Proper Preservation for your Cosmetic Formulation

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.


August 8, 2020
Chemists Corner

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