Preservatives: Necessary, But Not Necessarily Evil – Activist Skincare

Preservatives: Necessary, But Not Necessarily Evil


Preservatives: Necessary, But Not Necessarily Evil

We consider ourselves to be an environmentally-conscious, green, and holistic-minded company, and we put so much effort and research into every aspect of our operations, from avoiding filler ingredients in our products, to using recyclable packaging and eliminating plastic, to donating 5% of our profits to environmental causes.

Like most eco-aware brands striving to be as nontoxic as possible, we have lost sleep over the issue of preservatives. They're the target of intense scrutiny now, and for good reason. Toxic preservatives are found in so many of the products we use on our bodies and in our homes every day.

Why we need preservatives

We have to remember that preservatives have a purpose; they weren't designed as a sneaky way for evil corporations to poison us. They were developed to protect our health by preventing the growth of microbes (bacteria, yeast and mold) which could make us sick. This is a real risk; we don't want our clients get an eye, skin or sinus infection from our products.


We have spent countless hours of research and development working to ensure that the effectiveness and safety of our products is never compromised.

At the same time, toxins in personal care products are also a risk to our health. We wish we could live in a world where preservative-free products were possible, but the fact is that microbial contamination is a real threat — especially since bacteria, yeast and mold love to grow in warm, humid environments like our bathrooms where we typically use skincare products.

We have spent countless hours of research and development working to ensure that the effectiveness and safety of our products is never compromised, and we have chosen what we believe to be the best preservatives currently available on the market to balance our goal of creating nontoxic skincare with the need to guard against microbial contamination.

The breeding ground in your bathroom

You may notice that oil-based products are more likely to be nontoxic — our Precious Oils Serum included. This is because bacteria, mold and yeast all require water to live. That means that oil-based products do not make a good breeding ground for bacteria, and they don't require preservatives for microbial protection like water-based products do.

Things get tricky when you have water making contact with air. This is how life formed on our water planet, and how bad colonies of bacteria and mold can get established in unpreserved skincare products. So when it comes to water-based products, especially those stored in the warm, humid environment on top of your vanity, we have to be very careful.

The preservatives we use

We believe in transparency, which means that while we strive to be a nontoxic skincare brand, we are also firmly against greenwashing. Therefore it's important to us to be honest with our clients about our choice to use preservatives that don't always get a standing ovation from the green community. We hear you: we agree that the current situation is not ideal, but we are still very proud of how far we've come in eliminating toxins from our products.


We hear you: we agree that the current situation is not ideal.

Here is a guide to the preservatives we use in our Hyaluronic Acid Serum, currently our only water-based product.

Ethylhexylglycerin is a vegetable oil derived preservative with an Environmental Working Group (EWG) rating of 1, meaning "low hazard" (the lowest possible rating). We use it in our Hyaluronic Acid Serum to inhibit the growth of microorganisms. This ingredient is becoming very popular as an alternative to parabens.

Phenoxyethanol is a broad-spectrum preservative that inhibits all types of microbial contaminants. We use it at a very low concentration in formulations of our Hyaluronic Acid Serum that contain vitamin C, because it is the safest in combination with this amazing active ingredient. This preservative has an EWG rating of 4, which is considered "moderate risk" and the highest number on the EWG scale for any ingredient we use. After much research and deliberation, we decided to use it because it is recognized as safe when used at the levels found in skincare (a maximum 0.6%) by the National Institutes of Health, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the Cosmetic Ingredient Review board, and it is classified as "not expected to be potentially toxic or harmful" by the Environment Canada Domestic Substance List.


We have seen first-hand what happens when products are not properly preserved.

However, there are two situations in which this ingredient does warrant toxicity concerns, earning it that "4" rating from the EWG: (1) oral ingestion and (2) topical use at levels above 1.1% — which is twice as high as we use it. Many consumers are actively trying to avoid this ingredient, and we too want to discontinue using it as soon as scientifically possible. But in our own testing, we have seen first-hand what happens when products are not properly preserved: they grow very scary and potentially dangerous colonies of mold and/or bacteria within a short time period. The last thing we want to do is send you a product that is a ticking time bomb for infection.

Because this preservative is not perfect, we are actively working to replace it, but not with anything that would be less effective against microbes and therefore expose our clients to infection risks. Overall, we believe that the benefits of using phenoxyethanol outweigh the risks at this time in the current state of science.

Potassium sorbate is considered a very mild and natural preservative with an EWG rating of "3." It is used to stop the growth of fungi, mold and yeast in personal care products, and it is approved by the FDA for use in food. We use this ingredient in many formulations of our Hyaluronic Acid Serum. The Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel determined that potassium sorbate is safe as a cosmetic ingredient at the concentrations currently used (0.001 to 0.3%) in skincare products. Even at concentrations of up to 10%, it was found to be non-irritating to the eyes and only minimally irritating to the skin. We think it's important to consider that many safe and natural ingredients we use at low concentrations would be irritating if we used them at levels of 10%.


We have come to believe that the term "nontoxic" is problematic.

Sodium benzoate is another preservative we use in many formulations of our Hyaluronic Acid Serum to prevent bacteria and fungi from developing. It scores "3" with the EWG, has a "generally recognized as safe" rating from the FDA, is approved for use in food products, and is considered to be a low hazard ingredient by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) board. The CIR specifically found that doses used in cosmetics and personal care products (typically 0.5% or lower) were not high enough to cause potential reproductive and developmental effects. At moderate and higher doses (much higher than we will ever use), there are concerns about its safety and possible irritation. It is also not safe to use in formulations that contain vitamin C, which is why we use a different base of ingredients and preservatives for our Hyaluronic Acid Serum custom formulations that use vitamin C as an active ingredient (see the section on phenoxyethanol above).

Keeping things in perspective

We have come to believe that the term "nontoxic" is problematic. Some of the most safe and natural ingredients we use would be toxic if we used them at high concentrations. For example, vitamin C, one of the absolute best and most gentle skincare ingredients for a wide variety of skin types, would damage your skin if you applied it at a 100% concentration. So please keep this distinction in mind when thinking about the widely established safety of ingredients we use at extremely low concentrations.

Still, we want to emphasize our ongoing research and attention to the matter of preservatives, particularly those that score in the mid-range of the EWG scale. We along with the best skincare formulators in the world are actively working to improve this situation. As you may imagine, finding an ingredient that is toxic to microorganisms, but nontoxic to animals like ourselves, is no easy scientific feat.

As always, please don't hesitate to reach out to us if you have any questions or concerns. We are always here to help you with your skincare journey!


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