Preservatives and Patch Tests

Any product that has water in it and needs a shelf life of more than a week is going to need some kind of preservative, and personal care products, topical pharmaceuticals and cosmetics are no exception.  But products that are applied to the skin have one extra problem that other products don’t generally have.  This is the patch test.If you get a skin reaction to a particular product, you don’t have any way of knowing what is causing the problem.  To find out, you need to go to a doctor or a dermatologist and get a patch test done.   This is a simple enough test.  The doctor gets on to the manufacturer and asks for samples of all the individual ingredients.  These are then applied under a patch attached to the skin on the patient’s back or arm, hence the name.After 24 hours  the patch is removed and the skin is examined for reactions.  Hopefully this will reveal which raw material the patient is sensitive to so that they can look at ingredient lists in future and avoid products that contain that material.   This is what the ingredient list is there for.  The intention is that all companies should list materials by the same name and in the same style so that sensitive consumers can make an informed purchasing decision.Incidentally a lot of companies tart up their ingredient lists with lots of extra information about just how brilliant their particular ingredients are.  I don’t think this actually violates the letter of the law but it is certainly getting away from the spirit of it.  It certainly isn’t helping people who have a problem find the information they need quickly and easily.

So why are patch tests a problem for preservatives?

The trouble is the way they are done.  The preservatives get put straight onto the skin, or at least not diluted to anything like the extent they are in an actual product.  Preservatives are intended to kill germs so they tend to be a bit on the aggressive side as chemicals go and a lot of them are quite irritating.  So reactions to them in patch tests are common.  Also there aren’t that many permitted preservatives, and not all the permitted ones are actually any use practically.  So the same preservatives get used in huge numbers of  products.

Dermatologists are scientists, and like all scientists they love data and often publish reviews of the results of their patch tests.  This is a good thing, the more information the better.  But it does mean that lots of data is available on irritant reactions and preservatives tend to get over represented in this data.  They get patch tested again and again thanks to being so widely used.  And they are usually being patch tested at concentrations way higher than the formulator put them into the formulation.  And on top of that, the people being patch tested are ones with sensitive skin – by definition.

This isn’t to say that preservatives don’t cause skin reactions.  They do.  But the impression you would get from looking at the published literature on skin reactions is more than a little misleading.  For a start, the more widely a preservative is used the more likely it is to end up in a patch test.  The most widely used preservatives are the parabens.  There is a good reason for this.  Most formulators have worked out that they get the least number of complaints about skin reactions when they use parabens.  But they feature quite strongly in the numbers of skin reactions reported in the scientific literature.

With the advent of the internet it is possible for anyone to do their own research and to reach quite wrong conclusions about just how bad some preservatives are.

The trouble is that all this makes the idea of launching a new preservative a deeply unappealing project for chemical manufacturers.  If it is successful it is only a matter of time before it starts appearing in patch tests and starts to get a bad name.  And it is getting to be more and more of a problem for formulators as we lose more and more options to a combination of enthusiastic regulators and bad press for the remaining permitted molecules.

But I think there is some good news on the horizon.  If the upcoming regulations on cosmetic vigilance are implemented carefully, I am hoping that they will bring some perspective back.  I have said that preservatives cause reactions.  But what you wouldn’t realise from most of the coverage of them is that the numbers of reactions are really really low. Perhaps when there are publicly available statistics on overall rates it will become clear that they really aren’t that much of a problem.

Nobody is ever going to love them – they just aren’t that lovable – but I hope with more information people will come to realise that they really aren’t all that scary.

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8 thoughts on “Preservatives and Patch Tests”

  1. Could there be multiple chemicals in a formula that a person is sensitive to? Is it always just individual chemicals or could it be a combination of two together? Like they’re fine separately but together they cause trouble? Is there something wrong with me that I find this fascinating?

  2. Thanks for you kind words Lise and I am glad you found the post helpful.

    Tina, it seems quite reasonable to expect that chemicals could work together to give problems that neither would have. For instance if one increased the rate of skin penetration of the other. I can’t think of any examples where this has actually happened but I would not be surprised to come across one.

    The opposite is quite common. There are plenty of combinations that minimise irritation. The one most formulators would think of straight away is the combination of sodium lauryl ether sulphate and cocamidopropyl betaine. The first is quite irritant and the second is a bit as well. If you put them together in a particular ratio the blend is barely irritating at all. There are plenty of other examples. This is why whenever I come across a brand or a shop that markets itself on a list of ingredients that they don’t use I am always suspicious as to whether their products are any good. The longer the list the more suspicious I am.

  3. astrorainfall @ beauty box

    Sobering perspective on preservative, Colin. It is rather tricky isn’t it to formulate a product that will last without “nasty” preservatives like parabens. I’m not completely adverse to parabens if they are at the end of the ingredients list.

    However, in my fervent search for products that don’t have parabens, inevitably have quite a bit of alcohol or ethanol in them. Is there some sort of correlation or am I imagining this?

  4. Great post, thanks Colin.

    I suppose the way to really test preservatives would be to ascertain first that a simple basic formulation doesn’t cause sensitivity, then add the preservative to it and test the mixture to see if it causes sensitivity, to get over the problem of using concentrated preservatives. But could a preservative potentially react with other ingredients to produce a mixture that increases skin sensitivity? I know very little about cosmetic chemistry, I’m afraid.

  5. I was patch tested last week to find a possible allergy or sensitivity that is causing my eczema. There were only a few reactions out of the 77 chemicals, including methylchloroisothiazinoline and its variants. I have found that most of my worst breakouts occurred when trying several products that I know know contain this chemical. Are you saying that the patch test may be exaggerating my reaction and I am probably not allergic?

    1. Hello Brooke, I am just saying that like all tests it can produce wrong results, and that the way it is done it can sometimes lead to a false diagnosis of an allergy. That doesn’t mean that all results are wrong in general of that yours is in particular. MI is used at very low levels so there are a couple of facts to be aware of. First the good news – it might not be a problem for you at all at the level it is generally used in cosmetics. Secondly the bad news – given that it is often used at very low levels indeed, even if you don’t get a skin reaction to one product that contains it you can’t be sure that you are in the clear for other products that contain it. Best of luck!

  6. i have just had my allergy stickers removed and i am allergic to mc1 and m1 gutted i love my products and smellys but i don’t like swollen eyes lips and nose with hives and small blisters on the tips of my fingers and i am so shocked that most of my fav brands have it in not a good day for me then 🙁

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