Honestly, the only thing that’s more controversial in the past year than whether or not Carole Baskin fed her husband to her tigers (she totally did) is whether or not it’s okay to use beauty products with chemical preservatives in them.
If we’re being real, I could probably write a whole series of articles on the different types of preservatives in beauty products and why people say that they are or aren’t safe. For your sake though, I won’t dive quite that deeply into the subject today.
Instead, I’m going to talk about why preservatives in general get such a bad rap, and why you don’t really need to be afraid of them or avoid them (parabens included!).
Why We Need Preservatives in Beauty Products
As the name suggests, these are ingredients that preserve your products.
They’re the reason that your toner has a six-month shelf life instead of a “cross your fingers and hope it lasts six days” shelf life.
They’re the reason that you can leave your favorite moisturizer in a clear jar on your vanity instead of putting it in an opaque bottle in the darkest corner of your fridge and praying it’s safe to use every day.
They’re the reason that you can use the same tube of hand cream for two years and not worry about whether or not your skin will be eaten off by bacteria.
In short, without preservatives, we’re all pretty screwed. Preservatives are put into beauty products to keep them stable and safe for long-term use (and by “safe” I mean “free from gross and possibly dangerous bacteria”). They can also help to make sure your products don’t change and become less effective.
Sounds good, right? How could that possibly be controversial?
The Battle Between Natural and Chemical
I’m 100% Team Chemical Preservatives, but I do understand that some people aren’t.
If you ever come across a blog or brand that’s trying to convince you that “natural” preservatives are better or safer, though, that should always be a red flag. They’re either trying to sell you their product or scare you into avoiding someone else’s product.
A lot of herbal shops, holistic health gurus, and DIY “all-natural” living blogs will tell you that antioxidants, essential oils, diatomaceous earth, vinegar, or rubbing alcohol are “safe and effective” natural preservatives, but seriously. Please don’t buy anything that relies on rosemary extract to preserve its freshness.
While it’s true that some of these things can slow the rate at which your products become rancid, they’re not true preservatives, and they aren’t held to the same standards that conventional chemical preservatives are.
These “alternative” preservatives have gained popularity recently partially because there’s a lot of fearmongering around complicated-sounding chemicals and partially because it can be confusing to understand the scientific studies that have been released if you’re not a scientist.
Some “natural” preservatives can slow the rate at which your products become rancid, but they aren’t held to the same standards that chemical preservatives are.
The Chemical Scare
When you read that formaldehyde-releasing preservatives are super common, or that parabens are possibly carcinogenic, it’s completely normal to feel worried. After all, that’s serious!
However, it’s important to remember that a lot of the articles, blog posts, and well-intentioned social media content that you read may not tell the whole story. In fact, they rarely do because of how nuanced and complicated the whole story is.
Yes, it’s true that lots of skincare products contain formaldehyde-releasing preservatives. Yes, formaldehyde is definitely a potentially dangerous substance. BUT, the part that you might not see is that these preservatives are formulated so that they only release extremely low levels of formaldehyde over the life of the product.
For most of us, this means that we are unlikely to see any negative side effects if our shampoo or body wash uses these preservatives. The true danger of formaldehyde comes from contact with concentrated amounts of the vapors, which isn’t really applicable in these situations. Some people can be allergic to these preservatives or experience irritation from them, but that’s true of any preservative!
Parabens: The Preservative Boogeyman
Parabens also get a lot of hate because of their supposed role as hormone disruptors and their potential link to breast cancer. Most of the scare about cancer is linked to one particular study from 2004 that found traces of five parabens in breast tissue tumors.
It’s really important to understand that this doesn’t necessarily mean that parabens caused the cancer. Rather, it shows that parabens should be studied more so that we can better understand how they interact with our bodies. As of now, the FDA has deemed them safe for use in cosmetics.
Preserve Your Sanity By Looking at the Facts
There are tons of studies out there about preservatives, and you can find one to support basically any viewpoint if you look long enough. Scientists are constantly experimenting and trying to expand their knowledge, so opinions can change with new information.
If you decide to go down a research rabbit hole, I encourage you to keep in mind that many of these experiments are done on animals using extremely high concentrations of the preservative, so the results don’t directly translate to real-life human exposure.
Ultimately, the harm that comes from using beauty products with “natural” preservatives or no preservatives is much more concerning than exposure to extremely small amounts of well-tested chemical preservatives. If you’re not comfortable with using certain ones, that’s okay! There are lots of alternatives that don’t involve essential oils or rubbing alcohol, so just be safe and smart with your shopping choices.