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A refrigerator in your bathroom?

  • March 21, 2018

It’s time to make the case for preservatives

Bacteria get a bad press. No one has a good word to say for them. They are indelibly associated in the public mind with infection, disease and decay.

In reality we can’t live without them. They boost our nutrition, our immunity and the availability of vital chemical elements in the environment. They helped us evolve. They are literally part of us – each reader of this blog is a host to trillions. Some scientists like to claim we are more bacteria than human.

But, as has often been observed, you can have too much of a good thing. We have come to rely on the control of bacteria and other microbes for our health and for our convenience. We won’t tolerate food that has reached its ‘sell by’ date. We certainly wouldn’t dream of parting with our refrigerators. We recoil in disgust from mould, discolouration, bad odour - the signs that microbes are doing their work.

Cosmetics and personal care products are no exception. They are all about freshness, cleanliness, vitality, fragrance, colour, texture and sensuality. To be frank, there is not much of a role for bacteria, mould or yeast in all of that. Our microbial cousins have the real capacity to spoil the party.

And crucially, product preservation is a health issue. Microbes can breed in moisture or the product can be contaminated by users themselves. Cosmetics are used on the human body. Infection can spread through contact. Without preservatives in cosmetics, you would probably need a refrigerator in your bathroom.

It is highly likely that the cosmetics you used this morning (washing, cleaning your teeth, deodorising - on average six), contain preservatives. But here is the irony – while we don’t like microbes, preservatives don’t have a huge fan club either. Some people think that all preservatives are unnatural, although in fact in nature preservatives are abundant. Some think that preservatives are unsafe, although, like all cosmetics ingredients, their safety in use must be fully established. Indeed, the regulation of our industry in the EU has a specific approach for preservatives, providing a list of preservative substances which have been approved for use and which is strictly adhered to.

Sometimes, suspicion of preservatives has gone so far as to bring about rejection of preservatives on the approved EU list. Ever heard of the group of preservative substances known as parabens? There is no good scientific reason to believe parabens are unsafe, and the EU approves them, but some consumers still prefer to avoid them.

Let’s be honest, our industry has not always helped itself. We should communicate more effectively on the value of preservatives, their importance for health, and the scientific basis of their safe use. At times we have been complicit in negative perceptions. But in an era where consumers and policy makers are increasingly vigilant about perceived risks (well-founded or not), it is time to make the case for product preservation.

We need preservatives to ensure the quality of our products and of course to protect the health of our consumers.

At Cosmetics Europe, we have established a Product Preservation Programme, aiming to ensure not only that the role of preservatives is better understood, but also to further strengthen the scientific basis of their safe use. We know our consumers rightly expect high quality and long-lasting products. This means safe and effective preservatives. Our Programme aims to ensure we can guarantee this for years to come.

Now, have you ever wondered how long it takes to defrost a moisturiser?


John Chave, Director General, Cosmetics Europe

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