preserving cosmetics
Article by: Perry Romanowski

There have been a few stories in the news recently about product recalls due to bacterial or microbial contamination of cosmetic products.  This one about baby wipes that have been recalled is an example of a public recall.  But according to this story there have been 7 major cosmetic recalls this year.  This is unacceptable!  The cosmetic formulators involved in creating these products should be embarrassed.  They put the public in serious risk and they give the cosmetic industry as a whole a bad name.  Someone deserves to be reprimanded or even fired for this.  The companies should be severely fined.  Risking the health of your consumers is just not right! preserving cosmetics

Why incidences of contamination are increasing

There are a number of factors resulting in more contamination of cosmetics, but the primary reason is because cosmetic formulators are moving away from using proven, safe preservatives like Parabens, Formaldehyde-donors, and Isothiazolones.  They are turning to alternative cosmetic preservatives which might look better on a label, but are not nearly as effective at protecting consumers.

Ultimately, the reason formulators are doing this is because their companies are selling products to uniformed or misinformed consumers.  Thanks to fearmongering groups like the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and the EWG, misinformation about the safety of cosmetics is broadcasted throughout the Internet.  Add to that the naturalistic fallacy and marketers who either naively or unscrupulously take advantage of misinformed consumers and you have the situation we’re in now.

People with no toxicologic or scientific background are telling cosmetic formulators what types of preservatives they can or cannot use.

And formulators (who typically have limited control in these situations) are using unproven, potentially less safe, and less effective alternative preservatives.

This is wrong.

Alternative preservation is hard

If you are a cosmetic entrepreneur or work for a small company in which you have a lot of influence on what chemicals are used in a formula, use proven cosmetic preservatives.  Use parabens, formaldehyde-donors or other compounds that have been safely and effectively used for years.  The reality is that using alternatives is not impossible but it is really hard.  It is more expensive, takes more research time, requires more testing, and needs to be done in clean manufacturing facilities.  You can’t just drop an alternative preservative into a formula at 0.2% and feel confident it will be effective.  Big companies may be able to shoulder this additional money, R&D and testing, but small companies cannot.

And there is no good reason for avoiding standard preservatives anyway!

Safety first

I once had a twitter discussion dispute with @BadgerBalmUSA after it was revealed that they had to recall a children’s sunscreen product due to microbial contamination.  Shockingly, they minimized the seriousness of the contamination

My understanding of the toxicologist’s report is that the “organisms” found in the failed products are also commonly found in the environment and on our skin. They are unlikely to cause problems except for in immune-compromised persons or for persons with severely damaged skin.

They then tried to insist that safety was their highest priority, but still wouldn’t use parabens or other traditional preservatives.   If safety is your “highest priority” traditional preservatives are the ONLY option.  Indeed, their highest priority and that of many natural brands is the “naturalness” of their products.  If you are not using a traditional cosmetic preservative you are making product safety a secondary priority.  Consumer safety is taking a back seat to your marketing position.

Product preservation is easy

If you make the safety of your products the highest priority then preservation is easy.  You simply pick proven active antimicrobial ingredients (e.g. parabens or formaldehyde donors) and add them at an appropriate level in your formula.  Next, you conduct tests for contamination and also a preservative efficacy test.  This should be done on samples you make initially and on ones that have been stored at elevated temperatures for an extended amount of time (45C for 8 weeks is standard).  If your product passes this testing then you can have confidence that future batches will be protected from contamination.  This also assumes that you have a relatively low level of contamination in your manufacturing facilities too.

This method will also work if you choose an alternative cosmetic preservative, but as the Badger Balm company and others have discovered, this increases your chances of contaminated product.

In the end, a contaminated product is a sign of poor formulating.  You may feel pressure from your marketing group to avoid parabens and other preservatives but you should never compromise product safety for a marketing position.



  1. Avatar

    Agreed. This is one of the reasons that the new EU Cosmetics Regulations are good (although a tad bureaucratic at times) because any products that contain water will generally need to be challenge tested and *every* cosmetic product will need to be safety assessed. Any products that have unacceptable levels of microbial growth are just that – unacceptable. Particularly baby products! As a mother of two I would be distraught if I thought I’d been using microbe-filled baby products on my children.

  2. Avatar

    So what preservative would you recommend for a water based, oral care product? I’m having difficulty finding one approved for “internal” use that will also work with a ph of 7-9.

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      I believe parabens will work.

  3. Avatar
    Durant Scholz

    As far a I can tell the ingredient deck shows that the product was preserved with PHMB or biguanide-20. This isn’t an alternative preservative. It is used in contact lens solutions and for for water sanitization for swimming pools. The organism Burkholderia cepacia was most probably introduced when the product was filled. So I think we should consider that contamination and recall can and clearly has occurred using traditional preservatives. I do wholeheartedly agree that preservation is a difficult and critical part of product development. The dividing line here lies more with good product development and microbiological surveillance during production than the choice of preservatives. Lonza is the largest manufacturer of PHMB not exactly a group of amateurs.

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      I’m not sure what product you’re referring to but for cosmetic formulations this preservative isn’t normally used. Standard preservatives are parabens, formaldehyde donors, and kathon. But I agree that contamination can occur with any formula that isn’t properly preserved. Lonza is a chemical supplier and I’m certain they have demonstrated that their alternative preservatives can work in systems. They are not cosmetic product formulators though and it is the formulators who are responsible for the quality of the cosmetic products.

  4. Avatar

    If a product has no water, would it need a preservative?
    In what cases would a preservative be unnecessary?

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      It depends on the container, the storage conditions, and how the consumer uses it. If there is any potential for the product to be exposed to water then you should have a preservative to be safe. If there is no real chance of water exposure then a preservative in an anhydrous formula probably isn’t required.

  5. Kelly Dobos
    Kelly Dobos

    Great piece, Perry! I couldn’t agree more.

    And to David, mineral oil has a long record of safe usage. It doesn’t suffer instability and produce irritant breakdown products or the odor of oxidation that natural oils do. Mineral oil is the main constituent of baby oil and a frequent component of many of the top body lotions here in the US. So a lot of people are buying these products, far more than these niche markets who thrive on fearmongering.

    1. Avatar

      True, but look for example at this classical cream – I think it is NIVEA
      Water, Mineral Oil, Petrolatum, Glycerin, Microcrystalline Wax, Lanolin Alcohol, Paraffin, Panthenol, Alcohol, Magnesium Sulfate, Decyl Oleate, Octyldodecanol, Aluminum Stearate, Fragrance, Citric Acid, Magnesium Stearate, Methylchloroisothiazolinone, Methylisothiazolinone
      simple, safe and effective
      On their homepage they also start to claim “free-from” ingredients they have used themselves for many many years…!! They are more than a small niche market…

    2. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      Yeah, I think sometimes marketers overestimate the impact of chemical fearmongering on consumers. The majority of consumers have no idea what parabens are or whether they should be afraid of mineral oil. How many of the top 10 selling lotions use mineral oil and petrolatum? I bet nearly all of them.

  6. Avatar

    Perry, I totally agree, however for me as a small cosmetic consultant/entrepreneur the reality looks different. I would love to feel safe and to make and sell creams with mineral oil and parabenes or isothiazolinones -but who would buy them?

  7. Avatar

    Completely agree. I note that the organism found in the wipes is able, apparently, to survive in a 0.2% disinfectant solution and is a big problem in hospitals. As organisms evolve to become more resistant, the last thing we should be doing is reducing our preservative efficiency.

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