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Controversial Ingredients: Setting the Record Straight

By: Ada Polla and Anne Pouillot
Posted: January 30, 2012, from the February 2012 issue of Skin Inc. magazine.
skin cream

Skin care is very intimate, and the beauty and cosmetics industry has to be based on trust, in addition to regulation. The regulatory framework of the industry changing, as indicated in the United States by the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2010, which was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives on July 20, 2010. Unfortunately, the skin care industry is getting caught up in untruths, half-lies, exaggerations and sometimes misnomers. This article will discuss ingredients that have developed a bad reputation, separating fact from opinion. Indeed, when clients come to you with ingredient questions, it is your duty as a skin care professional to educate, sometimes re-educate, and set the record straight.

Preservatives: Formaldehyde-releasers and parabens

Preservatives inhibit the development of microorganisms in cosmetic products by damaging internal structures and cellular membranes to produce cell death. They serve to enhance the safety of cosmetic products, enabling them to remain bacteria-free for approximately three to five years. The controversy about the use of preservatives stems from the fact that anything that kills microorganisms is potentially toxic to mammalian cells. What needs to be taken into consideration is the concentration of these preservatives, as well as the contact time and point, which are determined to avoid side effects.

The ideal preservative should have the following properties:

  • A broad-spectrum antimicrobial effect at low concentrations and optimal pH;
  • Combination of bactericidal and fungicidal effects;
  • Low allergenicity and toxicity, and be nonirritating;
  • Stability and water solubility;
  • Compatibility with other ingredients (i.e., be both odorless and colorless); and
  • Ease of use.

In 1987, a study was undertaken on 5,202 patients tested for possible contact dermatitis upon application of cosmetics; 5.9% of this population was shown to be intolerant to cosmetics. The principal allergens were fragrances and preservatives—in particular, formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasers.1

Formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasers. Although formaldehyde is a preservative that has both bactericidal and fungicidal activities, it is a strong skin sensitizer. Deutsches Institut für Medizinische Dokumentation und Information—German Institut of Medical Documentation and Information (DIMDI)—classifies formaldehyde in groups A or C, meaning it has a strong potential to provoke contact allergies.2 Its use has been abandoned in cosmetics except in nail hardeners. Formaldehyde has been replaced by formaldehyde-releasers, which are easier to handle and less likely to lead to contact allergies. These formaldehyde-releasers are named: 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol, diazolidinyl urea, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, quaternium-15 and sodium hydroxymethylglycinate.

Do You Know Everything You Need to Know About Preservatives and Regulatory?

What are twelve important criteria for the 'ideal' preservative or preservative system? What are seven principles of HACCP? Do you know the twelve properties of 'natural' preservatives? Could you use more information on global regulations?

Be prepared! Keep David Steinberg's new book, Preservatives for Cosmetics, Third Edition, close at hand at the start of your next project.

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