The vexed question of Preservatives.The issue of preservatives is not one that greatly occupies those working solely with aromatic or essential oils. However more and more therapists are beginning to expand their activities into using bases and making products for resale. Such products will undoubtedly fall under some sort of legislation and scrutiny by appointed authority. Essential too are now being spoken of as needing preservatives to maintain chemical standards.

Authorities will concern themselves mostly about issues of safety and conformity to standards. Labelling requirements, assessment of claims and performance, shelf life and a documentation trail are all now part of what is a cumbersome and quite expensive exercise.

The market that the small producer or therapist is most likely to addresses is the so-called green market. A great raft of not very inspiring toiletries has sprung up over the last few years. Most lay great emphasis on being natural. Consumers, people, seem to want to buy natural products. This is all well and good but few go to the trouble of thinking what natural is. Natural is not defined in law and it follows that a lot of spin and stretch as well as attractive packaging goes into leading the consumer to a certain brand.

Many so-called natural ranges sell on fear. This is a basic marketing tool used over a long time. Like bad news outpaces good news fear outsells good sensible product. Disreputable sellers have used cancer scares to sell their wares. Rarely is this done in company print rather word of mouth and ill informed sensational journalism or Internet scams are used. Sometimes these assume such large coverage that they become urban myths such as issues surrounding the use of SLS and its confusion with SLES. For most of us it is difficult to sort fact from fiction. Opinion is represented as fact. Truth or even balance is found mostly in the middle ground but this does not make reputations or create interest so much as controversy.

One of the most controversial areas is preservatives used in cosmetics and foods etc. We must have preservative free cosmetics declare the green lobby. Preservatives damage your health is an oft sung song. Preservatives cause allergies and are a pollutant says someone else. I am sure you are familiar with such sentiments.

Such an approach shows a complete failure to understand nature. It is in the order of things that nature recycles and is a dance of life and death between anabolic life and catabolic degradation. Natural materials wear out, degrade, die, go rancid, decay and in the process support a host of micro organisms such as bacteria and fungi that can do harm if in the wrong place or under improper circumstances.

To preserve something natural for a long period is therefore quite difficult. One method that is simple is by drying. Most herbs are dried and incidentally when dried are called a drug. Drying takes out moisture but even this does not stop the drug from losing actives and eventually turning to dust and then nothingness. This process reminds us that a factor in preservation is the water content of a product. The more water the more likely it is subject to contamination by microbes. Oil, which does not support bacteria, is rather subject to oxidation or rancidity.

The idea of a natural cosmetic without some form of preservation is therefore rather an odd notion. Nevertheless such preservative free materials are advertised in many places.

Perhaps we should start at the other side of the issue and ask what a preservative is. Essentially they fall into two categories – bug killers and antioxidants. It is the former that give rise to concern. Lets use some other names to illustrate their uses – biocides, antibiotics, disinfectants and sterilising agents. All killers or poisons of some sort or the other. Clearly both emotive and very real concerns lie around these materials.

At the outset let us also remember the old medical principle – there is no such thing as a poison only dosage. In other words a little poison may have no effect on one organism at a given dosage but kill off another. Or applying principles of homoeopathy a poison at an infinitesimal dose may prove an antidote to the poison itself.

Preservatives or antibiotics although mostly synthetic are often mimics of nature. Penicillin is the most oft quoted example the source being a mould found on decaying bread. Some of the wonder drugs researched in the 50’s similarly had their origin in soil microbes. The familiar smell of newly turned earth originating from soil bacteria after rain is similar to that of todays related anti biotics. Nature has some potent and dangerous chemicals within it!

Nature is perceived by many as safe and normal. Whilst it is true that nature has a benign side and that we derive life by it and are part of it, natural does not automatically mean safe. Cosmetics, medicines and foodstuffs are mostly made from extracts which are concentrates of active constituents or chemicals that are found in the plant such as alkaloids, steroids, acids, essential oils, vitamins and so on. Some of these have preservative properties such as Tea Tree or citrus acids. Recently in the EU some of these materials have come under question as to their safety. As natural materials are not inert it is proposed that they too need to be preserved say against oxidation. Essential oils for all the much-vaunted chemical analysis degrade or change in time some quickly some more slowly.

So how do firms put forward the idea that they are preservative free? An extreme example would be someone selling a massage oil with a small percentage of essential oils sold as a body oil. They may use mineral oil which is inert inactive and on pack emphasise the essential oil content which gives a gloss of natural but the base does not need due to its synthetic nature any preservation.  But how natural is such a product? Then again a vegetable oil could be used and a level of vitamin E added. In the copy emphasis would be laid on the function of the vitamin as a free radical scavenger and that this was why the vitamin was added. As this was the purpose then it is permissible to say something like ‘no artificial preservatives’ or reverse it and say ‘only natural preservatives’. This vitamin comes by the way in both natural and synthetic forms. This adventurous wording about an anti oxidant demonstrates what could be done with more aggressive or even innocuous preservatives.

Alcohol is a common substance used a lot in cheap toiletries and cosmetics to put consumers off the scent. So-called natural (it would by the way usually be synthetic) it is a solvent and good bactericide hence used as a bug killer in hospital washes. It is highly aggressive to the skin and helps transport sensitising chemicals natural or otherwise to receptor sites in the skin. It is a ‘recognised’ preservative but when present above 15% the product becomes preservative free! It is self-preserved. Incidentally if levels fall below that figure it may promote unwelcome growths. Alcohol is used to make tinctures from herbs so may be disguised as extract of x, y or z.

Similar comments can be made about glycerine also used as an extractive solvent. Glycerine is a humectant, it draws moisture from the skins underlying supportive tissues, draining the cellular structure and therefore drying skin and causing irritation. It too is a by-product of the soap industry. It is not classified as true preservative as of course it is! And one with quite a few problems associated with it.

Some quite over the top claims are made for combining these two cheap and no at all skin micro flora biocompatible products. The natural claim is played for all its worth and no preservatives needed after all that is what they already are! Meanwhile the marketing department will attack the horrors of parabens or phenoxyethanol.

It would be sensible to say that the Holy Grail of the cosmetics and allied businesses such as toiletries and aromatherapy is the ideal preservative. It does not exist. A combination of preservatives is generally preferable. Whilst it is not mandatory to use a recognised preservative it is to make a safe product and to match the shelf life claim. Different countries sometimes have differing views as to what is and what is not safe and formulators work mostly with those that are generally recognised as safe.

Common preservative names we may come across are Bronopol, Dehydroacetic acid, Benzoic acid and Benzyl alcohol, Triclosan and Parabens. One natural preservative we all carry in our cells (and pretty nasty stuff it is) is Formaldeyde but this natural preservative is rarely used as it is a notorious skin sensitiser – yet natural.  One preservative may be active against one family of fungi and not another, similarly with bacteria. Some work at one pH and another at a different level. Unless you are dealing with the real cheap end of the market rarely are preservatives raised to a high level. Good manufacturers use the lowest quantity and spread the risk by a system but then of course they suffer because their INCI list looks like a chemical factory.

Those in so-called natural products are rarely challenged as to the validity of their claims or the value of their products. Because many of the products are apparently so simple there are many copycats and there is much cribbing of copy and folkloric myths about certain ingredients. The demand for ever decreasing prices leads to cut corners. This includes large retailers who realise that cheapening a product by increasing volumes of glycerine, alcohol and water increases their perceived green credentials by dropping more expensive ingredients, which may include triclosan and parabens.

Make no mistake I am not flying a flag for preservatives I am just saying be real. Nature goes off and very unpleasantly with health and safety implications!

We must all learn to be careful in our research. For example Triclosan may be found in human breast milk but we must also add that it was found at over 1000 times less than the safety level, which as any informed person knows is always overstated. A balanced and personal view should be formed on the fullest information. This product works by blocking an enzyme that is needed by fungi and bacteria for cell production. Humans do not have that enzyme and so are not affected. The argument goes that it belongs to a certain group of phenols and dangerous by products may be released. The word may should be considered as to what it really means! Many essential oils are very toxic to the environment and certainly would be water pollutants and as bactericides hard to break down. Do we stop using them? Perhaps the biggest argument against Triclosan is it’s over use by a manic public bent on killing germs. Overuse of any antibiotic gives rise to the evolution of resistant strains of bacteria. This is one reason I am so opposed to standard essential oils being used as bactericides. If there is natural variation then adaptation cannot occur.

The other major bete noir of some people is the ubiquitous parabens group. These are used a lot where natural extracts have been made using propylene glycol as the solvent (which in itself has preservative properties). They have been in use since the 1920’s. A recent UK study of 20 women with breast cancer found intact parabens was present in the tumours. So far a natural alarm that could be transposed from caution to fear and from there exaggeration. This might be balanced against the European Commissions Scientific Committee view that considered parabens and concluded there was no evidence of demonstrable risk. Parabens is widely used in underarm cosmetics. Now consider the lists that blithely state that they do not contain parabens. Are they not cashing in on unsubstantiated fear and if they claim to have no preservative either their product has nothing alive enough to be worth preserving or they are misunderstanding the idea of preservation. If one uses a ‘natural’ preservative it is still a killer with as many drawbacks as any synthetic or otherwise. Many essential oils contain phenolic compounds, so called toxins etc. As stated it is not the poison but the dosage.

This is undoubtedly a controversial subject almost a sacred cow. Being involved over the years with the development of the natural toiletries and cosmetics market as well as the organic movement I feel sad to see the way product development has been retarded in this sector. Fast bucks have been made on poor quality materials from a public untrusting of main line information and unable to challenge the rather aggressive and sometimes fanatical promotion of some green cosmetics. Of course there are ethical people out there who are becoming less gullible. Let us hope someone finds the holy grail of natural safe biocides but I for one do not believe it will happen and before you reach for the pen and tell me of the latest by-product of some citrus seed factory let me say that they are great as part of a system and have their merits and demerits.

As for me I shall continue to respect the need for preservation and the ethics of each product it’s positioning, pricing and claims. I will continue to minimise preservatives but not to ignore them. I will continue to encourage the public to learn more about friendly bacteria and probiotics and to build a good immune system. Horses for courses and as grandmother said you would have to eat a peck of dirt before you die.

About Jan Kuśmirek

Having brushed with the Security Services in my late teens and early twenties, I went on to become one of the world's leading exponents of aromatic medicine and skin care. I am an accepted authority on the subject and a sought-after lecturer. In the last few years I have turned my hand to literature and am the author of three spy novels that retell the European confilcts of the 20th century from a Polish perspective. The central character in the series - Teddy Labden - has resonated with the Polish media, who have claimed him as their own "James Bond".
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