Spoiler Alert

Defined as ingredients that inhibit the development of microorganisms in cosmetic products, preservatives are found in many skincare formulas to help them stay fresh longer. Products without preservatives can easily be contaminated and thus prove harmful to the skin.  “Skincare is usually formulated with preservatives in order to keep the product fresh from the moment it is manufactured until the customer finishes using it,” says Pedro Ortega Dardet, president of Wilma Schumann European Skincare. “Skincare products become easily contaminated by bacteria and fungi simply because they contain water, oils, proteins, and carbohydrates—all perfect hosts for the growth of microbes. Preservatives prevent this bacterial growth, thus avoiding infection, as well as basic spoiling of the product.”


While anhydrous products (those formulated without water) generally do not need preservatives, most products benefit from them. According to Dardet, some of the safest and most effective synthetic preservatives found in skincare today are benzyl alcohol; diazolidinyl urea, iodopropynyl butylcarbamate, and propylene glycol, which help prevent spoilage and bacterial contamination; phenoxyethanol, which helps fight bacteria, mold, yeast, and fungi; and tetrasodium EDTA, a stabilizing agent for antioxidants and other preservatives. But not all preservatives are considered safe. There are some, such as parabens and formaldehyde, that have come under scrutiny in recent years because of their possible link to cancer and hormone disruption. While additional studies still need to be conducted to determine the impact of these preservatives, many companies have opted to eliminate these potentially harmful ingredients from their products. Other brands, like Amala and Primavera, rely solely on natural ingredients to extend a product’s shelf life. “Unprocessed, pure, natural products are better for you,” says Mark Wuttke, president of Primavera Life. “Like the food we eat, fresh is best. If a preservative is doing its job, it is preventing, reacting, and destroying microorganisms. But many microorganisms are good and healthy for us.”


According to Wuttke, the beauty industry has created a catch-22 for itself, because if a product fails in stability, the chemists are usually to blame. As a result, chemists sometimes feel inclined to create “dirty” or over-preserved products, which often become a replacement for healthy skincare. He believes that some natural ingredients can act as great preservatives. “By using the highest quality raw botanical materials that are grown in their idyllic settings, skincare companies can capitalize on nature’s logic to naturally fight bacteria and preserve their products,” says Wuttke.


He recommends a variety of natural preservatives, which are approved by NATRUE, a natural and organic certification authority. Among the best, in his opinion, are organic alcohol from wheat, which is non-drying and helps drive the pure essential oils into the first layer of the skin; argon gas, which can be placed on top of the products after the bottles are filled and before they are sealed to remove oxygen and assist with preservation; levulinic acid, which is derived from rice; maltodextrin, which is an all-natural sugar that helps stabilize dried plant extracts; silver sulfate, which helps inhibit the oxygenation of essential oils and decrease skin sensitivity to certain plants and essential oils; sodium citrate, which is derived from citric acid and can be used to stabilize emulsions and the pH balance of natural botanical formulas; and turmeric, which is high in antioxidants.


Shannon Gallogly, national education and training manager for Decléor Paris and Carita, believes essential oils and plant-based oils are the best preservatives for skincare products. “When selected and used correctly, they can be safely incorporated into products without causing skin irritation and also enhance the benefits of the product,” she says. “Many essential oils and plant-based oils have cosmetic and aesthetic benefits as well, so they serve double duty in protecting, enhancing the scent and texture, and maximizing the efficacy of the formulation.”

Similar to food, skincare products have a shelf life, which is determined both by ingredients contained and by clinical testing and research conducted during product development. “The shelf life is specified after the product meets the stability requirement based on the validated, regulated, and industry standard stability protocol, which includes preservative testing and many other factors,” says Richard Pietz, global director of product development for Jurlique. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t require most cosmetics and skincare products to include an expiration date on their packages, but according to Dardet, a safe rule for skincare (cosmetics, especially mascara, have a much shorter shelf life) is to assume they are safe to use for no more than 12 months unless otherwise stated. Unopened, sealed products can last up to three years. “On average, a product with preservatives can last about one year after it’s been opened,” he says. “A product without any preservatives will last about one week. Bacteria and microbes are quick and sneaky—without preservatives, the formula can easily become susceptible to growth.”


Because all products have different formulations, the ingredients spoil at different rates. “Even preservatives vary—some synthetic and natural compounds protect longer than others,” says Dardet. “The shelf life is dependent on what ingredient technology has been implemented in the product. Also, the storage and retail area where the products are kept or displayed matters a great deal. Products placed under hot retail lights or stored at temperatures above 85 degrees will deteriorate more quickly.” Once separation, discoloration, or a strange odor appears, it is time to get rid of the products, because they’ve likely become contaminated with harmful bacteria. “Some bacteria can cause ulcerated corneas and blindness,” says Diana Howard, Ph.D., vice president of global education and research and development for Dermalogica and The International Dermal Institute. “Other bacteria can cause an infection in the skin if they find their way into the body via an open cut or acne lesion.”


In addition to ingredients, packaging also plays a key role in product preservation and can extend the shelf life of products. One way to protect skincare from outside bacteria is to steer clear of formulas in jars. Instead, look for squeeze bottles, airless pumps, and laminated tubes, because they prevent or minimize the amount of oxygen that enters the bottle when the contents are extracted, and small openings prevent contamination from fingers and sticks, according to Wuttke. They also prevent the formula from mixing with water, which can quickly contaminate it. “One tiny droplet of water contains thousands of bacteria that can contaminate a formula,” says Howard. “And while the preservative is included to fight this contamination, most preservatives cannot overcome the massive infusion of bacteria that get introduced to the product in a droplet of water.”


Kristina Valiani, west coast sales and education manager at B. Kamins Skincare, says that spas can prolong the shelf life and freshness of backbar and retail products by storing and displaying products away from direct sunlight; keeping lids, caps, and pumps securely tightened; and avoiding cross-contamination by always using a spatula when dispensing product from a container. Also, tester products in retail areas should have disposable applicators to prevent clients from contaminating them. It is important to discuss the topic of shelf life with product manufacturers in order to learn how to keep products fresh in the spa and to properly educate clients on how to handle them at home. “Create a cute shelf talker in the retail area with tips to prolong shelf life,” says Valiani. “Another idea is to have these tips on the bottom of a homecare ‘prescription,’ so clients can have the reminders at home.” Szilvia Hickman, senior vice president at Szép Élet, exclusive distributor of Ilike Organic Skin Care and Purée Organics, suggests keeping a First In, First Out (FIFO) inventory management system to identify older versus younger products. “Make every employee aware of shelf lives, and create an effective turnover strategy so no product sits on the shelf too long,” she says.


The International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI) requires ingredients be listed from highest percentage concentration to lowest but does not require manufacturers to include the actual percentage concentration of each ingredient. Therefore, it is often difficult to determine how much of a particular preservative is contained in a product, says Hickman. However, a general rule of thumb is the shorter the shelf life, the fewer preservatives contained. While most skincare experts believe that many preservatives exist that are generally harmless and quite imperative, minimizing the amount of preservatives in a product is often better. “Our body and the things we put in and on it work better with nature, rather than fighting it,” says Wuttke. “I am a firm believer that the longer the shelf life, the shorter yours.”—Nicole Altavilla