I have been receiving e-mails for a while now asking about colloidal silver; whether it is safe, if it will turn skin blue, and so forth. The natural beauty community seems to have a neutral to negative take on this ingredient based on comments I've read online. So rather than me writing out what I know about colloidal silver, I thought it may be more productive to directly answer or examine some beliefs about this ingredient.
What is it?
Think of colloidal silver as a suspension of tiny silver particles evenly dispersed in water.
What does it do?
Colloidal silver is used for many reasons, however in skincare products, it has an anti-bacterial and anti-viral function that acts as a natural preservative and helps to kill bacteria.
What is the problem with it?
For most people, the problem has more to do with the past than with the product itself. When it first came out, there were all sorts of health claims for colloidal silver including as a dietary supplement, HIV/AIDS cure, herpes vaccine, etc. However much of these claims are unsubstantiated through scientific testing. Furthermore, there were no dosages so people ingested large quantities to cure everything from the common cold to allergies. The build up of large doses of colloidal silver when ingested over time can lead to a condition called Argyria, which gives a blue discoloration to skin, eyes, nails, and other membranes. Argyria doesn't have any real health impacts although the appearance can be extremely disconcerting.
So what happened?
Because of these isolated cases, the FDA realized that there needed to be measures in place as this was being used as a form of oral medication without any tested medical results to back the claims. After testing, they concluded that much of the claims could not be proven true and enacted sweeping measures to restrict all manufacturers of colloidal silver who made these claims.
Why are some skincare brands using it now?
Although colloidal silver has never proven to be a legitimate source of fighting off the claims manufacturers initially suggested, it does have real efficacy as an anti-bacterial that inhibits the growth of bacteria, germs, and viruses. As it is a pure and clean ingredient (using only silver), it is considered a very natural preservative.
Why don't they use other preservatives?
As a preservative, colloidal silver delivers great results and is also fairly beneficial for the skin. This makes them exceptional as they have dual functions to both protect the formula from spoiling and provide benefit for skin. It seems that commonly detractors of any ingredient in natural beauty will make the following claims: 1) The ingredient is cheap 2) It isn't pure/natural 3) It is bad for sensitive skin!
So let's address those claims:
1. Colloidal silver is much more expensive than typical food grade preservatives (which are in turn more expensive than paraben/phenoxyethanol) because of the fact that it is a high quality and effective ingredient that uses actual silver. There I don't believe skincare lines use this ingredient to skirt the issue of cost.
In fact there is nothing budget-friendly about colloidal silver at all, the recently launched La Potion Infinie Argentum is a $245 jar of cream that is said to have anti-aging, hydrating, and anti-bacterial impact on skin. It's key ingredient is colloidal silver. Similarly, Julisis, another expensive line uses colloidal silver across its silver essence line. In this case, they're showing off their access to and use of colloidal silver as an attractive ingredient.
3. Unless you have an actual allergy to colloidal silver, then it won't irritate your skin. In fact many food good preservatives have been shown to have the potential to cause irritation, eye allergies, dermatitis in smaller concentrations.
But aren't other preservatives safer?
Much of the safety concern related to colloidal silver applies to extreme cases of regular ingestion. No such results have ever occurred from topical application because it just isn't realistic. This fear is akin to the fear of contracting HIV from mouth-to-mouth contact, it is misguided. Furthermore, if we're going to access safety through regular consumption, food grade preservatives don't fare any better. For instance, sodium benzoate which is used in Kahina products has been shown to have potential carcinogenic effect when combined with Vitamin C, and in large doses can impact nerve health (this was the ingredient that got Skinnygirl Margaritas into trouble a while back). Benzyl Benzoate used in Tata Harper products has been used in insecticides and has been shown to have potentially irritating effects including dermatitis on human skin.
The takeaway is that none of these preservatives are meant to be ingested straight, so when it happens there may very likely be side effects that aren't favorable. The point isn't to say other preservatives are worse, but rather to point out colloidal silver is not more dangerous than any of the other preservatives most consumers including natural green beauties happily use every day.
So why does the FDA go hard after this?
The FDA goes hard after those who continue to market colloidal silver as an oral medication that cures those unproven claims, not skincare companies who use colloidal silver as a preservative. In the same way that if the ingestion of the food-grade preservative potassium sorbate took off for unproven claims, the FDA would probably go after that as well.
On the flip side, the FDA has approved MANY products that incorporate colloidal silver for its anti-bacterial properties.
What is your take?
The pictures of people with Argyria are hard to look at, so I get the fear. But all those cases came about from a lack of education, we're more educated now. And we now know that Argyria comes from chronic long term ingestion of colloidal silver, not through topical application of skincare. With the sufficient studies that the FDA has done for the approval of topical usage of colloidal silver, I'm very comfortable with this preservative. Colloidal silver helps to maintain the stability of products and unlike most preservatives, actually seems to have skin benefits. If you're not comfortable with colloidal silver yet, look for formulas where it is listed toward the end of the ingredients listing as those concentrations are incredibly harmless.