'What do frogs have to do with cosmetic preservation?' I hear you ask. ABSOLUTELY NOTHING, much like most of the unsolicited advice regarding preservation I have noticed of late. Someone will talk about an ingredient and someone somewhere rubs their chin, smacks their lips, takes a sharp breath in and says 'it needs a preservative' or 'its too much bug food' or the 'preservative won't cover it'. Invariably the subject of preservation is either totally irrelevant to the discussion or the person didn't even ask about it. Even worse it seems this preoccupation is starting to take all the fun out of this wonderful science.
My story of contamination
About 20 years ago I decided that I would make my first ever aqueous product. I was fascinated with Soap Wort. I even bought a plant from my local garden centre and quite quickly killed it. I then decided I would go to Baldwins and buy some soap wort root. I heard that you could boil up the root and it will release the soapiness. 'I would be able to wash my hair with it!' I thought! I had images of making this beautifully viscous shampoo. However, my vision did not come to fruition. What I was left with a decidedly un-foamy hazy water that didn't seem to do anything.
I was underwhelmed and more than disappointed.
Well, a week later I decided that I might try it again. I opened the bottle and put some of the watery stuff in my hand and gave it a whiff and it smelt mouldy. I thought 'well, I can't use that as it smells off'. That was my first experience of making a water containing product. At the time all I knew was that I needed something to stop it from going off. I am sure I must have tried to investigate but must have it a wall as then I decided to knock it on the head for the time being. I used my common sense in the same way I would when managing the food in my kitchen. I, like most people would not eat mouldy food and I would not use a mouldy 'shampoo'. Did my soap wort shampoo kill me? No it did not. But what did happen was that I learnt all by myself that I needed a preservative. It was not a big issue and it is NOT a big issue.
I will tell you why.
Firstly, you will soon find out if you need a preservative in your product if you make them and they go off. All sorts of things will happen. Microbes will have an effect on the appearance. Your toner may go smelly and hazy. Your emulsion (cream or lotion) will separate, go smelly and will most likely have signs of mould or change colour. If there is no mould, then other things will happen which will mean it does not look like the original product. If this happens then.....you won’t get far in the industry as no one will buy your product and if they do they will send it back or complain and most certainly wont be a returning customer.
Secondly, products should be tested. That is precisely WHY we test our products. We get tests done so that we know the preservative works. We also get tests done to make sure the formula is stable. It’s simple. When you get them tested you will know if they are safe and then you can sell them with more assurance. This doesn't negate things going wrong however. Sometimes human error means that preservatives might be forgotten while manufacturing. Perhaps you forget to adjust the pH which affects the efficacy of your preservative. This could mean that your product is not properly preserved - but again that is human error - a bad error but it is something that can actually happen to any cosmetic manufacturer, big or small.
Putting things in perspective
Firstly, contaminated cosmetics products have killed one immunocompromised person and caused some hand and some eye infections according to Brannan, 1997 (Cosmetic Microbiology: A Practical Handbook). Of course one death is one death too many and serious eye infections are not something to ignore. In contrast, in two years, between 2011-2013 two women died from reactions to hair dyes. Secondly, serious eye infections can also happen from consumers sharing eye care products - this is probably more common in fact, it must be an issue or the FDA wouldn't blog about it. When I did a quick look at contaminated products seized in customs. There were far more incidences of banned or restricted ingredients be they dyes (very common), restricted preservative types and things like tretonin which is banned in the EU. Where there were contaminated products it appeared to be from one company that manufactured cosmetics for a wide variety of brands. Shockingly this company has a history of contaminated products, so bad they have a Wiki page dedicated to it! (They are not a natural skincare manufacturer either). There were also things like fake or counterfeit cosmetics that can be dangerous to the consumer for a number of reasons. So you see, if you look at things in perspective then you can see that there are other things to be concerned about.
Looking at your formulation as a whole
Of course adequate preservation is important for your product and for your customers health however it is not the only consideration when it comes to making our products. Well it is unless you are a microbiologist who's job is to look solely at this area. As formulators we look at a number of things - I mean what is the point in knowing all about preservatives if we don't know how to even make a cosmetic product? Most of us know that preservation is important, but that should not stop us from looking at the wider picture - preservation is just one of the factors to take into consideration when we formulate - it is not the main one - it is just simply part of what we have to do. It should not be given more weight than any other ingredient and it should not be made the focus point of EVERY . SINGLE . DISCUSSION when we talk about formulating products or discussing ingredients.