The cosmetic preservation (r)evolution

Dr Barbara Olioso RMSC - The Green Chemist Consultancy, UK

The cosmetic industry has evolved and grown considerably in the last 20 years. With it also its consumers, at first mainly interested in what the cosmetic products could do for them, then also moving towards how they represented their values and beliefs. In this article I will share how I see the evolution of cosmetic preservation from my professional experience in the industry.*

The age of innocence In the beginning, preservation was a discreet affair within the industry: formulators chose from a positive list of preservatives, or Annex V, which also determined their maximum concentration of use, while consumers probably did not know what they even were or how to pronounce their name. The preservatives, being of synthetic origin, had a consistent chemical composition and also a known mode of action. They were and are low cost and supported by extensive toxicity data.

The age of controversy The age of innocence started to fade away when the controversy regarding parabens started to unfold and consumers became aware of the existence of preservatives and their potential to affect human health. As parabens became more controversial and no additional data on the parabens under scrutiny was supplied by the industry, they ended up being restricted (see reference 1 for further details, as it is quite a complicated topic). This resulted in a lot of producers switching to other preservatives and a surge in skin exposure to fairly used preservatives MI (methylisothiazolinone) and MCI (methylchloroisothiazolinone) in leave- on products. This led to skin reactions which the regulators took note of by allowing these preservatives only in rinse-off applications.2a Today the most common preservatives in Europe are phenoxyethanol which may affect a product’s viscosity, and organic acids (sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate) which are pH sensitive but compatible with most organic cosmetic certifications (source Mintel).

The free-from and clean beauty age The parabens controversy led to the birth of the first free-from claim, ie paraben-free, that today is still probably the most popular green claim consumers are after. It is simple and very much on the clean beauty agenda, along with other preservatives such as formaldehyde donors, triclosan and phthalates all part of the so called


“dirty list”. For consumers, this claim is also synonymous with natural, even though within the industry we know it is not as easy as that. As our interface with the world is mainly virtual at the moment, I searched with an analytical tool online to see the searches related to the keyword “paraben free” and I found 192 key phrases, from paraben free antiperspirant, to paraben free hair dye to paraben free zinc oxide sunscreen. Surprised by the incredible variety of searches, I did another search for “preservative free”, which gave 199 key phrases, showing consumers’ mistrust towards preservatives in general. Not only for cosmetics but also for food and other consumers goods such as eye drops and even vaccines for babies! Retailers are also responding to the way

consumers shop with their free-froms in mind. Sephora has developed its own clean beauty seal avoiding parabens, phthalates, formaldehyde releasing agents, triclosan etc, whereas Amazon US has recently launched a list of restricted chemicals. This list applies to

personal care, house care and beauty products and it includes parabens, phthalates, formaldehyde donors and triclosan to name a few. In Europe, the regulators

decided to put an end to the free-from claim by introducing the cosmetic claims Regulation 655/2013. Such a regulation does not allow the ‘free from paraben’ claim as it is considered denigrating towards legally permitted

cosmetic ingredients. However, as cosmetics

are complex and consumers have a limited understanding of such complexity, they are still hooked on this claim and its meaning for natural and safe. They still search for it online in all sorts of products delivering what they are looking for. As the internet is a platform without borders, they end up finding products in North America or Asia where this claim is permitted, putting European products at a commercial disadvantage and leaving consumers potentially even more confused than they were before. I believe a better solution to this challenge would be to tackle the natural definition for cosmetics. For example, the Natural Cosmetics Act in the

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