114: Why Preservatives In Skincare Can Be A Good Thing w/ Rachael Pontillo

With the popularity of natural skincare booming, certain ingredients (like preservatives) have become somewhat taboo. However, as my guest will point out, sometimes natural skincare products do need preservatives. 


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My guest today is Rachael Pontillo, a holistic skincare innovator, author, and educator. Rachael is the bestselling author of the book Love Your Skin, Love Yourself, and co-author of The Sauce Code. She’s a functional nutrition practitioner, AADP and IAHC Board Certified International Health Coach, licensed aesthetician, and natural skincare formulator and educator.

She’s the president and co-founder of the Nutritional Aesthetics™ Alliance, the creator of the popular skincare and healthy lifestyle blog, Holistically Haute™, as well as the much-loved online course, Create Your Skincare. She’s an avid herbalist, skincare ingredient aficionado, and lifelong learner.

Rachael is also my good friend, and my go-to person to ask about the ingredients in skincare products.

Join us as we discuss why preservatives in skincare can be a good thing, and the possible implications if natural skincare products omit preservatives.

Do your skincare products contain preservatives? Let me know in the comments!

In this episode:

  • Incidence of bacterial + mold contamination in natural skincare products
  • Pros + cons of preservatives in natural skincare
  • Why some natural skincare products need preservatives
  • How do you know if there is a preservative in your skincare product?
  • Steps to confirm that your fav natural skincare has done adequate testing on their product


“When a product doesn't have a preservative, some of the signs that tell you that contamination has happened, one of them is separation. And definitely black specs indicate some sort of microbial infestation that has happened, which obviously is a big problem.” [3:55]

“Anytime you have water, that is an environment that can breed bacteria, mold and yeast. Any of that can cause problems. That contamination can lead to infection, irritation, all sorts of problems. So we do need a preservative.” [5:19]


Find Rachael online

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Interested in trying Rachael's online classes to create your own skincare? Click HERE!

Healthy Skin Show episode 024: Most Harmful Ingredients Hiding In Skin Care w/ Rachael Pontillo

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114: Why Preservatives In Skincare Can Be A Good Thing w/ Rachael Pontillo FULL TRANSCRIPT

Jennifer: Thank you so much Rachel for being here. I really appreciate it. And I think the first question I have for you, because I saw a Facebook post where you were I think at Whole Foods, and you were in the skincare aisle checking things out and you saw something that kind of horrified you. And I think this is a great conversation. So would you mind sharing with everyone what happens and why you were so horrified in the skincare aisle at Whole Foods?

Rachael: Yes. And I love this story and thank you so much for having me on to talk about it because I think people really need to know about it. So I'm shopping at Whole Foods with my daughter and my daughter is so into skincare and makeup and everything. She's my little mini me. So we're just opening testers and we're looking. And I opened one tester and I notice it's a cream, it's separated. There is a puddle of oil on top of the cream itself. It's in a jar. And then there were some black specs. So I'm like, “That's not good.”

Rachael: So I close the jar and I just flipped it over and I look at the ingredient list. Not only does the product contain herbal ingredients, botanical ingredients, which, hey, we love it. Herbs are fantastic for the skin. But it contains humectants, so water containing and water attracting ingredients. It had aloe vera in it, it had honey in it, and it also had things like flower waters and definitely some sort of herbal tea infusion ingredients, which again, beautiful for the skin, we love them. But when you have water in a product and plant matter, that's like a microbial schmorgus board where all the little pathogens, the bacteria, molds and yeast are like, “Yay food for us.”

Rachael: So these products have to contain a preservative. There was no preservative on the label and quite frankly, there wasn't even an adequate emulsifier, which is the ingredient that's used to actually keep the water and the oils bound together in a uniform consistency. But that aside, emulsification I'm not as concerned about because yes, it's nice for a cream to stay together. You don't want to have to shake a product or mix a product every time you want to use it. That's more of a functional thing. But when a product doesn't have a preservative, some of the signs that tell you that contamination has happened, one of them is separation. And definitely black specs indicates some sort of microbial infestation that has happened, which obviously is a big problem.

Rachael: Now with a tester, obviously that is a jar that people are sticking their fingers in and trying on. This is not a sanitary situation. But I have to be honest with you, a lot of people when they get a at home are not storing them or using them correctly. They're sticking their fingers in the jar or the bottle. They're keeping it in a hot, steamy bathroom where it's being exposed to particulate matter and water vapor and potentially mold as well. A lot of bathrooms do have mold problems because their ventilation is not sufficient for having that amount of moisture in a small room.

Rachael: So if a product is failing at a store before it's even off the shelf, you can bet that if somebody gets a product at home, takes it out of the box and keeps it in their bathroom, same thing's going to happen in a very short period of time. And in this case, we would have actually been lucky that there were visual signs that something had gone wrong. That is not always the case. You're not always going to notice a separation, a change in consistency. You're not always going to see specs or fuzzy mold or sometimes the mold kind of just sits on the surface and kind of like algae on top of water is what it would look like. You're not always going to see that. You're not always going to smell something is off. Sometimes the product can look, feel and smell perfectly fine, but contamination has happened and you won't know until maybe you get a rash or maybe you get an eye infection.

Jennifer: Well, one thing that you're saying is I think there's this onslaught of all these natural products and everybody wants natural, natural, natural. And the word even preservative, like when you and I've had conversations about skincare products, you're like, “No, you kind of need some of these things. They're not all bad.” Could you clarify to listeners why a natural skincare product may actually require some preservatives and it's not this big evil chemical that's going to necessarily mess your skin up or make you sick or any number of things?

Rachael: Yes, absolutely. So any product that contains any type of water, does not have to be water itself, it can be aloe, it can be a hydrosol or a floral water. It can be an infusion, which is basically an herbal tea. It can be some kind of an extract. Sometimes you don't know what kind of extract is on the label. A lot of them are water extracts, aqueous extracts. Anytime you have water, that is an environment that can breed bacteria, mold and yeast. Any of that can cause problems. That contamination can lead to infection, irritation, all sorts of problems. So we do need a preservative. And the purpose of a preservative is to inhibit microbial growth and to a certain extent to kill anything that might grow before it becomes a problem and gets out of hand.

Rachael: Now with natural skincare products, obviously the whole turn to natural skincare started happening around 2004 when the first big study parabens came out, where the whole thing that linked parabens to breast cancer tumors came out. That was in 2004. You have a huge onslaught of people who are like, “No, it's fine,” just because there's a relationship that does not show causality and this and that. But studies have continued. And even if we're not talking about breast cancer, we do know that parabens are endocrine disrupting chemicals that can cause other imbalances in the body. We also know that more comes into the body than the body can eliminate in any given day. There've been multiple studies done independently that have shown this, some of them by the same researcher that did that first initial study. There have been multiple followups by her and then many other people that you and I both know have done their own independent studies on their own patients in their practices, whether they're environmental doctors or naturopathic doctors or functional medicine doctors.

Rachael: There's plenty of evidence showing that parabens do affect the body. And then the argument is that, well, parabens occur naturally in some fruits and vegetables. That's the other argument I hear, and it's not exactly the case because if something naturally occurs in a plant, it also has all of the coenzymes and coefficients needed for the body to know what to do with that chemical, that vital chemical. And humans respond differently to phytochemicals than they do with Xeno estrogens or some synthetic manmade chemicals. Those chemicals do not come with all of those other things that the body needs in order to know what to do with it.

Rachael: So once parabens started going out of favor, they started replacing it with things like phenoxyethanol and other types of preservatives and blends of preservatives that had to be used at a higher percentage, which were actually causing people's skin to become irritated. It's been kind of a long road because we do need preservatives, but then you started having a lot of people making products and saying, “Well no, you can use alcohol as a preservative. You can use the Apple cider vinegar as a preservative. You can use lemon juice as a preservative, you can use citric acid.” They started like all of these kind of herby DIY types of things that have antimicrobial properties, or essential oils. That's another big one. But that's like a whole other topic.

Rachael: But the point is, a lot of brands started coming out of the woodwork that were unintentionally, I believe, harming people because the preservation systems were inadequate-

Jennifer: And what would that look like? How do you even know? Like I'm looking at a natural product that was sent to me and I don't see anything on here. I see sodium benzoate, which I assume-

Rachael: It's a preservative. Yeah.

Jennifer: But how do you even know if there is a preservative in the product that you're using?

Rachael: You don't always because if it's a botanical one and it's something… There are some botanical and bio fermented ingredients that do have antimicrobial properties, so Aspen bark extract is one of them. There are a couple of different botanical blends. Some of them have some citrus, some of them have clove. There is a huge trend now using Leuconostoc, radish root ferment, which is, the brand name is Leucidal liquid, there's a Leucidal complete, there's all sorts of different Leucidal products and this is essentially a peptide that comes out of the fermentation process of what you would make kimchi with. And it's kind of cool because the peptides do also bring some skin benefits as well as having this antimicrobial property. And some of the versions of Leucidal have other stuff added to make it more appropriate for products that are more prone to mold contamination versus bacterial versus yeast and this and that. They've tried to make it kind of a nice well-rounded offering. And so that would be considered natural. But you would see Leuconostoc kimchi on the label, which doesn't look like a preservative but in fact it is.

Rachael: What I do want to point out is that I have started seeing it sometimes listed as the second or third ingredient, which is a little frightening because that's an ingredient that you can't use higher than 4%. So if somebody's listing it second or third, that means they're using way more than 4% which actually can cause irritation because typically the first five ingredients on the list, make up 80% of that product.

Jennifer: And so would other products like on this particular one that I'm looking at, sodium benzoate is a preservative-

Rachael: Yes. So that's typically used in a blend. You might see it with Ethel Hexcel glycerin. You might see it with fennel, ethyl alcohol, you might see it with sorbic acid, you might see it with potassium sorbate. There's all sorts of other chemical sounding names, a lot of them are mineral salts that you mix them up together and they are considered also food grade preservatives. Citric acid might be thrown in there.

Rachael: There are a bunch of these synthetic chemicals that can be used in a blend at a small percentage, many of them under 1% or at 1% of the total formula, which honestly if you look at them on databases like EWG or on Think Dirty, they don't have a negative impact on the body. There's not studies that are really showing a problem as long as they're used within their proper usage range. And then these blends, some of them are also approved for use by international certifying bodies that kind of say, okay, if it's an organic product, these are the preservatives we'll allow. So Eco Cert, Cosmos, Nature, some of these organizations, Made Safe, has some of them that they approve for their Made Safe, nontoxic certification.

Rachael: So some of these blends, and there's a lot of them available out there, that's what people are using now. And that's what I typically do recommend to most of my students. A lot of them do like the botanical blends and the Leucidal because it is more natural obviously.

Jennifer: And I think that's a reason why I wanted to have you talk about this because you do actually teach people and you consult on how to create skincare lines. You do a lot of natural stuff, but you also have a tremendous amount of information. Because when I saw this story that initially kicked off this idea to have this chat with you, I realized that so many people, I get emails all the time like, what's the best vegan, like herbal stuff that I can use on my blank, for my blank or whatever skin care is. And I'm always like, “I don't know.” I'm not an expert like you are in the ingredients and understanding how to provide and create safe products with natural ingredients.

Jennifer: But if someone is a little concerned, like they go to the farmer's market or they're in Whole Foods, that's a little alarming that you're in whole foods and someone got their product into Whole Foods-

Rachael: And I did report that by the way to management. I did not feel the need to call out the brand on social media because I didn't think that was a classy thing to do. But I did report it to management and I explained what I thought happened and that they need to reach out to that brand. Because the thing with Whole Foods is even though they are owned by Amazon, they do still support a lot of local makers. And I don't want to harm anybody's business, but they do need to know if maybe their product needs to be tested in a different way. A lot of small makers especially don't understand microbial testing and pH testing and stuff like that. And that's stuff that they need to know.

Jennifer: And how would we know as a consumer, is there a way for us to know if they've done that type of testing on their product?

Rachael: You need to ask them. They're not going to necessarily have that public information. So definitely I always recommend supporting small brands when you can because it's just like getting to know your local farmer. You can have a conversation. Whereas if you call a bigger brand, you're going to be sitting on hold and dealing with some customer service rep and getting transferred and you're not going to get the answer in a timely fashion. So I would say call the brand, email their customer service, ask specifically if you have a question about, “Hey, what's your preservation system? And have you tested this? What kind of testing have you done?”

Rachael: And if they don't answer or if they give you attitude, do business with someone else. Luckily, this is an industry where you have so many choices. And I also want to encourage people to reach out to their local estheticians and herbalists who might be making custom formulations that are specifically for you. So that's also something really fun that you can do.

Jennifer: And I just want to say too, you've got a great website with tons of information for people to check out. As always, I always learn something every single time I go to your website which is, I think frankly the fact that you're a part of the healthy skin show community and you're such a tremendous resource for me and I hope for everyone else because I really want you guys to go and check Rachael out. You can find a ton of information. She's got three… She does a lot of stuff guys. You can find her @rachaelpontillo.com createyourownskincare.com and nutritionalaesthetics.com. That's our organization, correct?

Rachael: Yes. It's a professional organization that connects skin health practitioners with licensed estheticians and we all work together. I have a certification program that is teaching them how to advance an integrative approach to healthy skin in their practice.

Jennifer: Perfect. And you see guys, this is why I have Rachael, people like Rachael on cause she knows so much about this. And you guys wonder sometimes like where did you learn this? I learned a lot from Rachel. So you need to go check her out and she's got a great free class. If you want to start understanding how to create your own skincare, I'm going to put the link in the show notes to everything that she has, but especially do this free class. So if you've had an interest in kind of doing your own thing, you really want to check this out because remember part of what drives certain skin issues, especially like eczema, we know that there's dysbiosis of the skin and you should be a little wary of starting to add in a whole main thing you read about on Pinterest that could be contaminated with bugs that you should really not be applying to your skin. You got to be careful here.

Rachael: Yeah, and just one more quick point on that. So preservatives, it's not as simple as just picking one online and then sticking it in your product. You've got to know what you're doing. There's multiple different ones. Every formulation needs a different preservation solution. They have to be tested, they have to be adjusted. This is not like, “Oh, let's buy a preservative and get a little pipette and just stick it in and mix it up and now my product is safe.” And I get emails all the time, “What's the best, safest, organic, natural vegan preservative to use in my product?” That's a question that I can't answer because there's never an easy answer. There's not just one that I can say, “This is my favorite one, and it works for everything.” That's not how preservation works. So you have to know what you're doing.

Jennifer: Perfect. Well, thank you so much, Rachael. I really appreciate it and we'll have to have you back.

Rachael: Awesome. Thank you so much.

“Anytime you have water, that is an environment that can breed bacteria, mold and yeast. Any of that can cause problems. That contamination can lead to infection, irritation, all sorts of problems. So we do need a preservative.”