Preservative Controversy: Parabens Vs. Citrus Seed Extracts
If you have been involved in the manufacture of hand made toiletries and cosmetics, you know how difficult it is to choose a preservative that is both safe for prolonged usage and effective as a broad spectrum, anti-microbial preservative. On one hand, you have well-known preservatives such as Germaben, LiquaPar and Phenonip - paraben complexes, which have proven their effectiveness and are commonly found throughout the multitude of shelf ready products but are "synthetic" preservatives which have questionable effects on our bodies. On the other hand, more natural broad spectrum preservatives are very limited. Grapefruit seed extract and other forms of a citrus seed/pulp extract are all that is generally available. Unfortunately, there are many forms of citrus seed extracts on the market, some of which show both questionable effectiveness and questionable contents. Some manufacturers of citrus seed extracts add paraben-based preservatives to the extract itself which has caused much of the controversy regarding citricidal preservatives. In choosing a citricidal preservative, you should ask your supplier if it contains any preservatives in it. Additionally, citrus seed extracts are not all-natural preservatives. They are chemically derived from the seeds of citrus fruits.
So what do you choose? You can wade through the many articles and studies that compare the use of citrus seed extracts to the paraben complexes, but you will not find a conclusive answer. You will need to make a choice based on what you have read, what you have heard, and eventually, what you can prove. The decision is no different than other controversial issues such as trying to decide whether to use a particular drug, whether to vaccinate your child, or whether to get a flu shot. The evidence found will convincingly support both sides of the argument, and it's up to you to weigh the collective evidence. Furthermore, if you have decided to make "all-natural" skin care products, then you have a real dilemma. You will not find a product on the market that is all-natural, safe for use and will protect your product from the wide range of microbes and fungi out there. Essential oils such as tea tree have been suggested, however, the percentage required to be effective as a preservative would not be safe to use on the skin.
So what should you do? First, understand that your priority should be the immediate safety of those who are going to be using your product. If the product is not properly preserved, dangerous bacteria, molds and fungi can colonize and invade the body through the skin. This can lead to serious health problems. Properly preserving your product, therefore, is not optional unless your product is to be kept refrigerated and used within 2 weeks. This is not to say that the long term effects of preservatives should be ignored or that they are less important. The decision to use a preserved product lies with the end user. After all, if one makes a choice to avoid use or limit use of a preserved product, he/she could simply use a pure vegetable oil instead of a lotion. Alternatively he/she could use handmade soap instead of a body wash. If you choose to sell all-natural products, you will need to offer oils and butters as moisturizers instead of creams and lotions, and offer handmade soaps instead of fancy body washes and bubble baths.
Secondly, you should understand that simply adding a preservative is not enough. After deciding which of the preservatives to use, you will need to ensure that your preservative is working and will continue to work over a long period of time. This is generally confirmed by having your product tested by a lab. They will challenge test your product and let you know if it has remained microbe-free after repeated exposure to the most common microbes. Even the most time-tested preservatives can fail to work if inadequate amounts were used or if they were broken down by heat, pH or other factors. It, therefore, is important to know how much preservative is recommended and what limitations it has. For more information on product challenge testing and for a list of labs, please read our Product Challenge Testing article.
The conclusion? Do your research, weigh the pros and cons, and then proceed with safety and health as your priority.