Using Preservatives

Natural products are wonderful.  I love the way they feel on my skin, how they smell, how they look, and I especially love the process of creating them.  Making natural products for yourself is relatively simple.  Make small batches, use them up quickly, and take care not to contaminate anything.  When you plan on sharing your creations with others the situation can grow a little more complex.  Because you cannot be sure how your product will be handled or how quickly it will be used once it leaves your hands, adding a preservative may be a necessary step.


Formulas that contain only oils and waxes are fairly stable on their own.  An average balm, or water free body butter will last several months to a year before going rancid.  Some formulators choose to add an antioxidant such as Rosemary Oil Extract or Vitamin E (T-80) to protect the shelf life of the oils contained in the formula.  Preservatives are not generally used in these simple balms and butters for two reasons:

  • The formula does not contain water or water based ingredients such as Hydrosols or Aloe Vera Gel.
  • The formula is not likely to come into contact with water during use. Most balms are applied to dry skin or lips.

When water or water based ingredients are introduced to a formula it becomes fragile.  Fresh lotions and creams are a good example of a fragile formulation, but any product that contains any amount of water will be subject to the same issues.  This includes wet masks, bubble baths, tinctures and more.  The water in these formulas will attract bacteria, mold, and other unsavory characters causing the product to become contaminated, break down, or go rancid.  This growth can pose serious health risks and unfortunately, is often invisible to the naked eye.  Extreme care must be taken when creating fresh creams and lotions even for personal use.  If you choose to create a lotion, cream, or other recipe that includes water without a preservative you must store it carefully and use it up within a few days to be safe or store it in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.  In order to responsibly share your product with others an effective preservative must be added.

You should also consider adding a preservative to products that may come into contact with water during use.  Sugar and Salt Scrubs are a great example of this situation.  While the product does not contain water, the user is likely, despite your best instructions, to bring the entire jar of product into the shower with them, introducing bacteria, water, and other unwanted additives into the product when it is used.  The jar will then be sealed up until it is used again.  Meanwhile, the bacteria that has been introduced will be growing inside the jar.  Another alternative to using a preservative in oil based scrubs is packaging the scrub in single serving portions so that your customer will use the entire jar in one shot, eliminating the dangerous situation.

Natural preservatives such as Grapefruit Seed Extract or Optiphen can be helpful in warding off bacterial growth, but unfortunately are not always enough to preserve an aqueous formulation for an extended period of time.  Synthetic preservatives offer stronger preservation properties, but unfortunately can be very controversial.  Great care must be taken when selecting a preservative and professional testing is necessary if you intend to sell the formulation to the public. Without the use of a Professional Challenge Testing Lab it is very hard, if not impossible, to be certain of whether your formula has been properly preserved.

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