Products making ‘preservative free’ claims are becoming increasingly common.  While there are legitimate and safe ways for products to be preservative free, building a brand or product positioning solely around this is less than ideal for the following reasons:


  1. The concept is misleading
  2. They’re statements that are often factually incorrect
  3. The idea can be dangerous for the consumer

1. Misleading

The suggestion that a product is preservative free implies by the absence of a broad range of chemical classes that a product is safer (which is unfounded). Whilst it is true that some preservatives can cause sensitization in susceptible people, the same can be said for foods.   

Using food as an example, it is impractical to prepare high quality, delicious tasting foods that are then free from soy, gluten, egg, lactose and nuts for the purposes of claiming ‘allergen free’. We could likely all agree, that the concept of allergen free food, whilst entirely edible, is going to be considerably less palatable by the mass market (and even those whom have an allergy), as may be the case for someone who is perfectly fine with other allergens except soy for example.

If a consumer has a known allergy to a particular preservative, the consumer should be checking the ingredient list prior to purchase, rather than seeking products entirely void of preservatives. As with the above example, it wouldn’t be in a person who has a gluten allergy’s best interest to purchase an ‘allergen free’ snack when they’re perfectly fine with all the other possible allergens they aren’t sensitive to.

Aside from knowing what specifically causes sensitivities and looking for them on the ingredient list, another measure of suitability for those with sensitivities is to use products that have undergone dermatological testing AND are marked non-irritating and non-sensitising. This also holds true in that the majority of reactions we experience are often related to skin irritants and not necessarily allergens. Unfortunately, dermatological testing isn’t as cheap as simply marketing products as ‘preservative free’ so isn’t often a consideration for brands.

In the EU ‘preservative free’ claims are not allowed on the basis that they’re misleading when an ingredient is legally permitted for use, and this includes many preservative ingredients. Whilst this is not necessarily a concern in other jurisdictions, including Australia, the EU position is a valid one, by stating ‘preservative free’ a brand is indicating it is superior to one that includes preservatives, which there is no evidence of. Although there may be a market for preservative free products, it’s largely due to implying that preservatives are a problem.  Now whilst they’re not always amazing, they’re far better than microbes being allowed to proliferate unrestricted in skincare products.

2. Factually incorrect 

Beyond the ethics of painting all preservatives as causing sensitisation, there are brands who make preservative free claims, despite using what can easily be considered preservatives. While likely not being intentionally misleading, it is technically incorrect.

Some products include what can be considered ‘cosmetic ingredients’ (such as Glyceryl Caprylate, Caprylyl Glycol and Hydroxyacetophenone) which are positioned as ‘preservative boosters’. These contribute to the preservation properties of a product, but aren’t strictly a ‘preservative’ (like Phenoxyethanol, Parabens, Isothiazolinones etc). 

The EU position on ‘preservative free’ is that if a formulation  passes PET (preservative efficacy testing) and is then likely to fail after removing ingredients (like Glyceryl Caprylate), then the product is not preservative free, as clearly, Glyceryl Caprylate is acting as a preservative.

3. Dangerous

Perhaps the most serious aspect of ‘preservative free’ and also applying to a preserved product that is faulty (i.e. has not passed PET), is the risk to consumers’ health.

The majority of personal care products containing water (which is most of the products in market) have a preservative system included and PET (PET/challenge testing) performed to verify its effectiveness and ensure product safety. Using the EU example again, this is a requirement for entry to the market, so products purchased in the EU can be presumed as safe. In Australia, there is no legal requirement for PET to be performed on personal care products (it is a requirement for listed medicines including sunscreens) which is of some concern. While most Australian brands will perform PET as industry best practice, unfortunately there is no way to know this at the point of purchase . Products formulated using traditional preservatives are more likely to be properly preserved, even without  having performed PET there is additional confidence over those using less traditional boosters and brands claiming ‘preservative free’ should be used with caution.

True preservative free can only exist in products that don’t support microbiological growth and are limited to products that are entirely free of, or have very low water content. What determines whether a product has very low water is not a specific percentage, it’s more complex as water can be bound with other ingredients in complex ways and unavailable for microbiological growth. ‘Water activity’ testing is currently the only way to reliably determine whether a product can, or should be preservative free.

As consumers continue to glorify natural, chemical free and preservative free skincare it’s important to consider that preservative free products can have real consequences. The risks of bacterial contamination, rapid product spoilage, and potential skin reactions are significantly increased with the absence of preservatives. 

While PET remains highly recommended, but optional for cosmetic and personal care products in Australia, consumers are best to conduct research and make educated decisions around using healthy, safe and effective skincare products.   

Do you have questions about the preservatives in your formula or need assistance with PET? Click here to submit an enquiry.

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