Every time you dip your finger into your face cream what do you think happens? A lot in the life of a microbe, a.k.a. bacteria—teeny, tiny organisms who might be described as the greatest lovers in the world.
Once introduced into your creams, cleansers and lotions via your fingertips and the air, they procreate all day long—in your product. Yuck! And that’s why companies must put preservatives in products, to assassinate these free lovin’ microbes and protect you from bacteria-laden products. Yes, preservatives in cosmetics are necessary, not just to keep the product from growing mold on the shelves, but to kill the bugs that we put into them!
Unlike foods, which we are accustomed to refrigerating and disposing of rather quickly; we use and store cosmetics including shampoos, conditioners and all sorts of creams and lotions for months, even years! (Just think about all of those half-used products in your bathroom cupboard!)
Now, I know you're hearing a lot of negative hype about preservatives in cosmetics, especially parabens, and that's causing everyone a lot of concern about endocrine disruption and cancer. As a scientist, I am here to tell you that the data is far from black and white (it rarely is in research). While there are studies which report parabens have been found in cancerous breast tissue, there are also very recent studies out of Europe which show that parabens are fully digested and harmless to the body. More research is needed on this and many other questions we all have about the safety of parabens and various other common chemicals. But, what are we supposed to do until the answers are clear?
As a scientist who is skeptical by nature, but also as mom who's concerned about my health and the health of my family, my personal choice is first and foremost not to freak out, but to choose preservative-free whenever possible. That goes for the products I use in the bathroom, as well as the food I put on the table.
If you'd like to avoid preservatives, here are some tips:
1. Look for anhydrous (or waterless) products. Because not only do microbes adore one another, they also adore WATER! It's the environment that allows them to do their, uh, thing… So, no water—no microbian love nests—sorry guys… But seriously, just look at the labels. If water or anything that sounds a little, er, “watery”, like aqua or aqueous extract, is listed as one of the first few ingredients, that indicates preservatives must also be in the product. Zaega recommends natural & organic beeswax and oil based balms as an alternative to water based lotions and creams for body moisturizing.
2. Don't assume "paraben-free" means "preservative-free". Parabens are one particular type of preservative, commonly used in cosmetics because they're effective. But, unless you're a chemist, you likely won't be able to determine which of the other ingredients listed on the package are preservatives.
3. Wash your hands before dipping your fingers in your face cream. Even though the microbes on our fingertips will be killed by the product's preservatives, the dead bacteria aren't going anywhere. Yes, they're still in your cream. So, keep your products as "clean" as you can, free from both living and dead microbes, by putting only clean fingers in the jar, keeping the lid on tight and never ever diluting or letting water get into your products.