Preservatives in cosmetics are often criticized, nevertheless, preservatives help the cosmetic formula remain safe and prevent alteration in time. The EU Regulation has a strict framework, with a positive list of 59 allowed preservatives. Learn more about the use of preservatives and alternatives in this article.

Les conservateurs dans les produits cosmétiques

What is a preservative in cosmetics?

Article 2 (l) of the European Regulation 1223/2009 defines preservatives as: “any substances which are exclusively or mainly intended to inhibit the development of microorganisms in the cosmetic product”. Preservatives help to preserve the formula and ensure the durability of your cosmetic products. They are essential for a formula containing water. Indeed, the presence of water in a formula creates a favorable environment for microorganisms development.

Why are preservatives used in cosmetics?

The use of preservatives in cosmetics is essential to prevent alterations caused by microorganisms and contamination during formulation, shipment, storage or consumer use. Antioxidants can also be used to protect alteration caused by exposure to oxygen.

How to be compliant with the EU 1223/2009 Cosmetic Regulation?

In the EU Cosmetic Regulation, Annex V lists 59 preservatives allowed in cosmetic formulation and their concentration limit. Every cosmetic product placed on the EU market must be compliant with the Regulation and Annexes.

If you use preservatives in your formula, be sure that the preservatives you will use are listed in the positive list (Annex V). You’ll find below the most common preservatives used in cosmetics.

Synthetic preservatives

Advantage of synthetic preservatives

Using synthetic preservatives allows you to have a good understanding of the safety and toxicity profile of the ingredient. Low concentrations of synthetic preservatives effectively preserve the product. Also, synthetic preservatives have a broad spectrum of activity against bacteria and fungi. Also, they are more affordable than natural preservatives.

List of the most common synthetic preservatives found in cosmetic products

Organohalogen compounds

Organohalogen compounds are a large class of natural and synthetic chemical that contain at least one following halogens: fluorine, chlorine, bromine, iodine. They are combined with carbon and other substances. You’ll find below a nonexhaustive list of the most common synthetic preservatives:

  • Triclosan
  • Methylisothiazolinone
  • Methylchloroisothiazolinone
  • Chlorphenesin
  • Chloroxylenol
  • Iodopropynyl butylcarbamate
  • Methyldibromo glutaronitrile


An aldehyde is an organic compound, in which a carbon atom shares a double bond with an oxygen atom, a single bond with a hydrogen atom, and a single bond with another atom or group of atoms.

  • Formaldehyde
  • Benzylhemiformal
  • Diazolidinyl urea
  • Imidazolidinyl urea
  • 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol
  • DMDM hydantoin
  • MDM hydantoin
  • Quaternium-15
  • Sodium hydroxymethyl glycinate

Glycol ethers

Glycol ethers are a group of solvents based on alkyl ethers of ethylene glycol or propylene glycol.

  • phenoxyethanol
  • 2-butoxyethanol
  • 2-(2-butoxyethoxy)-ethanol
  • 2-(2-ethoxy)-ethanol


Parabens are a series of parahydroxybenzoates or esters of parahydroxybenzoic acid. They are known as preservatives and used for their bactericidal and fungicidal properties.

  • Methylparaben
  • Ethylparaben
  • Propylparaben
  • Butylparaben
  • Isobutylparaben

Natural preservatives

Advantage of natural preservatives

Using natural preservatives may allow you to use the word “natural” and/or “organic product” on your labeling. Natural preservatives cover a broad pH range and also, consumers generally prefer natural preservatives over synthetic preservatives.

List of the most common natural preservatives found in cosmetic products

  • Benzoic Acid
  • Sorbic Acid
  • Salicylic Acid
  • Alcohol

Antioxidant preservatives


An antioxidant is a substance that inhibits oxidation or reactions promoted by oxygen, peroxides or free radicals.

Synthetic antioxidant

  • Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)
  • Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)

Natural antioxidant

  • Tocopherol (Vitamin E)
  • Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C)
  • Polyphenols
  • Flavonoids

Alternatives to preservatives in a cosmetic formula

Even if they are safe and legally used, preservatives are often targeted because sensitive skin can be more reactive to them. The cosmetic industry is constantly trying to innovate by developing new products without preservatives.

Sterile cosmetics

Two types of sterilizations are used to avoid the use of preservatives in the formula:

Ultra-High-Temperature process (UHT) consists of heating the formula up to 155°C to sterilize it and then quickly cooling it down. Sterilizing the packaging and anti-microbiological cap as well as a suitable packaging (tube, airless pump) will contribute to maintaining a clean formula.

A unique patented packaging and formula coming from France has allowed the first sterile cream in a large format (reusable). The airless and sterile packaging is made to avoid any exterior contamination. The formula remains sterile during the use of the product. The entire process is done in a sterile environment with strict norms to avoid germs and contamination.

Innovative product

The microbial contamination of the cosmetic product is mainly due to the presence of water in the formula. A French brand has innovated by using ‘gelled’ water in the formula. The product is developed in a sterile environment, which ensures zero germs in the formula or packaging. This alternative technique to the use of preservatives in cosmetics is highly innovative, and ensures a clean formula for the consumer even without the use of preservatives.

How to limit the development of microorganisms?

Choosing airless packaging or tube instead of a jar may help to reduce the risk of microorganism development. The contamination of the product is higher when the consumer can touch the formula directly.

Note: Whatever preservative system you choose, if your formula contains water, you should always perform a challenge test to prove the efficiency of the preservative system.

If you want to avoid water in your cosmetic product, you can always formulate waterless products as powders or lipsticks. You have to keep in mind that whatever process you will choose, it must be validated by sufficient data and testing when it comes to being placed on the EU market.

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Do not hesitate to contact our expert Sylvain De Backer by phone on +33 (0)1 83 64 20 54 for Europe and for North America please dial + 1 (778) 231-1607 or send an email at [email protected].

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