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Preservatives - Natural alternatives to phenoxyethanol and parabens

August 14, 2008 Reviewed by Marta 13 Comments

As I've said before, I don't want to pick a fight with parabens. Despite internet rumors to the contrary, they are relatively safe (the breast cancer claims have been rubbished by the National Cancer Institute, which is good enough for me). However, they get into the eco system and are harmful to marine life. So I'm inclined - but not obsessively so - to avoid them. Phenoxyethanol, on the other hand, is one mean SOB. So what are the alternatives and do they work?

Just because something is 'natural' doesn't mean it's benign. The efficacy of a preservatives relies, by definition, on its ability to kill live cells. This means they are intrinsically toxic. A number of natural extracts, plants and essential oils contain substances that have the power to effectively kill bacteria, yeast and fungi. However, some of them could be be toxic for humans. Good examples are citrus or grapefruit seed extracts.

Although lemon and grapefruit seeds do contain antimicrobial properties, some of their constituents are thought to be responsible for wreaking havoc on hormonal balance. Citrus seed extracts are not approved for cosmetic use in Europe and in Japan.

Fermented radish root is a natural preservative that several companies have started to use (update: it is in Truth In Aging's Hair Vitality Complex launched in 2012). It does a good job at 05%-2% concentrations against a whole range of tiny nasties from e.coli to a.niger and it is recommended that it can be used as the sole preservative in a cosmetic.

A new antibacterial, Dermosoft 688 ECO, recently became available and is claimed to be safe. It has been around as a cosmetic fragrance ingredient for some time. The insight that the manufacturer of Dermosoft, a German company called Dr Straetmans, had is that it decided to look at essential oils and then isolate one or two of the components that coincidentally have antimicrobial activity. One of these was anisic acid. In fact, it is a paraben (parabens occur all the time in plants) and, in this case, is found in aniseed (pimpinella anisum).

There are a few other botanicals that are worth looking at. For example, rosemary oleoresin extract, or ROE, is a proven antioxidant. This means that it stops oxidation, but is not antibacterial (it doesn't stop formation of yeast, fungi, bacteria). Nevertheless, it may work well enough for extending the shelf-life of essential oils.

A company called Vitiva claims that its ROE derivative called Inolens 4 "outperformed widely-used tocopherols as well as synthetic ingredients, such as BHA and BHT while extending the shelflife of oils up to six times depending on the oil type".

  • October 2, 2015

    by Bruce

    I HAVE READ ALL OF YOUR COMMENTS. ARE THERE ANY UPDATED, "CUTTING EDGE" FINDINGS THAT COULD BE HELPFUL IN SELECTING PRODUCTS, AND INGREDIENTS?

  • August 12, 2015

    by Joanne

    I was tested ages ago after years of dealing with what was then called "contact dermatitis". Turned out I was very allergic to Phenoxyethanol and ever since I have been reading labels on everything, including shampoos/conditioners, fabric softener (which I have stopped using), laundry detergent. It is very disappointing to find a product that everyone raves about, only to see that it contains Phenoxyethanol. I am also allergic to nickel, orange-dispersed dye (found in lycra), huge allergy to PPD (para-phenalenedynamine) - ingredient in almost EVERY hair colour (other than Goldwell Elumen and Wella's Koleston Perfect - the only two that don't have PPD). I'm sure some hair colours also contain metals. It's been a learning process for sure. So far, I have only been looking at the ingredients for Phenoxyethanol, but it has other synonyms, which I forgot about. I quickly realize when I have a reaction. How can we stop the cosmetic companies from using Phenoxyethanol and PPD? It is so dangerous!

  • April 27, 2015

    by Darrell

    ...or, Silvia, because quite a few highly effective skin care ingredients are only water soluble and would not be functional in an oil-based product..

    Water, as do the ingredients it dissolves, always has and always will have a proper place in cosmetics. Not everything is a conspiracy and I doubt there is a company around with a think tank focused on selling consumers more water.

    I do agree with you Silvia that oils will only gain popularity in the coming years, but it's a shame you disparage creams as a part of marketing your case for oil-only products. Spreading such dis-information only discredits the skin care industry and adds to the muck consumers must sift through to find good information and make informed buying decisions.

  • April 27, 2015

    by Silvia

    We just need to stop making creams and the dangerous preservative problem would not be an issue. I make 100% oil based cosmetics and I have formulated very light face oils that do not contain silicone or preservatives. You only need an anti-oxidant like Vitamine E. The shelf-life is up to 24 months but I recomend 12 months on the bottle to be safe. Also the products are in air-less pumps and so do no come into contact with the air, and so further reduces the chance of oxidation and extends the shelf-life.

    Creams are popular with the cosmetics industry because only with creams can you sell water (up to 90% in creams) for such high prices. 100% oil is really the future of natural cosmetics.

  • April 3, 2014

    by Cheryl

    Regarding Phenoxyethanol: I work at an alternative/natural health clinic. A few years ago I was privileged to be tested for DNA adducts, which are things, (like chemicals for example), that have attached to the DNA in your cells. DNA provides the instructions that tell a cell how to grow and divide. Many scientists believe that cancer can result when DNA becomes altered and gives faulty or missing instructions. You do not want altered or mutated DNA!!!! Well, guess what was among the adducts I had? PHENOXYETHANOL! I had never even heard of it. Then I was dismayed to find it everywhere in cosmetics, especially the "natural" ones. I threw out everything including expensive products from that one celebrity M.D. dermatologist whom we all know, as well as those promoted by the supermodel & French doctor. I avoid this chemical now like the plague. I do not want anything adducted or attached to my DNA. Thanks Marta for being knowledgeable about the potential dangers of this chemical. I actually found TIA by using the search string "cosmetics without phenoxyethanol." And, voila! A whole new world opened up to me. Thanks again.

  • September 17, 2013

    by Andrea

    Tracy, I am not a specialist for chemie but I have to agree with you about the allergic reaction for 100% natural cosmetics. I tried several brands and all of them ended in the bin because I got allergic reactions. Skin was itchi, red and dull. So I will never buy any of natural cosmetics.

  • June 13, 2013

    by Vic

    I market a natural antimicrobial called Herbal-Active and which is used in cosmetics and foods. It has been shown to drop the microbial load on contaminated meat by over 7-log and at 1% in cosmetics is good enough to be used by some major product brands. It is generally labeled as part of their fragrance as it is made of essential oils on acacia gum.

    I'd also suggest that NTBN look more closely at GSE which is only preservative because of the benzoate associated with it. Similarly, phenoxyethanol which is so often called natural is a synthetic chemical made from ethylene oxide which is now a banned fumigant for foods in Australia and elsewhere around the world.

    As far as I can find, there are no competitively priced, highly effective, broad spectrum, natural antimicrobials apart from Herbal-Active available.

  • November 16, 2012

    by Cindy

    Hi Marta,
    About the natural preservative, how do you think about the Natural Phenethyl alcohol? It is a fragrance ingredient but it also has antimicrobial properties. How do you think the future of this raw material to be used as a preservative-free ingredient for cosmetics?
    Many thanks
    Cindy

  • September 12, 2011

    by Erica

    Hi Marta

    Although I find the article very interesting, the definition you have of preservatives isn't correct. Preservatives don't kill live cells and so are not by definition toxic. If anything, they prevent your food, medicines and so on from becoming toxic to you!

    What their role is, is to prevent bacteria and fungi from breeding and so prevent spoiling. There are also three general types of preservative: antimicrobials that block the growth of bacteria, moulds or yeasts; antioxidants that slow oxidation of fats and lipids that leads to rancidity and spoiled foods and creams, and a third type that fights enzymes that promote ripening that occurs after fruits or vegetables have been picked, as this process eventually leads to mould and decay.

    A natural preservative would be honey, since it is hygroscopic (keeps water at bay) and prevents bacteria from penetrating it, and so has been used in the past to help wounds heal by keeping out infection. And honey definitely isn't toxic! Sugar and salt have also been used for centuries to prevent food from spoiling, and both of these are essential to live.

    I hope this helps, and keep up the good work with your articles.

    Many thanks,

    Erica

  • April 28, 2011

    by NTBN

    There is so much conflicting information on the web. We really need to be careful about what we share. I understand Tracy's point about ensuring that things are perserved properly. I must share though that I've been using GSE in my formulations for years with no ill effects. This is the first I've heard of hormonal effects with GSE so I'll research further. I'm going to try Tinosan next.

  • January 25, 2009

    by Tracy

    I would like to add a word of caution here regarding using products that DONT contain a proper preservative and that DO contain a liquid such as water, milk, aloe vera etc etc. ie: lotions, creams, shampoos etc. A lotion or cream that is being preserved with essential oils or some other so called natural preservative does have a very real risk of growing very harmful molds, yeasts, bacteria, fungi etc. Just because you cant see it doesnt mean it isnt there! People think just because you cant see mold growing on the product that it is ok. I know of people that have contracted SERIOUS and skin scarring conditions and bacteria from using improperly or unpreserved products. I would also be very leary of any lotion or cream that says it is 100% natural and contains nothing that has a preservative action or only contains natural essential oils as a preservative or Vit E etc etc. Not everyone is honest about their ingredients and some jump thru loop holes to avoid putting them on the label. We have tested MANY natural preservative systems that contain essential oils and natural ingredients over the years and have yet to find one that worked effectively enough to be able to put it on the shelf for sale. And just because it is natural doesnt mean it is always safe. Many essential oils have very harmful and life threatening effects. Instead, choose responsible "as natural as possible" products that dont contain the hot ingredients. On another note last I checked polysorbate 20 is NOT all natural. It is DERIVED from natural ingredients but has been chemically modified. Tinosan has no KNOWN adverse effects on human health but should be thoroughly tested before using it exclusively as your preservative. HTH

  • November 7, 2008

    by Marta

    <p>Yes, Tinosan is made from silver and I haven't found any evidence that it is unsafe. So it would seem to be a good alternative. There are some stability issues at certain pH levels (more than 7 , I think). </p>

    <p>I believe that if your formulation is water based then essential oils won't be enough - but I'm a mere amateur in the DIY potion department.</p>

  • November 7, 2008

    <p>Is Tinosan SDC safer to use than either Phenoxyethanol or EDTA? Do you have comments about natural emulsifiers such as polysorbate 20? In your experience, when using polysorbate 20 to emulsify essential oils in distilled water, do the essential oils themselves act as preservative or is it necessary to add another preservative for extra protection?</p>

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