Low usage of environmentally hazardous preservatives in cosmetic products

The use of preservatives which can cause problems for health and the environment is low in cosmetic products in Sweden. In order to ensure the products are safe, however, the list of permitted substances must be updated in cosmetics legislation, as established by the Swedish Chemicals Agency in a report submitted to the Government today.

“The use of preservatives which are hazardous to health and the environment in cosmetic products is low in Sweden, but it is important to strive to prevent this usage from increasing. In order to ensure the products are safe, we want to review the list of permitted preservatives in the EU cosmetics legislation,” explains Anna Lindberg, investigator at the Swedish Chemicals Agency.

It is common for cosmetic products such as shampoo, soap, moisturisers and lotions to contain preservatives so that the products are not destroyed by bacteria. Some substances that contain chlorine are persistent, bioaccumulative and highly toxic to aquatic organisms. These chlorinated preservatives can therefore constitute a problem if they pass through water treatment plants and are released into the environment.

The cosmetics legislation lists which preservatives are permitted for use in cosmetic products. But it is only the substances’ effects on health that have been evaluated when a substance is added to the list. Any environmental problems are regulated through the EU chemical regulation REACH. The Swedish Chemicals Agency proposes in its report to the Government that Sweden strive for the preservatives assessed most problematic to be limited in REACH. On the other hand, the agency does not believe that Sweden should introduce national regulations for cosmetic products in order to limit the preservatives in focus in the assignment.

“EU processes concerning the preservatives we assess to be particularly problematic are already in motion. There are probably other, larger sources for the dispersion of these substances as well. Therefore, the most effective approach is to work for limitations to be imposed through the EU’s REACH legislation, which regulates chemical substances,” says Anna Lindberg.

The effects of the preservatives on health are evaluated on an EU level, but for a number of substances, the evaluations are outdated. New knowledge has emerged that the EU cosmetics legislation does not take into account. The Swedish Chemicals Agency therefore establishes that it is important that the list of permitted substances is kept up-to-date and reviewed in step with new findings.

In its report, the agency has investigated triclosan and 18 other preservatives in cosmetic products. The agency proposes a number of measures to ensure that the use of certain preservatives will not increase in everyday products. Together with other agencies, the Chemicals Agency wishes to develop a set of criteria for the public procurement of cosmetic products and measure the incidence of the substances through environmental monitoring. One important reason for this is that a number of substances are suspected to contribute to antibiotic resistance. Another proposal in the report concerns increasing support to companies that wish to replace problematic preservatives with better alternatives.

Together with perfumes, preservatives are the major cause of contact allergies by cosmetic products. The Swedish Chemicals Agency has assessed that seven of the preservatives investigated have a high potential to cause allergies. For several of these substances, measures are being implemented in the EU with the aim of limiting the risks. Where contact dermatitis is concerned, the Swedish Chemicals Agency considers it especially important to reduce exposure to the mixture of methylchloroisothiazolinone (MCI) and methylisothiazolinone (MI), which is often used.

Read the report (PDF 2680 kB, in Swedish, with a summary in English on pages 8–9) , 2.7 MB.

For more information, please feel free to contact:

Anna Lindberg, investigator, +46 8 519 41 221

The Swedish Chemicals Agency’s press service, +46 8 519 41 200, press@kemi.se

E-mail addresses of the Swedish Chemicals Agency’s employees are written as follows: firstname.surname@kemi.se

Facts: The Swedish Chemical Agency’s proposal regarding preservatives in cosmetic products

Limitations of preservatives in cosmetic products on an EU level

  • The Chemicals Agency is to take action to ensure that substances with problematic environmental or health properties are dealt with through the REACH Regulation, which involves ongoing evaluations of certain substances that are suspected of having serious environmental or health properties.
  • Together with other public authorities, the Chemicals Agency is to act to ensure that the cosmetic regulation’s annex concerning preservatives is reviewed again to ensure that all substances have been evaluated sufficiently and are safe to use.

Measures to be implemented in Sweden to ensure that the use of certain preservatives will not increase in cosmetic products

  • Together with other public authorities, the Chemicals Agency is to complement the legislative work with chemicals requirements in the event of public procurement.
  • The Chemicals Agency is to support actors’ efforts to voluntarily phase out the preservatives that are of most concern from an environmental and/or health perspective.
  • Continued national environmental monitoring of persistent organic pollutants in order to obtain better data to use for assessing the environmental risks of these substances.