Are preservatives in cosmetic formulas bad?

So many beauty brands are claiming to offer preservative-free products these days.

But are preservatives in cosmetic formulas all that bad?

Dr Alain Khaiat, president of the Cosmetic, Toiletry & Fragrance Association of Singapore (CTFAS), and vice-president of technical and scientific affairs at the ASEAN Cosmetic Association, gives us the lowdown on preservatives in beauty cocktails.

Dr Khaiat has had more than three decades of experience in the industry, where he was vice-president of research and development at Johnson & Johnson, Yves Rocher and Revlon.

Based in Singapore, he also helms a consulting firm, Seers Consulting.

Dr Khaiat says the role of preservatives in cosmetics is to protect them from microbial contamination.

Whenever we use a product, we inadvertently introduce microbes.

We do this by sticking our fingers into a jar of cream; placing a used applicator back into the tube (such as for a mascara or lipgloss); and even just by opening a jar. Even pumps - unless they are the airless kind - suck in air when we use the products.

To ensure that a product remains safe for use, preservatives are added to prevent contamination.

While beauty companies do test their products for the efficacy of the preservatives in their products, they also try to put in the minimum amount of preservatives needed.

Only approved preservatives at appropriate levels (based on each ingredient's structure) and the type of products where they are used are allowed. So it is important that consumers buy products only from reputable sources.

Details on the list of approved preservatives are available on the CTFAS website. Based on new scientific data, the list is reviewed regularly.

Here is a quick summary, as outlined in the ASEAN Consumer Information Handbook on Cosmetic Products. The handbook is available on the CTFAS site.

1. Phthalates: Added to help fragrances last longer and to make nail polishes chip-resistant, diethyl phthalate (DEP) and dimethyl phthalate (DMP) are the two types of phthalates most commonly used.

Added at low levels, they have been deemed safe for use in cosmetic products as well as products for infants and children.

The other three kinds of phthalates - dibutyl phthalate (DBP), benzyl butyl phthalate (BBP) and diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) are banned from cosmetic products in Europe and ASEAN.

2. Parabens: Often used to inhibit or prevent microbial and fungal growth, as well as to extend the shelf life of cosmetic products.

Parabens that are commonly used include methylparaben, ethylparaben and propylparaben

More than one paraben can be used in a product. They can also be used in combination with other kinds of preservatives. Use of parabens within permitted concentrations in cosmetics is deemed safe.

3. Formaldehyde: A widely used chemical that also naturally occurs in food and our metabolic system. It is added as an ingredient in nail lacquers, lash glues and hair gels, and is used as a preservative.

It is considered safe for use in low doses and when used as directed.

4. Triclosan: Used to protect cosmetics from going bad. It is found in a wide range of products, such as toothpaste, mouthwash, antiseptic hand wash and bodywash.

Deemed safe for use under certain limits and conditions.

This article was first published on Feb 13, 2015.
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