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Preservatives - Natural alternatives to phenoxyethanol and parabens

Reviewed by Marta August 14, 2008 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.

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