How to Prevent Contamination in Cosmetic Products

This recent article about scientists discovering bacteria living in hairspray provides a good example of why cosmetic products need to be preserved. Microbes can grow almost anywhere! And these tiny organisms bring with them some distasteful product changes or even disease. As a cosmetic chemist it’s up to you to formulate properly and keep these invaders at bay. You typically do that by adding preservatives to your formulas. Unfortunately, you’ll have to know more than just the science as preservatives are some of the most highly regulated and restricted ingredients you will use.

Why you need cosmetic preservatives

There are two primary reasons you need preservatives.

1. To stop microbes from spoiling your products.
2. To stop microbes from causing disease.

The microbes that can infect your formulas primarily include bacteria, mold, and yeast. In small quantities they don’t represent much of a problem but when they multiply, look out. Bacteria like Pseudomonas can cause all kinds of health problems including skin and eye infections, toxic shock, strep throat, and even food poisoning. Yeast like Candida albicans can cause thrush. And many other bacteria can cause your products to smell awful, change color or otherwise break down. (This is what stability testing is for).

The following is a list of common preservatives used in cosmetic and personal care products. As a future (or current) formulator, you will undoubtedly be using many of them.


Parabens are the most commonly used preservatives. They are derivatives of p-hydroxybenzoic acid and go by names like Methylparaben, Propylparaben, and Butylparaben. They are typically supplied as powders and can sometimes be difficult to incorporate into a system due to the water solubility limitations. They are effective against a broad spectrum of bacteria and fungi. They do have pH limitations and are not effective against all microbes so you usually will need an additional preservative.

Formaldehyde donors

Formaldehyde derivatives are the next most common preservative. These compounds interfere with membrane proteins which kills microbes. They are effective against bacteria, fungi, and mold. Bad press and real safety concerns have led cosmetic chemists to stop using formaldehyde. Instead ingredients that dissociate into formaldehyde when put in a water solution are used. These are compounds like DMDM Hydantoin, Imidazolidinyl Urea, and Gluteraldehyde. They are most often used in surfactant systems.

Phenol derivatives

Phenol derivatives have been used in cosmetics for many years and can be effective against a range of microbes. Unfortunately, they are not as effective as the previous ingredients so their use is limited. The most common examples is Phenoxyethanol.


Compounds that contain nitrogen and have a positive charge when placed in solution are called quaternary compounds (or quats). Many of them demonstrate an ability to kill microbes. This include ingredients like Benzalkonium Chlroide, Methylbenzethonium chloride, and Benzethonium chloride. Their cationic nature makes them less compatible with anionic surfactants which limits their application & use.


Ethanol is a great preservative but you need to use it in high levels and it faces significant environmental restrictions. Other compounds like benzyl alcohol, dichlorobenzyl alcohol, and even propylene glycol all have some anti-microbial effect. In lower levels, these compounds are less effective at preserving products.


Synthetic compounds like Methylchloro- Isothiazolinone and Methyl-Isothiazolinone are effective at incredibly low levels. They have been shown to work at a wide range of pHs and in many different formulas. There use has been stymied however, by at least one study that suggested it could cause skin sensitization.

Organic Acids & Others

Various other compounds are used as preservatives but all face some limitations not experienced to the same extent as the previous ingredients discussed. Some of the most important include Sodium Benzoate, Chloracetamide, Triclosan, and Iodopropynyl Butylcarbamate. Pyridine derivatives like Sodium pyrithione and zinc pyrithione are used to kill the bacteria that causes dandruff.

Why cosmetic preservatives are vilified

More than any other ingredient, preservatives are most often called out as the worst ingredients you can use in a formula. Even people who know nothing about chemistry have likely heard about the “evil” parabens and formaldehyde.

Preservatives are designed to kill cells. That’s why they are effective. Unfortunately, that’s also why they are potentially hazardous. They don’t easily discriminate between good human cells and bad microbial cells. But ultimately, the risk from using preservatives is significantly lower than that of using unpreserved cosmetics. There are safe levels of “toxic” chemicals. All chemicals can be deadly if you’re exposed to a high enough level. How many people die from water exposure (e.g. drowning)?

Remember, it’s the dose the matters!

To be sure, cosmetic science research is ongoing in the field of preservatives since many things previously deemed safe have been reclassified as hazardous. Suppliers who can come up with even safer preservatives will likely make a lot of money. Hopefully, they’ll do it soon but there do not appear to be any promising materials on the horizon.


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