Preservatives: Your Superpower to Read Labels

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Last updated on April 25th, 2018

Preservatives Your Superpower Method to Read LabelsToday you will acquire a superpower to pick up any shampoo, conditioner, lotion, cream, or liquid foundation and know right away if you should put it back on the shelf.  With this easy method, you will be able to spot over 95% of potentially harmful personal care and skincare products, which may cause irritation or contact allergy, or that may increase the risk of cancer or hormone disruption. The superpower method is so easy that it will take you not more than 10 seconds to apply it.


I was able to develop this unprecedented method because I have been reading ingredients of cosmetic products since my son was born, which was 6 years ago.  I use my financial analyst background to evaluate the safety of consumer products and consult with consumers and product manufacturers to help them make informed choices.


Here’s how the superpower works.


First, locate the ingredients of the product, which you can find on the website or the product packaging.  (Know that preservatives are used in all products formulated with water to prevent bacteria and mold growth.)  That’s probably the hardest part.  If the ingredients are not listed on the website, do not be afraid to call or email them.  In my experience, if you do not see ingredients on the website, it is a red flag.  I think manufacturers who are proud of their ingredients list them on the website.


Now, once you’ve found the ingredients, move your eyes to the bottom of the list, and look to see what they use as a preservative.  If you spot one of these preservatives, my recommendation is to click out of the website or put it back on the shelf.


My theory is this: if a company is not dedicated to the principle of using non-toxic ingredients, it will usually also choose an unsafe preservative because they are cheaper and easier to use.  On the other hand, companies that are trying to do the right thing will usually use a safer and more expensive preservative.  So to get a quick snapshot of the relative safety of the product as a whole, just look at the preservative being used.


The Preservatives to Spot and Avoid


Methylchloroisothiazolinone/Methylisothiazolinone (MCI/MI): is rated 6 out 10 (10 being most toxic) in the Skin Deep database powered by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). MCI is rated 7 out of 10 in the Skin Deep database. Both MCI and MI have been associated with contact allergy. MI was named by the American Contact Dermatitis Society Contact Allergen of the Year for 2013.  Lab studies on the brain cells of mammals also suggest that MI may be neurotoxic and the EPA cautions against its use in packaging that touches food.


Benzisothiazolinoneis rated 6-7 in the Skin Deep database. The European Union’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS) considers benzisothiazolinone safe for use as a preservative in cosmetics products up to 0.01% with respect to systemic toxicity.  However, the SCCS states that Benzisothiazolinone is a known to be a sensitizer.  There is no information on what may be safe levels of exposure to benzisothiazolinone in cosmetic products from the point of view of sensitization. Until safe levels of exposure have been established, the use of benzisothiazolinone in cosmetic products as a preservative or for other functions cannot be considered safe in relation to sensitization (source).


Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives:  they release a small amount of formaldehyde into a product over time. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has defined formaldehyde as “carcinogenic to humans.” The Environmental Working Group has given it the highest (i.e. worst) score for its negative health impact. Formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives are associated with widespread allergic contact dermatitis. The American Society of Contact Dermatitis lists formaldehyde as one of the core allergens, even in concentrations as low as 1%.  Longer storage times and higher temperatures increase the amount of formaldehyde released the risk of allergic reaction higher.  The allergic reaction can happen to formaldehyde or to the preservative itself.


Formaldehyde is not listed as an ingredient; instead look for these formaldehyde-releasing preservatives:



DMDM Hydantoin

Diazolidinyl Urea


Imidazolidinyl Urea


Sodium Hydroxylmethylglycinate


Parabens: are associated with the disruption of the hormonal (endocrine) system, and are rated anywhere from 4 to 7 in the Skin Deep database. There is some evidence that parabens can accumulate in human breast tissue (source).


The paraben preservatives are as follows:










Citrus Paradisi (Grapefruit) Seed Extract: is rated 6 in the Skin Deep database because it is often contaminated with benzalkonium chloride, triclosan, or methylparaben, that act as preservatives (sources here and here).  While grapefruit itself has some preserving properties, it is not powerful enough to act as a preservative without the help of other preservatives in the formulation (source).  So if you see certified organic grapefruit extract, you can be assured that it is probably safe, but it is also not a standalone preservative, so they are using something else as well.


Other concerning ingredients you might see in products with the discussed concerning preservatives


If you spotted one of these preservatives, there is, my opinion and experience, an approximately 95% chance that for emulsifiers and surfactants (cleansing agents used in products that make your shampoo lather), you will probably see ethoxylated ingredients.


Ethoxylated Ingredients: are a group of ingredients made by the process of ethoxylation in which carcinogenic ethylene oxide is reacted with other ingredients to make them less harsh on the skin (source).  As a result of the ethoxylation process, carcinogenic 1,4-dioxane is created and can be left behind in the product.  1,4-dioxane can be reduced or removed from a product through the vacuum-stripping process.  But independent tests show that many manufacturers fail to do so (source).  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has classified 1,4-dioxane as “likely to be carcinogenic to humans.”  The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) studies showed that 1,4-dioxane can penetrate human skin.


How do you spot ethoxylated ingredients?


Watch out for ingredients that contain the following:

  • PEG- at the beginning of a word, and:

Words ending in:

  • -eth
  • -oxynol
  • -ceteareth


Here is a sample list of ingredients that might be contaminated with ethylene oxide.  The full list contains 1,813 ingredients and can be accessed here.


  1. Polysorbate-20
  2. Sodium Laureth Sulfate
  3. PEG-100 Stearate
  4. Ceteareth-20
  5. Polysorbate-60
  6. Laureth-7
  7. PEG-40 Hydrogenated Castor Oil
  8. Steareth-21
  9. Polysorbate-80
  10. Cetyl PEG/ PPG-10/ 1 Dimethicone


Synthetic Fragrance


I also noticed that personal care and skincare products containing the discussed preservatives will most likely contain synthetic fragrances, which are mixtures of lots of different chemicals.


The FDA does not require the disclosure of individual ingredients used to create fragrances.  The fragrance mixtures are rated 8 in the Skin Deep database.


Many ingredients of fragrances are associated with contact allergy (source).  Fragrance may contain diethyl phthalate, associated with interfering with the normal function of the endocrine system and in animal studies is found to increase birth defects (source).


The fragrance can be spotted by looking for ingredients listed as follows: parfum or fragrance.


Today’s assignment:  Let’s practice your superpower now.  Look at a couple products in your home and see if you can any of the discussed ingredients.


Not at home? No problem.


Here is a screenshot of a product.  Practice by looking at the picture.


Tell me in the comments whether you would want to try this shampoo and why.


And finally, to download a cheat sheet to carry in your wallet with the middle of the road preservatives, click here.

Preservatives Your Superpower Method to Read Labels

31 Responses

  1. Melissa

    Thank you for another wonderful post, Irina! This really helps make the process of choosing beauty products much easier. Now I need to go through everything and see what I’ve got!

  2. Leah

    Hello! Have you heard of Alaffia products? I just purchased their Everyday Shea Shampoo, unscented. These are the ingredients, I am having trouble locating some of them:
    Butyrospermum parkii (Shea) Leaf Aqueous Extract, Liquid Shea Butter Soap (Water (and) Saponified Butyrospermum parkii (Shea) Butter* (and) Saponified Cocos nucifera (Coconut) Oil*), Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Decyl Glucoside, Sodium Chloride. *Certified Fair for Life – Social and Fair Trade by IMO.

  3. Jen

    Hello Irina. Love your blog, so thorough and helpful. I am, however, from Canada and am curious about a product line, which seems to be one of the best I’ve found so far (unless I’m missing something) from Canada. It’s called Carina Organics out of British Columbia and all products are rated 1 on Skin Deep. I am curious about their Sweet Pea Alcohol-Free Styling Gel. I don’t see anything, that I know of, that would be considered a preservative and as I have just ordered 4L, that’s right, 4L of it since I love it so much, I want to be sure that it lasts!! Thanks!

    • Irina Webb

      Hi Jen: I did look into this brand awhile ago… If you look at the ingredients, the gel is made of water, oils, and botanical extracts. Try this at home. Pour oil and water together and you will see that they do not mix but separate. That’s why in my opinion this formulation calls for an emulsifier, which I do not see in the list of ingredients. Anyway, I can’t understand these products. ~Irina

  4. Martie

    Hi Irina. I was wondering if you could check out this brand for me, Hey Gorgeous Skincare? They are South African based which is where I am from and they make the most amazing stuff. I am just not sure if they are or should be using some type of preservatives in some of their products? They do however say you should use it up within 12 weeks max, so it is very freshly made. I was just curious to know what you think? Thanks for all you hard work. X

    • Irina Webb

      Hi, Martie: Yes, if there is water in a product, broad-spectrum preservatives have to be used. 12 months is a long time. When you keep food in a refrigerator, it goes bad within a week and that’s a refrigerator. They don’t follow INCI requirements for listing ingredients, which makes hard to understand what the ingredients are. Emulsifiers seem to be missing, too. If you want me to contact them and ask them questions and/or investigate other brands, you might consider booking a 15-min consult with me: ~Irina

      • Martie

        Hi Irina,
        Thanks for the updated list of preservatives etc.. I just purchased the new list again and wanted to ask why it doesn’t state safer preservatives to look out for like the previous list? I do find the new one harder to understand and navigate, preferred the old layout more. Please will it be possible to put in the safer preservatives as it just makes life so much easier when shopping? Thank you again for all that you do for us. xxx

        • Irina Webb

          Thank you, Martie, for letting me know. I will consider doing so in the next edition if other people will ask for that too and the sales of the first edition are sufficient. Thank you, again, for all your helpful suggestions. ~Irina

  5. Marilyn

    That shampoo above is the worst! And they actually call it Eco Pure🤨…I would NEVER use it!

  6. Suzanne

    I would not try the product above, EcoPure Nourishing Shampoo. It has many offending ingredients like parabens and many others.

  7. Ashley

    I would not try this product. Mainly due to sodium Laureth sulfate, all the methyl and ethyl words, fragrance and the colors. There may be other bad ingredients but those are the ones I notice as “bad”. Thanks for this super helpful list!!!

  8. Laura

    Hi Irina, this is a super helpful post! I’d love to have a little card that I could print out and keep in my wallet for handy reference at the store – some of these chemical names are impossible to remember. Would you ever consider making something like that? To have that knowledge so close at hand would be worth paying for in my opinion!

    • Irina Webb

      I would love to make a card like that. Anybody else interested? Thank you, Laura! It is great to hear from you. I hope you are doing well. ~Irina

  9. Annette

    Greenwashing at its finest. This shampoo would never make its way into my cart.
    I have to mention a recent trip to Lush, at our local mall. I was under the assumption that Lush used nontoxic ingredients but alas, I was wrong. I really wanted them to be what they claimed but after looking at their list of ingredients in their shampoos and body soaps, first ingredient was sodium laureth sulfate I was immediately turned off. When a sales person approached me I explained my disappointment and she was absolutely certain that Sodium Laureth Sulfate was a natural good for you ingredient.

    • Irina Webb

      Thank you for sharing this, Annette. This is so funny, sad, and frustrating all at the same time. I wish that salesperson read this post. ~Irina

  10. Nancy

    Absolutely not! 2nd ingredient makes me put it back. But then when I scanned the rest of the ingredients, I was horrified that just about every ingredient was bad. This makes me angry when they try to make the packaging of the item “look” eco-friendly and likely to be a good product!

  11. Jamie Guidera

    I am interested in a handy cheat sheet card to keep with me as well! I’m probably going to make at least a temporary one myself. This post was incredible. Thank you so much for sharing, Irina!

  12. Dawn

    Hi Irina.

    Thank you so much for this post and challenge. I misread the ecopure name as ecocert. Then as I started reading the ingredients, starting with sodium laureth sulfate, I saw more and more bad ingredients in this product. If I had it in my hand it would have gone back after reading the first chemical ingredient.

    I would very much like to purchase an ebook with the information you have posted. You work incredibly hard to help us learn and I appreciate your openness.

  13. Jessica Espinosa

    I would also be interested in a card I can keep with me at all time. Thank you Irina 🌸

  14. Rita Silverman

    Good morning Irina,
    Thanks so much for all of your wonderful information. I too would be interested in having this information printed on some kind of card I can keep in my purse for when I am shopping.
    Also, please recommend a shampoo that is nontoxic but lathers. Bought some of the “healthy“ shampoos but felt they were difficult to use since they did not have the toxic ingredients that makes them lather. Thank You, Rita

    • Irina Webb

      Hi, Rita: you can download a cheat sheet here. As for shampoos, to get a lot of lather you would have to use sulfates. But I will keep your question in mind. Which healthy shampoos have you tried so far? ~Irina

    • Irina Webb

      Hi, Madison: please look around my website. You can the menu or type shampoo in the website’s search engine. Thanks. ~Irina

  15. Kathleen Riley

    Irina, Thank you for all your work! I learn so much from you, and I need to because of my compromised health. I recently had a facial that felt wonderful and was told the product was “all natural.” Upon research, I learned it wasn’t! I’ll use your list to check any future products that claim to be “all natural” or “made with natural ingredients.” Most aren’t! Thank you for watching out for us and educating us to do the same for ourselves and our loved ones.

  16. Ivan

    The eco pure shampoo is toxic as hell- i would not touch it with a ten-foot pole.

  17. Michelle

    I’ve been using a shampoo and conditioner by Rahua for a few years. The ingredients look safe to me (unless I’m missing something). It does not lather. It can be used for color treated hair. I’m wondering if you have ever looked at it.

    • Irina Webb

      You are right – nothing harmful. But I do not see any antimicrobial preservative listed, only anti-mold one – potassium sorbate. ~Irina

  18. Martine Pigeon

    hi, just starting to learn, thanks for your helpful information. Have subscribed to your blog, receiving emails , paid 7.95 to download a list to put in my wallet… I don’t seem to find it anywhere, please help me out

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