Communication is the soul of marketing. This assumption has been known for decades, ever since the contribution and importance of advertising promotion of a consumer good was realised, occasionally even independently of the quality of the product itself.
In the cosmetics sector, advertising communication has become, thanks also to social media, very competitive and impactful, frequently following the hottest trends of the moment.
One such trend is the ‘without’ cosmetic. One often encounters a long list of ‘without’ in label claims, so that it sometimes obscures what is actually attractive about the cosmetic in question for the consumer.
This is the case with the claim ‘preservative-free’ or ‘without preservative’, an increasingly common indication in cosmetics advertising, but one that often conceals a misleading truth.
Preservatives-free cosmetics: is this realistic?
Let us first clarify: the preservatives allowed in cosmetics are listed in Annex V of the Cosmetics Regulation 1223:2009. This annex is subject to revision, depending on updated scientific assessments that may reveal any doubts about the safety of a particular ingredient. This may lead to the prohibition or restriction of the use of a preservative.
Cosmetic manufacturers should organise themselves through the regulatory office to keep up to date with regulatory changes in order to always offer a compliant product.
But what is a preservative used for? This ingredient, so much demonised, is essential to enable the microbial stability of a cosmetic containing water, as water is the environment par excellence in which microorganisms can grow and develop.
How are preservatives-free cosmetics made?
A cosmetic may not have preservatives in the formulation in only a few cases:
- in the presence of gas, where the concentration of gas is such that micro-organisms cannot develop, as in some cylinder products;
- in the presence of high concentrations of alcohol, as in perfumery products. In these cases, it is the alcohol itself that acts as a preservative;
- in the complete absence of water, such as in a completely oily cosmetic (body, hair or face oil). In this case, the preservative is not necessary but the antioxidant is essential to prevent the oil itself from going rancid.
However, there are some ‘ploys’ that cosmetic companies have adopted: for example, that of including substances with antimicrobial action that are not covered by the aforementioned Annex V of the Cosmetics Regulation. In this way, the claim ‘preservative-free’ is used even though there is an actual preservative activity in the cosmetic.
Such a claim would only be admissible if it demonstrates, in the absence of the substance with antimicrobial action, the actual preservative capacity of the cosmetic by carrying out a challenge test.
The claim “fragrance-free”, on the other hand, is only admissible if the cosmetic, in addition to not having perfume inside, does not contain a substance with a characteristic fragrance, such as a plant extract of botanical origin.
How to spot preservatives on a label
So, how can a consumer act to understand the truthfulness of the advertising message? First of all, they can see that in the presence of water (often indicated among the first ingredients in the INCI list) a substance with a preservative action must necessarily be present, otherwise the cosmetic would become contaminated in a very short time! So the presence of this claim, associated with a formulation such as a tonic, a cream, a cleanser, which necessarily contain water, can already be a source of doubt.
Moreover, it is always possible to identify the categories that do not need preservatives due to their chemical-physical nature, as mentioned above, and be sure of the truthfulness of the claim. Cosmetic companies, both producer and contract manufacturer, are very attentive to the regulations in force, and can be a valid support to the consumer to free them from the doubts that advertising communication often generates.
A more in-depth reflection should also be made on the demonisation of preservatives. We can work with correct communication to make consumers understand not only the crucial role of preservatives, but also the absence of danger at concentrations used within legal limits. The last aspect concerns concentrations: consumers have no idea of the ranges of use of preservatives, which are obviously not high, as they have to perform their action in cosmetics at the lowest possible dose. Making it clear that products containing preservatives are not overdosed with them is a major element in achieving transparent and truthful communication.