The True Cost of Free-From Products

As the trend for natural cosmetics increases, so does the demand for preservative-free ingredients. We are seeing increasing pressures on formulation design to minimise preservatives, but are these natural cosmetics and beauty products putting you at risk? “We want all natural, organic, no synthetics and no preservatives, just pure natural ingredients." We hear this so often ... but are we asking for a unicorn?

In the last few months, multiple brands and contract manufacturers have reported microbe issues blowing out production runs, with single preservatives used incorrectly as broad-spectrum preservation, over looking pH and oils with peroxide values way outside of their Certificate of Analysis specification. In 2 weeks we rejected 3 different sources of a common carrier oil due to the Peroxide Values being significantly out of specification.  We’re left to question - is testing adequate, or being done at all? Cosmetic brands and contract manufacturers are coming to us in crisis, looking for new suppliers to replace their ‘dirty’ extracts or oils, which is raising BIG questions here at Native.

The industry is finding itself in a dilemma with the rise of organic and natural skincare and “Free-from” marketing campaigns. In the past five years, there has been a 67.​2% growth in the number of products that have “free-from” claims, yet simultaneously skin care is the leading category taking interest in natural preservatives because the use of more natural ingredients raises the risk of microbial contamination. More and more brands, and especially formulating chemists are challenged to deliver safe and clean ingredients naturally, so here is what you need to know about microbes, the suggested limits, and their evolving reputation in cosmetics.

Example dip slides of dirty extracts 


As the demand for preservative-free products increases, so does the risk of contamination. Martin Sychell, Deputy General of the European Commission’s Health Directorate warned that reducing preservatives will create "real public health problems.”

Botanical Extracts are created using a solvent and for decades many have been ethanolic tinctures, which kept microbes or the need for preservatives at bay. The introduction of water and/or glycerine extracts, including our innovative Cellular Extraction process, delivers water-soluble phyto-compounds in their entourage that are available, stable for years, but they also require more knowledge to ensure their safety. While NATIVE EXTRACTS does offer the option of unpreserved variants of Cellular Extracts, it’s very specific to a brand’s unique preservation objectives.

Plant extracts are notoriously difficult to manage microbes because they present the perfect environment for bacteria, yeast and mould. Although some extract constituents hold antimicrobial properties by nature, plant extracts have a harder start at bringing microbe counts into line because plant materials are naturally exposed to micro-organisms throughout harvesting, handling, processing and packaging. The water activity in aqueous solutions combined with extracted plant-derived sugars and air-occupied head space in containers, serve as a breeding ground for aerobic bacteria. Anaerobic environments also allow yeast and other anaerobes to produce alcohol as the by-product of fermentation, which over time may compromise extracts’ composition, potentially produce pathogenic species, or render it as dangerous goods.

While most manufacturers control their counts with a preservative system that either kills the bacteria (bactericidal) or prevents its growth (bacteriostatic), there has also been the industry view that 65% glycerine acts as a preservative, but this ratio is no match for rhizomes like turmeric, or leaves and flowers. If ingredient manufacturers supply preservative-free extracts, you would expect they cannot offer a shelf-life, which passes on the responsibility of managing microbes for the finished product to the formulator. Cosmetic expert, Jane Hollenberg suggests that formulators “need to look for useful technologies particularly from the food industry” when considering new ingredients, as more natural ingestible options have withstood safety regulations. 

We at “Native” have spent years on research, trials, and tests to ensure the safety of our Cellular Extracts, because we understand that ultimately cosmetic brands are responsible for the safety of their final product. Unfortunately, some of our competitors don’t uphold their quality management. In fact, we just tested one of our competitor’s turmeric water / glycerine extracts and it was crawling with bacteria, yeast and mould to values over 100,000 – 1,100,000 colony forming units per gram (1 × 105-6 CFUs). This is unacceptable. Can brands and contract manufacturers trust Specs and CofA supplied without validating them?

Ask your plant extract suppliers if they have in house microbe testing, and or do they use 3rd parties. You need to trust your documentation.

Escherichia coli and Staph. aureus – two microbes that must not be in cosmetic products

The FDA maintains that cosmetics are not required to be sterile, but they must not contain harmful, pathogenic microorganisms, and the aerobic microbes per gram must be low. According to the ISO 17516:2014 International Standard, microbes must not exceed over 1 × 103 CFU per gram or millilitre, or 1 × 102 CFU for products designed for sensitive skin – eye area, children or mucous membranes. Overall, the product must be free of E. coli, S. aureus, P. aeruginosa or C. albicans.

Brands like Gallinée, Biophile and Mother Dirt are capitalising on the microbiome story, promoting prebiotics, fungi and beneficial bacteria to support the skin and scalp microbiome. While the “skin-gut axis” may benefit from beneficial bacteria, “Our understanding around how, and what, microbes bind to in healthy skin is still in its infancy,” according to Dr. Rawlings, R&D Director of multiple companies. Without the science in place yet, it’s vital to be aware of your suppliers’ quality commitment to prevent significant risks. So, when you are in the market for an ingredient supplier and contract manufacturer, be sure to ask the right questions to ensure your products’ safety. 

If you have any questions regarding the preservatives in your extracts, contact us!