Nothing lasts forever, nor should it – two important truths for life, relationships and especially household cleaning products. Buying products that are designed to live on our shelves for months, years or indefinitely (hello, red flag!) may save us a few extra trips to the store and dollars out of pocket, but when it comes to our health, what’s the real cost of these preservative-laden purchases?

In this month’s Toxic Timeout, Amy Ziff – the founder of MADE SAFE -is walking us thought the pervasiveness of toxic preservatives in products we use daily, how these chemicals can impact our health and some insider secrets for smarter – and safer – shopping…

Why Do Products Have Preservatives?

When manufacturing products like personal care, cosmetics and household cleaners, preservatives are necessary to prevent the growth of yeast, mold, bacteria, fungi and other micro-organisms. In today’s global marketplace, most products are expected to last for months or years without degrading, separating or spoiling. Preservatives are necessary to keep these products shelf-stable.

How Harmful Are Preservatives?

Preservatives can often be harsh and have a range of toxicity issues for humans or other animals in the ecosystem. For example, a common class of preservatives known generally as parabens are linked to increased risk of breast cancer, whereas methylchloroisothiazolinone, which is an isothiazolinone preservative, is incredibly toxic to aquatic life, according to the EPA.

Most people want the performance and shelf life of a product with a good preservative without the side effects of a preservative. The issue is that viable preservatives with zero human, environmental or aquatic toxicity are very hard to find and don’t always work in certain mixtures for complete coverage. This is why you’ll often see more than one preservative listed on a label. There can be a primary preservative and multiple “boosters.” There can also be preservatives that are sub-ingredients, meaning they aren’t listed on the product label because they are contained in another ingredient in a small amount.

Grapefruit-seed extract is a good example of why preservatives can be confusing. If this extract is sourced and made naturally, is not contaminated with GMOs or parabens, and there is no concern for amplifying prescription drugs in the system, then grapefruit-seed extract can be a useful preservative ingredient. However, grapefruit-seed extract is often not naturally derived and can be contaminated with concerning synthetic sub-ingredients that don’t appear on the label. This makes it difficult for the average consumer to determine if a product is acceptable for use simply by looking at an ingredient list.

What Should I Look For Instead?

Look for products with expiration dates. Brands that make products with simpler ingredients know that they won’t last for a decade on the shelves. Some may only last six months. This is actually a good thing! Although it does require a shift in mindset and perhaps adjusting the way you buy and use products.

When trying to parse the label on your own, look for essential oil preservatives over complex chemical ingredients that are hard to pronounce. Shop carefully and look for products from brands you trust. Look for third-party seals that evaluate ingredients, like MADE SAFE. This is exactly why our seal exists — we inspect how each ingredient is made, sourced and supplied before granting certification to a single product, including preservatives.

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