Navigating the landscape of beauty and skin care product ingredients is a tricky one, whether you purchase them or make your own products at home. I recently posted on the potential dangers of grapefruit seed extract as a preservative, prompted by my forays into homemade eco-diapering. In my earlier post I asked the question:

Why use a natural preservative that’s not actually natural?

But more to the point:

Is there a such thing as a personal care preservative that is not bad for you?

When I find myself in such a quandary, I like to do some thorough research and make an informed decision. Here is “Part 1″ of the fruits of my labor!

Below I provide an overview of “what you need to know” about preservatives in personal care products that advertise as natural or organic, links to some of the best online resources, methods for you “do-it-yourselfers” and some of the reasons why it’s so hard to find safe, non-toxic alternatives. Part 2: The Preservatives will include a list of commonly used “natural” preservatives and their potential pro’s and con’s.

Why Use Preservatives?

When it comes to store-bought skin care and hygiene products, most must withstand a significant time frame in shipping and distribution between the warehouse and you. So they must be designed to last from two to three years after manufacture. Hence the use of typically synthetic and potentially carcinogenic preservatives to prevent the growth of dangerous micro-organisms during their long shelf life. Without some type of preservative, store bought products would expose consumers to molds, bacteria, adverse skin reactions, even blindness. Cindy Jones, a biologist interviewed by the Natural Ingredient Resource Center, stated:

Some of the most common bacteria that can infect cosmetics such as Staphylococcus, Streptococcus, Pseudomonas as well as some fungi can lead to allergic reactions that cause irritation and itching of the skin.

When consumers experience this they rarely consider the possibility of microbial contamination but rather assume a reaction to one of the ingredients. Some bacteria can lead to more serious infections of the skin such as folliculitis or even gangrene! Products used around the eye have been known to cause conjunctivitis or even blindness from contamination.

Betcha’ never thought of that, did you? I hadn’t. For most people who shop natural or go homemade, however, popping in some potential carcinogens is not the answer, however. If we would like to cohabit and “play nice” with the bacteria and molds that live among us, it takes thought and care.

Of greatest import in terms of preservatives are water-based products, which include most creams, lotions, liquid soaps, shampoos, etc. I discuss the particular vulnerability of water-based skin care products in my post, Water vs. Oil in Preserving Homemade Skin Care Products. Unlike oil-based products, which mainly need be protected from rancidity, water-based products must be protected from bacteria and mold or they can spoil anywhere from 1 month to 2 days, depending upon three things:

  • Ingredients (Is it food? Is it perishable? Is it something that you would ordinarily refrigerate?)
  • The degree in which their production is sanitary (from super-sanitized “clean hood” production to washing your hands, sterilizing utensils, and using boiled or distilled water)
  • The methods of use (If you can and do put your finger *into* the container it will spoil faster.)

The Ingredient List

Natural products based on plant-based ingredients attempt to circumvent the use of synthetic preservatives, but there is a limit to what they can accomplish effectively. When offering products made with water (including lotions, creams, body washes, bubble baths, shampoos, etc.), natural products manufacturers will usually take one of three routes:

  • Use a preservative that is synthetically manufactured by chemically altering a natural base, such as grapefruit seed extract
  • Use a combination of herbal extracts and essential oils and production/packaging methods (Hurdle Technology). Though natural, some of these ingredients must be used in large quantities to be effective, and thus have the potential to cause skin irritations and allergic reactions in some
  • Use no preservative, and instruct customers as to the limited shelf life of their product (the most natural choice, but one that requires care and diligence on the part of the consumer)

Preserving Your Homemade Personal Care Products

If you are making your own products, whether for your own use or to give as a gift, it is important to understand the options you have to keep them fresh:

  1. The first being to simply to exclude preservatives, make your batches small, refrigerate them, and use them within 1-2 weeks depending upon ingredients. Some recipe books, such as Better Basics for the Home will also state specifically the shelf life of each product, so you can maximize their use.
  2. The second being to avoid all water (”anhydrous”) and food items that typically require refrigeration.
  3. The third being to use a base that is naturally resistant to spoilage, such as alcohol, glycerin, sugar, salt, honey. Percentages will vary in terms of how much of a particular ingredient is needed to achieve the effect. For example, glycerins at 15-20% will achieve a preservative effect. For most beginners, like myself, this will mean following recipes and proceeding with caution. The knowledge that a recipe is high in one of these ingredients, however, does give a clue as to how long it may last.
  4. The fourth being to use a combination of truly natural preservatives in sufficient concentrations… some argue impossible to achieve with water-based products.
  5. The fifth being to use a “nearly natural” preservative, like grapefruit seed extract. Unfortunately, however, this can mean at best unpredictable results, and at worse the introduction of known toxins found in the GSE product, as I discuss in my post describing scientific studies and the dangers of grapefruit seed extract.

The Bottom Line: Which Preservatives Should I Avoid?

Whether purchasing products or making your own, it is important to know two things:

  1. All methods of preservation will only delay spoilage.
  2. Most preservatives are by their very nature in some way harmful to the body. They are, essentially, substances that kill fungi and bacteria, which, if your remember from those days in Biology class, are those teeny weeny organisms that are the basis of all life on Earth. As with preservatives in food, proponents often explain that a substance, while a known toxin, appears in such a small amount that its effect on the body is “negligible.” We cannot avoid the existence of toxins in the air we breathe, but we must make our own personal decisions on the extent to which we intentionally include known toxins into our daily routine.

Maria Tadiello clarifies the topic well in her article Choosing Antioxidants and Preservatives:

It is important to understand that the efficacy of preservatives relies, by definition, on their ability to kill live cells; in other words, their toxicity is an unavoidable component of their reason of being.

It is very expensive for natural product manufacturers to distribute truly “all-natural” products as the money required to test the effect of natural preservatives is cost prohibitive, as explained by this leading cosmetics manufacturers’ website.

The development of formulation methods that minimise the need for preservatives, such as reducing the water content, is a more likely response from the natural and organic cosmetics industry to reducing preservative load, explained technical consulting manager for Organic Monitor, Judi Beerling.

At present there are no natural or organic preservatives included in [the list of allowed preservatives]. Instead there are a number of nature-identical substances that are accepted by certification bodies for use in organic and natural products. Although this means the field is open for a supplier of natural preservatives, the likelihood of companies attempting to get a natural alternative onto the positive list is low, said Beerling.

This is, in part, because proving a compound’s efficacy and safety could cost millions of euros and take several years, she explained.

It seems that, for now, the only way to be 100% free of potentially dangerous preservatives is to avoid them altogether. This is not such a huge leap if you consider how many “whole foods” and “organically-minded” folk approach the way they eat. In order to avoid preservatives and colorings, we avoid processed foods, and simply choose instead to make the food ourselves. The only foods we keep on the shelf are those that are either dried or canned, and those we “use up” after we open them or refrigerate them when we don’t.

Using a similar approach to personal care products, therefore, would mean:

  • Using anhydrous (no water) versions of store-bought products, as I describe in my post on water and skin care products,
  • Or, purchasing preservative-free products directly from small manufacturers (SAHM’s for example), and using them within the alloted time frame,
  • Or, making your own simple personal care items in small batches.

If you’re making homemade products, be sure that you’re working in sanitary conditions. When using preservative-free products, never put your fingers into the container or add water unless you plan to use it right away. Use a spatula or a squirt or pump bottle to avoid introducing micro-organisms. Most advice given to makers of homemade skin care products suggests using common sense and caution: smell it, compare it to how it was when you first made it, if you have the slightest doubt: toss it.

When purchasing natural personal care products off the shelf, especially those containing water, consider the research on grapefruit seed extract and parabens, and how comfortable you feel introducing those ingredients into your daily regimen. If you’re using natural products due to sensitive skin, use caution when introducing products that contain essential oils. Certainly avoid all formaldehyde based preservatives. Take advantage of ingredient lists and databases; I recently posted list of the best links on ingredients to avoid.

The skin is just one of our body’s entry points, and studies have shown that it can easily pass in toxins. It’s possible, however, to make informed choices and use natural products without risking our health. In Part 2 of this guide, I’ll discuss some of the specific substances considered natural preservative alternatives, such as Vitamin E, essential oils, and potassium sorbate. If you’d like to catch that post, you can subscribe to this blog, which would also transform me into a delighted and grateful Mama Hope! Sign up via email or RSS reader.


Mama Hope

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5 Responses to “A Guide to Natural Skin Care Preservatives, Part 1”

  1. christine way-cotterMay 27th, 2009 at 6:42 am

    hi there hippie dippie bebe
    great article! I would love to read more. I make my own skin care and really have been drawn to making more of the balms because of the preservative issue. when I make a water based cream I have my clients refrigerate them. what about using witch hazel extract that has been preserved in alcahol for the water base? thanks,christine

  2. Well written article. I have been using the Brenese cream which is natural. The natural preservatives you have described are what they have listed as there ingredients. Makes me love my cream even more.


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