Do homemade cosmetics and skincare products require preservatives? And if so, do natural preservatives actually work?
In today's post we dive into these questions as well as cover natural preservative options for lotions, creams, and other DIY skin care products.
what is a preservative?
A preservative is a chemical that is added to cosmetics in order to inhibit the growth of microbes and subsequent contamination and spoilage of a product.
Are Preservatives Necessary?
It may seem strange to think about using preservatives when making natural body care products. Aren’t we trying to avoid chemicals?
Here is the problem: products made containing water-based ingredients are susceptible to microbes.
Mold, yeast, and bacteria can easily grow in products made with these ingredients, but also in products that may have water introduced to them by the user (such as using wet fingers to remove a product from the jar).
Common products that include water-based ingredients are lotions, creams, facial toners, and homemade hydrosols. An example of a product that does not contain water-based ingredients, but may have water added during use, is a body scrub.
Some specific water-based (or water-containing) ingredients you might include in homemade products include:
- Herbal tea
To be perfectly honest, at one point I felt the risk of using contaminated products was less than the risk of using a “toxic” preservative. But I have changed my tune a little.
When we are talking about the risk from contaminated products, the risk can be as simple as a rash, but it can also be as complicated and scary as a serious infection that could even lead to death or blindness.
Because of these risk factors, I have come to believe it is necessary to use preservatives in products made with water-based ingredients.
Thankfully, that doesn’t mean our products have to be overloaded with chemicals! There are natural options.
But can’t you see or smell if a product has gone bad?
Sadly, the answer is no.
That said, in many circumstances it is obvious; a product may have visible mold, red streaks, green or white fuzz, or an off odor. However, there are many cases where a products is contaminated and you can not tell until the product is applied and a reaction occurs.
We can’t always rely on our senses to tell us if a product is safe to use. Scientific testing will confirm this.
If you'd like to test your homemade products for bacterial and mold growth, use a microbial testing kit for quick and easy at home testing.
Do Anhydrous products Need NatUral Preservatives?
We call products that do not contain water-based ingredients, anhydrous. Many anhydrous products don’t require a preservative. But that is up to your personal choice.
Vitamin E, Grapefruit Seed extract, and Rosemary Extract are NOT Preservatives
You may have heard that essential oils, Vitamin E, Grapefruit seed extract, and/or Rosemary extract can preserve your products, but this is not true.
It is true that some essential oils have been shown to have antibacterial properties, however, the trouble is, in order to be effective in inhibiting mold or bacterial growth, they amount necessary would likely be unsafe for the skin.
Vitamin E, Grapefruit seed extract, and/or rosemary extract may help extend the shelf life of some oil based products because of their antioxidant nature, but they do not have the ability to prevent the growth of mold and bacteria. This means they are not true preservatives.
You may have heard about Vitamin E, Grapefruit seed extract, and/or rosemary extract being helpful in “preserving” but this is really referring to their ability to slow the process of oils going rancid. This has nothing to do with germs or microbes, only the breaking down of the oil itself.
Natural Preservative options
You may be wondering, “what cosmetic preservative are natural?” I know many of you don't want to add a “toxic” preservative to your natural skin care creation. Thankfully, there are a number of options when it comes to choosing a natural preservative. Some can be used alone, while others do better when paired with another preservative.
No matter what type of preservative you choose, it is always best to use one that is considered a broad spectrum preservative as it will discourage growth of a variety of mold and bacteria. This is important as we don’t know what type of mold and bacteria could be introduced to our products. The wider variety of protection, the better.
Some popular natural preservatives include:
- Leucidal® SF Max
- PhytoCide Aspen Bark Extract
- Preservative ECO / Geogard® ECT
- AMTicide Coconut (often used alongside other preservatives)
The Formulator Sample Shop now sells Leucidal® Liquid Complete which combines Leucidal Liquid + AMTicide Coconut. This is a great broad spectrum option.
When it comes to using natural preservatives, it can take a little experimentation to find the one you like best. You should also note that each preservative comes with its own properties and has unique instructions for use. You cannot usually exchange one preservative for another is equal amounts and slight adjustments in recipes and formulas are necessary.
Here is a quick overview of a few natural preservatives you might consider using:
INCI: Phenoxyethanol (and) Caprylyl Glycol (and) Sorbic Acid
AMTicide Coconut was developed by fermenting Cocos nucifera (Coconut) fruit with Lactobacillus.
It is not a preservative to use alone, but designed to be used alongside other preservatives in order to provide added protection against the growth of yeast and mold. It works well in conjunction with Leucidal® Liquid SF.
Recommended usage level is 2.0% – 4.0% of overall formula.
Works best in products with a pH between 7.0 – 9.0.
Learn more here:
Leucidal® SF Max
INCI: Lactobacillus Ferment
Leucidal® SF Max is a probiotic-based ingredient derived from fermented radish roots and is considered a broad spectrum antimicrobial.
Is on the Whole Foods Acceptable Premium Preservative List and ECOCERT approved (read more about ECOCERT here).
GMO Free, Salicylate Free, and no ethoxylation, irradiation, sulphonation, hydrogenation, or ethylene oxide is used in processing.
Add it to products with a pH between 3 and 8. Works best at a pH below 6.
Should be used at about 2 to 4 % of the overall formula. This is quite high compared to other preservatives.
Add it during the cooling phase of the formulation process at temperatures lower 104°F/40°C.
Leucidal® Liquid Complete
INCI: Leuconostoc/Radish Root Ferment Filtrate & Lactobacillus & Cocos Nucifera (Coconut) Fruit Extract
Leucidal® Liquid Complete combines Leucidal Liquid + AMTicide Coconut.
Is Whole Foods compliant and approved by ECOCERT/COSMOS.
Deliver moisturizing and conditioning benefits as well as protecting against microbial growth.
Add it to products with a pH between 3 and 8.
Should be used as 2 to 4 % of the overall formula.
Add it during the cooling phase of the formulation process at temperatures lower 158°F/70°C.
Preservative Eco (also called Geogard® ECT)
INCI: Benzyl Alcohol (and) Salicylic Acid (and) Glycerin (and) Sorbic Acid
This low odor preservative is a water-soluble and provides broad spectrum protection.
Is ECOCERT and COSMOS complaint.
Considered effective between a pH range of 3 – 8.
Used at a rate of 1% in water based products.
Because of its salicylic acid content, it is not recommended for products intended for children below three years of age.
I hope this has provided some useful insight into using natural preservatives in homemade products. I know this can be a difficult topic for us naturally-minded folks and it is certainly one I have wrestled with over and over.
Be sure to research the preservative you wish to use to ensure it is suitable for your desired purpose. Also note that it is important to observe how the preservative acts with the other ingredients in your homemade product. It could change the color, texture, acidity, or smell.
One of the most useful practices is to keep detailed notes. This is helpful even when not using preservatives.
Keeping notes about your homemade creations will enable you to discover what works best. Notes help you replicate what went right, avoid repeating what went wrong, and make adjustments along the way.