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When are preservatives required? Which preservatives are acceptable? Which are effective?

Some online resources present preservatives as “bad actors” in skin care products. This is a complete lie. It’s the duty of manufacturers of skin care products to sell only safe products; preservatives are essential if we are to do our duty.

Preservatives are ingredients that can kill and/or stop the growth of bacteria and mold present in the formulation or introduced during use (like by the user’s dirty fingers). Preservatives are usually a mix of chemicals because what is needed is to stop different types of metabolisms, and bacteria and mold have very different metabolisms.

Preservatives extend the shelf life of the skin care product. Without preservatives, you would have to deal with skin care products just like you do with chicken soup: consume it within three or four days of making it, keep it in the fridge for those four days, and then discard it. No commercial production is compatible with those conditions. The exception? Water-free products like only oil serums or strong acidic peels because nothing much can grow in these. For example, Skin Actives’ Alpha Beta Exfoliant Solution, Cleansing Oil, and Every Lipid Serum are formulated without water and, therefore, need no preservatives.

Let’s suppose you have the time and skills to make your own skincare products; go ahead and ignore preservatives. Otherwise, recognize that Earth contains bacteria and fungi; we must learn to live with them while preserving our health. 

The preservatives we use at Skin Actives

You will find no preservatives in our range of Every Lipid Serums; they only contain oils and other fats, and microorganisms require water to grow and multiply.

For water-containing products, we use the following combinations:

Caprylyl Glycol, Phenoxyethanol, Chlorphenesin, Sorbic Acid.

Potassium Sorbate, Phenoxyethanol, Caprylyl Glycol. Phenoxyethanol (and) Caprylyl Glycol (and) Sorbic Acid.

Guaiazulene, Phenoxyethanol (and) Caprylyl Glycol (and) Sorbic Acid.

We add more preservatives to our list but prefer old ones, shown to be safe and effective by decades of use.

Why combinations rather than a single chemical? Fungi and bacteria are very different, and the chemicals required to prevent their growth are also different. Some chemicals may interfere with the synthesis of bacterial walls; others may block the formation of a chemical important for fungal growth.

Please note that many essential oils have some antimicrobial activity; we use some in our acne control products. This fact doesn’t mean that essential oils can carry the responsibility of preserving a nutrient-rich skincare product; at the concentrations required for preservation, the formula would be too irritating to the skin.

What are the requirements for a preservative to appear in a Skin Actices product?

  1. Effective
  2. Safe for humans (affecting microbial metabolism but not affecting human metabolism)
  3. Soluble and compatible with the rest of the ingredients in the formula
  4. Non-allergenic

In the last few years, we had to introduce an extra requirement: not made unsuitable by the “merchants of fear,” people that, thanks to the internet, managed to convince users that X, Y and Z , although approved by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration of the USA), are poisonous. Why do they do that? So that they can promote products for which they get commissions in the form of “certificates of approval.”

How do you sell a no-preservative, all-natural product? A prospective client wrote to me demanding to know why we at Skin Actives Scientific continue to use preservatives when she has been doing so well with products that contain none whatsoever. My answer: the products you’ve been buying  do contain preservatives.  Why doesn’t the consumer know this?  There are loopholes in the law that allow labels to lie.

How do you test a preservative mix?

Products are sent to independent labs that add mixtures of bacteria and fungi and check for growth. A good preservative mix will prevent growth for standard time and conditions. If “stuff” grows, the product is returned to the formulator for adjustment.

Take home message

I wouldn’t buy any product that claims to be “preservative-free” unless it’s oil-based or because its composition (like the extreme pH in our trichloroacetic solution) precludes microbial growth. Otherwise, you are either buying a dishonest product or a dangerous one.


Claims on this page have not been evaluated by the FDA and are not intended to diagnose, cure, treat, or prevent any disease.