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Natural ingredients are not necessarily safer or more effective, say cosmetic chemists

By Katie Bird

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Preservative

Cosmetic chemists fought hard against the idea that natural ingredients are inherently safer than their synthetic counterparts at this week’s cosmetic science symposium.

A number of speakers at the conference, organised by the UK Society of Cosmetic Chemists, spoke out against the media frenzy surrounding ingredients such as parabens and other synthetic preservatives.

Natural sells on fear of synthetic

For cosmetic consultant John Woodruff, ingredients should be chosen on safety and efficacy regardless of their natural or synthetic status.

“We owe it to the consumer to provide the most effective, safe product possible. Our choice of ingredients should depend on safety and efficacy not unfounded safety scares and efficacy studies that owe more to folklore than to science,”​ he said.

He went on to accuse some companies operating in the natural sphere of selling on fear not science, and damaging the reputation of the industry in general.

Kevin Roden, from Thor Specialties, also argued that natural is not always safer; adding that in the case of preservatives unapproved natural alternatives may be more toxic than approved synthetic ingredients.

Under EU regulation, if a preservative is used in a cosmetic, it must be chosen from Annex VI. As yet, there are no natural preservatives on this list so there are, by definition, no natural preservatives.

Companies wishing to use natural ingredients to preserve their products must argue these ingredients have been added for other reasons, which has led to the release of a number of ‘natural preservative alternatives’.

‘Illegally-used preservatives’

For Roden, these ‘preservative-free preservatives’ are simply illegally used preservatives. Their absence from Annex VI means they may not have been subject to the same extensive safety tests as those accepted on the list.

He highlighted the use of essential oils for their preserving properties saying that these must be used in high concentrations, or in combination, and care must be taken to avoid fragrance allergens.

In addition, sustainability may prove to be a problem for natural preservatives, according to Roden. Parabens are used in large quantities, replacing this with natural alternatives such as essential oils or curry plant leaves would require very large harvests.

Natural to complement synthetic in the future

However, Roden was positive about the potential of natural preservatives to complement the synthetic options already on offer.

Research suggests that some plant extracts may be able to reduce the amount of preservatives needed to have the desired effect.

This is due to their ability to block efflux pumps that bacteria use to remove toxic compounds from the cell, explained Roden. The antimicrobial actives added as a preservative could then build up inside the cell, and lower concentrations would be needed.

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