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The Current State of Preservatives

Ahmed Abdullah, MD July 2013 issue of Skin Inc. magazine

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Once a straightforward and rarely questioned addition to skin care formulations, preservatives have become mired in controversy in recent years. With the rise of the organic movement in the 1990s, consumers and special interest groups began more closely evaluating the ingredient lists of personal care products and, in many cases, became concerned about what they saw. The spread of both information and misinformation followed, with some preservatives accused of being potentially harmful to the public’s health, or worse—carcinogenic. Thus, consumers have demanded that product manufacturers halt the use of certain preservatives or simply stop using them altogether. But as the list of preservatives scorned by the public continues to grow, the skin care industry is left with fewer choices to protect product formulations. The question is, “Are we better off with the alternatives?”

Developments affecting preservative use

Of all the ingredients in a skin care formulation, some would argue that preservatives are the most important. After all, what good are the most advanced active ingredients if they’re suspended in formulations that could harm a person’s health? Almost all skin care products contain a certain amount of water, a fact that puts these products at risk of contamination by bacteria, mold, fungus and other microbes. Preservatives, which have been used in personal care products since the 1930s, provide protection against these foreign invaders, while effectively extending product shelf life—a necessity in today’s world where products are shipped, warehoused and left to sit on shelves until they are purchased. Today, the three most important classes of preservatives include parabens, formaldehyde-releasers and isothiazolinones.1

Concern surrounding preservatives, particularly parabens, began growing in 1998 when a study showed that parabens are weakly estrogenic; that is, they mimic the effects of natural estrogen in the body.2 That concern reached an all-time high following the 2004 release of a now well-known study by Philippa Darbre, MD, of the University of Reading, which showed that parabenlike substances were found in breast cancer tissue.3 The public quickly jumped to the assumption that parabens may be associated with the development of breast cancer. Considered to be the safest and most well-tolerated preservatives used in personal care products, parabens were suddenly almost blacklisted.4

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