How ‘multitasking’ preservatives might help to make cosmetics safer

The lack of preservation in cosmetics has a notorious history – in just one instance, four women were almost permanently blinded in 1977 because the chemicals failed to keep their mascara clean and safe.

That scare prompted regulators to step up the quality and amount of preservatives used in personal care products.

The role of preservatives is to protect consumers from harmful bacteria, keeping makeup and personal care products free from potentially dangerous, often unsightly or smelly contamination. Preservatives are required in any product that contains water, typically one of the first ingredients listed in many shampoos, creams and lotions on store shelves.

But some preservatives still pose potential health concerns. Formaldehyde, for instance, is classified as a known carcinogen by the National Toxicology Program. And some studies have linked certain parabens with hormone disruption, harming the male and female reproductive systems.

Concern about preservatives and toxic chemicals has driven shoppers’ interest in “clean beauty” and helped brand chemical preservatives the ugly stepchildren of the personal care industry. Regulators have limited, and in some cases, banned formaldehyde, methylene glycol, paraformaldehyde, quaternium-15, mercury and some parabens. Much more needs to be done to update our antiquated cosmetics law to limit the use of these chemicals in cosmetics.

In some cases, “natural” preservatives that don’t stem from chemicals of concern are stepping into the regulatory gap. Still, there are concerns about these alternatives – some might lead to greater odds of product contamination, and the mascara scare shows how risky that can be for consumers. Natural preservatives can also be skin irritants or trigger allergies.

That’s why the cosmetics industry is looking to a third way – formulating products using ingredients that can multitask by providing several necessary functions in keeping goods safe and free from contamination.

Enter “multifunctional” preservatives – chemicals that can perform more than one task when used in cosmetics, potentially making them safer to use.

The multifunctional approach

The key to safer products lies in the distinction between “preservative” and “preservation.” Anything that keeps a product safe should be considered part of the overall strategy of preservation of the product, even if it isn’t technically what would be defined as a preservative.

That’s the case with “multifunctional” ingredients that fulfill several functions in a product formulation. Think of a chemical known as a humectant, which keeps skin from drying out but also has safe preservative properties. Other examples include antimicrobial boosters and stabilizers and other ingredients that help the components dissolve and stay dissolved rather than breaking down or degrading.

By using certain ingredients for two or more purposes, companies are able to use fewer ingredients, and fewer that are potentially toxicManufacturers can also pare down their product label lists, responding to shoppers’ demands for more transparency about what they buy and use.

In some product formulations, these multitasking cosmetics ingredients may be used in combination to eliminate the need for classical preservatives altogether.

Products with next generation preservatives

Some multifunctional “preservation boosters” rate well on EWG’s Skin Deep® database. The database tracks ingredients of concern in personal care products, which means they have fewer health harms. Propylene glycol, caprylyl glycol, 1,2-hexanediol, sorbitan caprylate, butylene glycol and 1,2 propanediol are examples of chemicals that may serve more than one function in a product.

Many products with one or more of these ingredients and others bear the EWG VERIFIED™ mark – they meet our strictest standards for health and safety, are fully transparent about their ingredients, don’t have any ingredients from our unacceptable list, and won’t grow bacteria.

Packing and preservation for protection

Today the personal care product industry is focused on the total preservation picture: How do a product’s formulation and packaging combine to create a long shelf life?

The way we use products can cause problems; that’s why a fancy pot of night moisturizer comes with a tiny spatula – to discourage you from sticking your (possibly dirty) finger in and contaminating it. Manufacturers are looking at not only how multitasking preservatives can keep cosmetics safe and long lasting but also how packaging changes might provide a further boost.

Recent packaging-as-preservation innovations include unit-dose packaging, single-application and pump-type packaging, and tubes with one-way valves.

EWG's Quick Tips for Choosing Safer Personal Care Products

The future of preservation

EWG has long urged regulators to strengthen limits on toxic, harmful chemicals in cosmetics – or ban them outright. Until that happens, multifunctional preservatives may be a path forward.

These ingredients are often safer than chemicals traditionally classified as preservatives. But European regulators – who often drive the decision-making of their U.S. counterparts – don’t recognize these chemicals as providing preservation, even when they perform that function. How should American cosmetics makers respond?

One solution is for personal care product regulators and manufacturers to rely on these multitasking chemicals for preservation but without classifying them as preservatives, a label that triggers separate regulatory oversight. The ingredients need to be tested for safety but, ideally, not as preservatives, because few will be permitted for that use in products.

As long as our cosmetics law remains woefully outdated, this approach could help make products safer for consumers who are already looking for items without chemicals of concern – and also keep dangerous incidents, like the mascara scare, firmly in the past.

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