincare? Do they freak you out or are you OK with them? Let’s hash it out below!



Jude writes as Fiddy Snails at the K-beauty and skincare blog Fifty Shades of Snail and can be found on Instagram @fiddysnails. Named the ELLE Malaysia Beauty Blogger of the Month for June/July 2017 and one of ELLE Magazine‘s 10 Cool Beauty Bloggers to Watch in 2018, Jude loves ginseng, snail, honey, propolis, and tuna fish kimbap, though she generally doesn’t put the kimbap on her face.




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I would really worry about the lack of preservatives in a skincare product. Especially for those that contain water. Our products can easily get contaminated from exposure to fingers, air, droplets, etc. Not preserving cosmetics shouldn't be a "clean beauty" marketing tactic as it wouldn't be very clean to introduce these germs to our face - which we are trying so hard to keep clear & healthy.


Verified experts are beauty professionals who receive free products for independent reviews without receiving payment.

Thank you for this informative article! I learned the importance of preservatives when I learned cosmetic formulation. Not using a preservative in any water-based products is down right dangerous! Thankfully, there are many safe and effective preservatives to choose from.


Verified experts are beauty professionals who receive free products for independent reviews without receiving payment.

This is incredibly informative! Preservatives play a major role in maintaining the products we use on our skin. I've also read elsewhere about some effective natural preservatives, depending on usage needs. Especially when we use products that contain natural ingredients, or have a large amount of water, we must be cautious with the possibility of mold spores, micro bacteria and other decay. This process is natural and timely, and can be easily prevented with a small presence of preservatives.


Verified experts are beauty professionals who receive free products for independent reviews without receiving payment.

I enjoyed reading this article since it is so informative about a controversial subject. Recently I read something about chemicals in skincare and makeup. What they explained was that literally everything in life is a chemical. H2O/water a is a chemical and yet we need it to survive. The word chemical has been twisted to mean something bad however not all chemicals are bad, some you need to survive. This does a great job explaining how we cannot understand what something is but that does not mean it isn't helpful, and with a little research we can learn the reason... Read more


This is a very interesting/informative read for someone wanting to understand the science behind why some preservatives are necessary for keeping some beauty products "clean." It is important to know why certain ingredients are put in our products, just as much as it is to know why we don't want certain ingredients in those same products (It is going on our FACE, body, and hair - afterall!)


This is so great. I completely agree. I've had phases of choosing only ingredients I can pronounce (in food, not skincare, but it's the same principle). For me it's mostly about a sense of control. Mixing together ingredients I've heard of is easy to understand. Preservatives are harder to understand; you have to actually go figure out some science and trust other people.

Anyway - thanks for this. It's super useful!


I see so many ads for "chemical free" skincare. So inane. My daughter came home from a girl scout meeting afraid of one of her favorite lunches because a guest speaker they had said it was full of chemicals. I taught her some basic science and all was well.

Gimme the preservatives! Beats the alternative for sure.


AMEN!!! This total fearmongering about "chemicals" is ridiculous. Yes, I'm watchful of my ingredient lists and what I eat and what I put on my face, but to make a blanket statement like all chemicals are bad is just too much. As in life, everything in moderation.