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Shampoo 101: Preservatives


As I’ve explained in my Hairvember post on surfactants, there is a price we have to pay for our shampoos to be nice and foamy. Bad news, the same is true for the simple fact that our shampoos are liquid…

Every cosmetic product that contains a single drop of water or that is exposed to water or even wet hands is prone to bacterial and fungal spoilage and needs some sort of a preservative! There is no exception to this rule, and sadly, natural alternatives aren’t full-value: They retard rancidity or even have anti-microbial properties, which is why they might work fine when it comes to preserving products that contain only very small amounts of water. But essential oils, the much talked about grapefruit seed extract, vitamin E or citric acid can by no means replace preservatives in water-based products.

What is wrong with using preservatives in shampoos, you might ask.

  • The main concern is the fact that a lot of the most frequently used preservatives are so-called FRPs oder formaldehyde-releasing preservatives. On the one hand, FRPs like DMDM Hydantoin, Diazolidinyl Urea, Bronopol, Sodium Hydroxymethylglycinate, Tris Nitro, Imidazolidinyl Urea and Quaternium 15  have the advantage to decompose slowly and thus provide preserving powers over a longer period of time. On the other hand however, they are absorbed through the skin and release formaldehyde, which can cause allergic reactions or rashes and is also a know human carcinogenic.
  • Other preservatives that have fallen into disrepute are parabens: Although they occur naturally (blueberries for instance are full of parabens!), they are becoming increasingly controversial because of their estrogenic activity (parabens are able to mimic estrogen and supposedly lead to early puberty in girls) and a fairly recent UK study lead by Philippa Darbre, in the course of which parabens were detected in breast tumors. According to Darbre, the parabens most likely came from a product applied to the skin. (Keep in mind however that the presence of parabens both in cosmetics and in a tumor does not prove that parabens in skin care are directly linked to the development of breast cancer!)

How should we evaluate these pieces of information? On the one hand, a direct link between FRPs/parabens in cosmetics and severe health issues could not be established, and our governments have not completely banned these ingredients: On the other hand, studies like Philippa Darbre’s are definitely disconcerting, and the fact that major companies like Johnson&Johnson are slowly phasing out a number of preservatives seems to indicate that manufacturers themselves are not convinced of the harmlessness of certain ingredients.

Once again, I think we should try to strike a balance between panic and dangerous unconcern: It is certainly possible (and desirable) to eliminate a number of dubious ingredients, but I don’t think it is realistic (or necessary, for that matter) to ban every preservative, surfactant or other supposedly (!) dangerous ingredient from our beauty regimes and only use curd soap for the rest of our lives. First of all, how tiring would it be to do hours of research before buying a bottle of shampoo, how sad  to ban all our favourite products from our bathroom cupboards? And secondly, would cosmetics then still be an enjoyable part of our lives? As I stated in my introductory blog post, to me, beauty products are as much a source of pleasure, fun and well-being as they are necessary and functional elements of a personal hygiene. I don’t want to endanger myself, I do certain amounts of research, I share my knowledge and I certainly try to find alternatives for certain products or ingredients. But the selective elimination of a number of ingredients is not an absolute credo to me, and I won’t let vague warnings spoil the bit of everyday luxury that beauty products are to me. If a supposedly less dangerous alternative works fine and makes me feel good, I am happy to use it; if not, I will stay with my original product.

As far as preservatives in shampoos go, I will take this blog post and the research I’ve done as an opportunity to try out Lush’s perservative-free solid shampoos: They don’t contain water and therefore claim to be self-preserving. I have been wanting to give them a try them for quite a while now, so look out for a review in the next couple of weeks 🙂

(Thumbnail and picture: Creative Commons Colorfull soap bubbles by Fernando Kokubun used under CC BY / Annotated by myself)


One thought on “Shampoo 101: Preservatives

  1. Pingback: Review: REN’s Resurfacing AHA Concentrate | The Wherewithals

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