Preservatives: Necessary, But Not Necessarily Evil
June 15, 2019
As an environmentally conscious and holistically minded company, we put a lot of thought into every aspect of our business, from avoiding filler ingredients in our products, to using recyclable packaging and reducing plastic, to donating 5% of our revenue to environmental causes.
That level of intention goes wholeheartedly to our choice of preservatives. This can be one of the most complex parts of formulating natural skincare products, because it's not easy to kill germs while avoiding toxins and being gentle to your skin — but we are pretty proud of the way our formulations do just that.
Safety comes first, and that means that at the same time as we strive to do no harm with our products from a toxicity perspective, we also need to make sure you're protected from the dangers of an unpreserved product brewing a colony of unwelcome nasties.
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 prevent the growth of microbes (bacteria, yeast and mold) which could potentially give you an eye, skin or sinus infection from a product that hasn't been properly preserved.
When you dip your fingers into a jar, or touch a glass dropper to your skin, you're inevitably introducing bacteria, yeast and mold spores to the product — no matter how sterile the product was to start with, or how clean your hands and face are. The question is, will those microbes thrive or will they get shut down before they get out of control?
Bacteria, yeast and mold love to grow in warm, humid environments like our bathrooms, so our preservatives' job is to make sure your product doesn't become a petri dish growing a colony that will later get onto your skin.
Not every product requires a preservative
You may notice that oil-based products are often preservative free — our Precious Oils Active Infusion included. Bacteria, mold and yeast all require water to live, so water-free products don't make a good breeding ground for bacteria, and they don't require preservatives for microbial protection like water-based products do, as long as there's not a significant amount of water getting into the product. In the case of Precious Oils, if the dropper touches your hand, any microbes introduced won't have the water they need to live, so nature runs its course and we can go without preservatives.
Things get tricky when you have water making contact with air. This is how life formed on our water planet, and how 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 in your bathroom, we have to be very careful.
Tips for researching chemicals
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is the most commonly used resource for people striving to avoid toxins in products they buy. Every ingredient that we use, including preservatives, has been rated "1" (the best and highest rating) for safety by the EWG. There are other resources available to research chemicals, and we encourage you to check those out too. Another benchmark is whether an ingredient has been approved by organic trade certification organizations such as ECOCERT or Quality Assurance International (QAI).
While you're poking around, something to keep in mind is that chemicals affect your body very differently depending on the concentration (the percentage at which they're used in the formula). Even vitamin C can cause chemical burns if you use too much for too long topically, and even water can be fatal if too much is ingested. So if a particular chemical is only dangerous when you're exposed at a huge amount way higher than you'd ever encounter in real life, take this into consideration.
The path of exposure matters too — whether topical or internal. Some chemicals are harmful when ingested above a certain threshold, but not when applied topically. Your skin does absorb some chemicals, which can then enter your bloodstream, but that commonly stated figure of 26 seconds is misleading because each chemical is absorbed at a different rate.
How much gets into your bloodstream depends on so many factors, including the size of the molecule (you may have heard the term "nanoparticles"), the health of your skin barrier function, the area of your body it's applied, the concentration of the chemical, and how long it stays on your skin. While some chemicals, like nicotine patches, are designed to enter your bloodstream through the skin, there are many that don't go beyond the surface. It's far too complex an issue for us to adequately cover here, so we'll just say that the ingredients we use are regarded as very safe in the concentrations we use them by the leading authorities.
The preservatives we use
We use two groups of preservatives: one for our water-based products like our serums and mist; and another group for our oil-based products that have a good likelihood of coming into contact with water due to how they're used (like our cleansing gel and balm). We don't use antimicrobial preservatives in our oil-based products that are unlikely to get contaminated with water.
Our water-based products use a combination of sodium anisate, sodium levulinate, sodium salicylate and glyceryl caprylate. Our oil-based products use caprylhydroxamic acid and glyceryl caprylate.
Sodium anisate is derived from fennel, a delicious edible plant in the carrot family. It kills bacteria in water-based products like our serums and mist. It's ECOCERT approved.
Sodium levulinate is another plant-based antibacterial ingredient that's also commonly used to preserve food. As it is made from cellulose, the substance that gives plants structure and the ability to stand up straight, it can be made from many different species of plants, making it very sustainable. This one is also ECOCERT approved.
Sodium salicylate is derived from the bark of willow trees. It's used to kill yeast and mold in our products, and it's ECOCERT approved. This chemical is very similar to aspirin, and if taken orally there would be similar risks as those associated with using aspirin, including warnings against giving it to children. When applied to your skin topically, as with our products, those risks go way down. We use sodium salicylate at 0.5% in our products, and studies have shown that only 10% of this ingredient is absorbed by your skin, so it's effectively .05% (half of half a percent) that would be absorbed. We feel very comfortable with this ingredient in our products and we hope you will too. If you have any concerns, including questions about pregnancy or breastfeeding, please go ahead and ask your doctor.
Caprylhydroxamic acid is an amino acid derived from coconut oil that protects products against bacteria, yeast and mold. It is NSF/ANSI 305 certified, which is recognized as a best practice by the Organic Trade Association.
Glyceryl caprylate is a preservative booster, which is an ingredient that doesn't actually kill microbes on its own but helps other anti-microbials work better. We use it in conjunction with caprylhydroxamic acid (above) for this purpose. Glyceryl caprylate is considered safe, but it has another issue: it's generally derived from palm oil, an unsustainable crop. Since this ingredient only makes up 0.5% of our two products that contain it (which means it's only 0.14% of our entire ingredients usage), and it is very safe, we've chosen to compromise on our typical palm oil avoidance here. It is also NSF/ANSI 305 certified.
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!