I was explaining to the store-owner on the end of the phone about the difference between Mokosh products and standard skin care. ‘... and our skin care is preservative-free,’ I said, ‘which is unusual.’ ‘But I already have plenty of organic skin care,’ the owner stated. ‘We wouldn’t have anything with preservatives on our shelves.’ She listed the brands stocked in her store, and I was familiar with the ingredients contained in each of them. Some of them were certified organic brands, others claimed they were ‘organic’ or ‘natural’ but in fact contained only a small proportion of certified organic ingredients. All of them contained preservatives of some kind. One of the brands contained paraben preservatives (read about paraben preservatives here).
‘Each one of those brands contains a preservative – because all of them are water-based,’ I explained. ‘Even certified organic skin care that contains water must have a preservative added. Our skin care contains no water.’
‘As I said,’ she replied, ‘we’re happy with the brands we have at the moment.’
Our conversation effectively ended there – she was unconvinced, and I recognised a brick wall when I ran into one. Still, I was a little surprised that the owner of a store that stocked a large range of certified organic foods, whose customers are discerning label-readers, conscious of what they are consuming for both health and environmental reasons, was convinced that all her skin care brands were preservative-free. The reason she thought this? I don’t know – but I suspect it’s because of the presence of the word ‘organic’ or ‘natural’ on the label, which in her mind should not be linked with the word ‘preservative’. The word ‘preservative’ has negative connotations, probably because there have been links between preservatives and various health issues. Some preservatives are probably quite safe, whereas others could well have long-term negative health effects.
Preservatives in certified organic brands
Every certified organic skin care brand we have looked at includes some water-based products, whether in a moisturiser, cleanser, shampoo or conditioner. The water will be listed on the label in the form of ‘water’, ‘aqua’ or ‘aloe vera juice’, or perhaps as a hydrosol such as ‘rose distillate’. The watery medium allows the growth of bacteria and fungi, and therefore needs a preservative to prevent this growth. As far as we are aware, there is no truly ‘natural’ preservative – and by this we mean ‘as found in nature’, and therefore no preservative may be listed as a certified organic ingredient. Therefore, for a product to fulfil the criteria of organic certifying bodies, it must be amongst the allowable percentage of non-certified organic ingredients, and must be approved by that certifying body as safe. Each certifying body will make its own decision on whether a non-certified ingredient can be approved for use in a certified organic product.
We have seen the following preservatives in certified organic products:
grapefruit seed extract, bitter orange extract, ethanol or grain alcohol, potassium sorbate, sodium benzoate, sodium levulinate – a preservative that also acts as a skin conditioning agent, sodium lauroyl lactylate – an emulsifier and foaming agent, also with preservative action, which allows a manufacturer to claim a product is ‘preservative free’, and Naticide – may be listed also as ‘parfum’, or ‘vanilla and almond extract’, since its manufacturer has been able to have it categorised as a perfume, although it is used for its preservative activity. Companies that use this preservative may state that their product is ‘preservative free’.
Note that some organic certifying bodies will allow preservatives to be included that others consider unsafe, just as different certifying bodies have different allowable percentages of non-certified organic ingredients – but that’s another story.
Preservatives in non certified organic brands
A skin care product that is not certified organic does not have to go through any safety assessment by any organisation, yet may still have the word ‘organic’ or ‘natural’ on its label. These products may include preservatives such as parabens (see our story on parabens), DMDM hydantoin – a formaldehyde releaser, diazolidinyl urea – another formaldehyde releaser, benzyl alcohol, phenoxyethanol and sodium hydroxymethylglycinate. All these preservatives have large question marks over their safety, yet are still allowable in skin care products – yes, even for babies. And yes, even if they have a green label!
Mokosh’s stance on preservatives
We could have followed the path of other mainstream skin care manufacturers and added water to our products, preserving them with an ingredient approved by an organic certifying body. We decided against it for the following reasons:
- we were unable to find a preservative that has not been synthetically altered in some way, even though some of them are of vegetable origin. We wanted to keep our skin care completely natural, without synthetic ingredients.
- many preservatives once considered safe were found not to be so in the long term (see our blog on Parabens) - we believe it is not worth taking that risk.
- in order for a preservative to be effective in skin care, it has to be a powerful anti-bacterial and anti-fungal agent. We believe it is not a good thing to put this type of agent on the skin on a daily basis, because of the potential to disturb the skin’s microflora. In the same way that ingesting low doses of antibiotics over the long term can change the intestinal flora, we believe the same could occur with preservatives present in skin care products, possibly causing skin problems in the long run.
- standard skin care is an oil:water emulsion – a blend of 20-50% oil with 50-80% water. To keep the water and oil phases from separating, an emulsifier must be added. We have found no emulsifier on the market that is not derived from palm oil, which we do not use for environmental reasons oil (read how palm oil sneaks into your skin care here). Why is water mixed with oils in moisturisers? The active ingredient in a moisturiser is the oil – the water component evaporates after application to the skin. This is why the skin may feel dry an hour after you have applied a standard moisturiser which may contain up to 80% water. The purpose of the water in a lotion or cream is to dilute the oil so that you get a thin spread - the water is not retained in the skin. With our products, you achieve the same effect by applying to lightly damp skin. The water on the skin helps to spread the oil thinly.
- because our moisturisers are water-free, they are up to 5 times more concentrated, and you can use one-fifth the amount for the same effect. This saves money, packaging and transport costs while avoiding synthetic ingredients, palm oil and preservatives.
Skin care choices
If you are serious about simplifying your life, eating fresh, unprocessed food, free of synthetic ingredients, you may also want take a closer look at what you are putting on your skin. If your skin care is not certified organic, we suggest you read the ingredient list very carefully, and understand what each ingredient is, and why it is there.