Preservatives in Skincare


Preservatives in Skincare

And why you shouldn't be afraid of them.



4 MIN READ | AUGUST 28, 2021


Dylan Mustapich is a NYC-based lead esthetician who has been featured in New Beauty, Teen Vogue, Wired, and The Huffington Post. With a lifelong love of all things skin, he is incredibly knowledgeable about skincare ingredients, routine refinement, and personalized skincare, and follows emerging technology closely.

Few ingredients have been demonized by the clean beauty industry as ruthlessly as preservatives. Preservatives are ingredients included in skincare products that help prolong their shelf life and prevent bacteria and mold growth. Products claiming to be “preservative-free” have started to appear on the shelves at popular cosmetics stores, and it’s become an often-used marketing buzzword. In reality, many skincare products, especially those that are water-based, need preservatives to keep the formulation free of bacteria and stable once opened.

When products are insufficiently preserved, they can quickly degrade and turn rancid. For example, sunscreen ingredients begin to lose their potency past their expiration date, while rancid facial oils can lead to potential reactions and an “off” odor.

Some are beginning to realize the limitations and pitfalls of formulating without preservatives, particularly the short shelf life and negative impact it can have on the skin. Preservatives are not bad, they are actually useful in helping to protect your formula and keeping your active ingredients working at maximum efficacy.

Here’s what you should know about the most common types of skincare preservatives:


A commonly used class of preservatives, parabens used in skincare include Methylparaben and Butylparaben. They are highly effective at preventing fungus growth and can also stave off some types of bacteria. Fear around parabens can be traced back to studies around its effects on estrogenic activity.

Though these findings have since been disputed, the clean beauty industry has preyed on the public perception that these ingredients are dangerous to sell products. It was later concluded by the CIR (Cosmetic Ingredient Review) that Parabens are safe to use in concentrations up to 25%, with many products featuring levels as low as 0.01% to 0.3%.

Organic Acids

Found in water-based products, organic acids include Benzoic Acid/Sodium Benzoate and Sorbic Acid/Potassium Sorbate. They work well at preventing the growth of fungi but are less effective when it comes to bacteria.

Considered a “natural” preservative (despite primarily being made synthetically), organic acids can be combined with Phenoxyethanol and formaldehyde releasers such as Diazolidinyl Urea for additional protection.

Formaldehyde Releasers

These scary sounding ingredients (including Imadozolidinyl Urea and Diazolidinyl Urea) release formaldehyde as needed to preserve skincare products. More effective against bacteria than fungi, these ingredients ensure the actual level of formaldehyde (free formaldehyde) in products is kept incredibly low.

Caprylyl Glycol

A humectant that is able to draw and bind water into the skin, Caprylyl Glycol is also used in skincare products for its preservative and antimicrobial properties. In addition, this ingredient can help make a formulation more “spreadable” and works synergistically with other preservatives for an increased level of protection and extended shelf life.


Considered to be a milder alternative to more traditional preservatives like Parabens and formaldehyde releasers, Phenoxyethanol is highly stable (not pH dependent) and is effective against bacterial growth. It’s often combined with organic acids and Caprylyl Glycol to offer a broader level of microbial protection.  

At Atolla, we custom formulate products with minimal preservatives. This is because these products are created specifically for you and designed to be fine-tuned and replaced monthly. This allows us to use less intense and dilutive preservatives to ensure your products are safely stored. We follow the CIR recommendations on preservatives recognized as safe at the concentrations used in skincare products. 

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