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Potassium Sorbate & the Confusing World of Preservatives in Cosmetics

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Is all-natural always the way to go with your beauty routine?  Maybe, maybe not.  If you’re not confused by the wide range of preservatives used in cosmetics these days, maybe you haven’t been reading the labels. Along with all of the main ingredients designed to do something wonderful for our skin is the addition of typically synthetic preservatives. In recent years, preservatives in cosmetics have been both celebrated and vilified in the evolving worlds of science, product development and consumer safety.

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Potassium sorbate is the specific preservative that caught my attention when we discovered that my then toddler was getting eczema frequently. I documented a pattern that pointed to potassium sorbate in both food and personal care products and what seemed to be behavior differences in addition to skin problems.  I noticed a few other things triggering reactions too, and had no way to properly investigate any effects that might have come from two or more ingredients taken in together. We specifically had a couple of scary incidents with lotion and hair conditioner that caused a bright red skin reaction.  We’ve erred on the side of caution, especially avoiding processed foods with preservatives as often as possible. And recently, when she did a skin test with a bit of hair conditioner containing potassium sorbate, it was a pleasant surprise to see that it did not cause redness or itching that time. These experiences, coupled with my sometimes sensitivity to skincare products, prompted me to explore further the concept of preservatives in skincare.

While avoiding preservatives in food is a rather straightforward decision, avoiding preservatives in cosmetics is more complicated.  The main reason they are needed is for defense against bacteria and mold contamination. No one wants harmful growth of any sort in their makeup or lotion, do we? You’ve probably heard horror stories about contaminated eye makeup causing infections and how we all need to replace our mascara frequently.  Any sort of liquid cosmetics based in water are candidates for developing harmful bacteria or mold either in the original product or at least after we’ve left items in a hot car or dipped into them with our hands.

It’s easy to understand why, for all that the US Food and Drug Administration does not do to protect Americans from harmful ingredients in cosmetics (no pre-market testing required, a virtual regulatory honor system), the FDA is strict about not allowing microbial growth in cosmetics sold to the public. Watchdog groups like the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, which has educated the public on the hormone disrupting properties of parabens and pointed out that other preservatives release toxic formaldehyde, seem to consider potassium sorbate one of the preferable choices among preservatives.  The FDA has not banned parabens, and they are apparently both affordable and effective; so you’ll find all sorts of paraben ingredients in the most budget-priced cosmetics on the market.  By the FDA’s count, about one-fifth of cosmetics you buy contain formaldehyde releasers, which are also still allowed.  Formaldehyde has been declared a known carcinogen.  When we contacted the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, we were told by scientist Connie Engel, “Yes, potassium sorbate is a skin irritant but the evidence is not compelling for chronic healthy effects.”

Not everyone agrees that potassium sorbate is harmless.  A 2009 study looked at genotoxicity or DNA damage from potassium sorbate in human lymphocytes.  Blogger Stephanie Greenwood of Bubble & Bee Organic has noted that this study as well as concerns about the chemical being an irritant have persuaded her to avoid the substance.  Potassium sorbate is the potassium salt of sorbic acid, made synthetically today.

Naturally Savvy founder Andrea Donsky has shared cautions about the use of potassium sorbate, telling Flour Sack Mama, “Research shows it can damage DNA, so that’s why we added it to our Scary Seven list of ingredients to avoid.  60% of what we put onto our bodies gets absorbed through our skin.  So, I recommend avoiding any cosmetics (and food) products that contain it.”

Miessence North America independent representative Erin Ely of Ely Organics shares the concern that potassium sorbate should not be absorbed by the skin.   Her perspective is as a top sales representative for Australian-based Miessence, which states that it does not use synthetic preservatives.  How does this cosmetics company meet stringent guidelines for preventing mold or bacteria growth without added chemicals? Ely explained, “Our preservation system has to do with the ingredients we use, the order in which they are mixed together and how the product is made. Essential oils are part of this.  We challenge test every product we have to a shelf life of 30 months, although they are not dated that far out. They usually have a dated shelf life of 18 months. They are manufactured fresh every 30 days, which is unheard of in the industry!”  The base for liquid Miessence products is not water, but aloe vera.

Others who want the all-natural, no-chemical-preservatives approach to cosmetics are following a trend to make their own products at home.  Just as with any do-it-yourself project, concocting your own cosmetics comes with its own risks, from bacterial contamination to sensitivities to essential oils.

What if you’re too busy to craft your own cosmetics and too budget-minded for the most expensive boutique products, but you still want the best quality ingredients on the cosmetics market? Two companies that go above and beyond in quality assurance efforts to use natural, uncontaminated, gentle ingredients are British-based NYR Organics and US-based Beautycounter. Amid all of their responsibly sourced ingredients, both also use some synthetic potassium sorbate as a preservative for some products, and we asked them why.

Here’s what NYR Organic Product Specialist Jane Wotton explained, “In the EU, skincare is required by law to be safe for use, which means having adequate protection against microbiological contamination (any aqueous product has the potential to grow bacteria).  We use potassium sorbate (an FDA-approved food-grade-preservative) or levulinic acid (derived from sugar cane) or propolis (extracted from bee hives).  Our products are certified by the Soil Association, which means we have to choose from a very limited list of functional ingredients – these have been approved by a panel of experts as appropriate for use in a certified organic product.  Be aware that in the US there are no laws on disclosing ingredients — manufacturers often buy raw materials already pre-preserved, so they may not disclose preservatives on the label of their final product.  And just to summarize – as a brand we’re all about informing our customers and giving them choices.  We provide full ingredient listings on the product pages of our website, so that they can see what is in the products and choose what to buy.  Our oils and balms have no preservatives (non-aqueous formulations, so preservatives are not needed), so that is always an option for customers.”

The concern that some cosmetics makers may be hiding preservatives from source ingredients was also expressed by Beautycounter‘s Head of Safety and Environment, Mia Davis. “Our company is bar none in terms of transparency and ingredient safety,” Davis said emphatically, “we commit to never, ever hiding any ingredients!  We look at every single ingredient and we do an assessment on the safety information, also on a formula by formula basis.”  All of Beautycounter’s products are made in the USA, with the exception of a new powder color line, which Davis said will be made in Italy to meet the company’s stringent quality standards.  Like NYR Organic, Beautycounter also offers many oil-based products like facial oils and balms that don’t require an added preservative. The company’s “never list” declares that parabens and formaldehyde releasers are not allowed on the preservative menu. Davis says formulations for aqueous-based products can include multiple preservatives such as potassium sorbate and others, used in the lowest limits necessary to meet safety standards, with rosemary oil sometimes used as a preservative booster.

If some of the most transparent, wellness-minded cosmetics makers in the industry are still using potassium sorbate, does that mean it’s been proven safe?  As Davis well knows from her years of working previously with the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, “there’s a huge lack of safety data out there.”  Several watchdog consumer groups have long demanded that government oversight be more stringent on consumer products, with a need to look at the long-term health impacts of chemicals in cosmetics. More testing and information sharing at the ingredient level would seem to benefit most cosmetics makers and their customers.

For those of us with concerns about side effects or sensitivities from potassium sorbate, we’d like to see more data confirming its safety.  Yet, it’s understandable that common sense may always dictate some type of added preservatives in at least some cosmetics. For now, the most transparent companies open themselves up for scrutiny even as they seek out the safest cosmetics and make the most prudent choices they can about preservatives.

This article is not intended to offer any professional medical or consumer advice of any kind.  This is a news/information article and not an advertisement or endorsement for any particular product.   Article copyright 2014.  All rights reserved.

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One Response to Potassium Sorbate & the Confusing World of Preservatives in Cosmetics

  1. Betsy (Eco-novice) September 30, 2014 at 11:40 pm #

    This is a very useful, in-depth look at a complex issue from many perspectives. I do have mixed feelings about preservatives in cosmetics. I don’t use them often, and I don’t like the idea of them harboring microorganisms…
    Betsy (Eco-novice) recently posted…5 Reasons to Choose Antibiotic-free MeatMy Profile

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