Making your own personal care products is one straightforward way to avoid those indecipherable ingredient lists. But when you do so, the question of preservatives is an important one. Here’s some useful information that clarifies the distinction between preserving water-based vs. oil-based skin care products, including some tips on how to use this difference to avoid worrisome preservatives.

This is “post number two” of my larger research into natural preservatives and recipes for homemade beauty and baby care products, such as diaper rash cream and wipes solution. Up next is a post on alternatives for natural preservatives when you need ‘em.

Water in Homemade Products

*Water* is the a crucial issue when dealing with preservatives. Treasured Locks, a beauty products manufacturer, put it succinctly:

Water is the basis of all life, including bacteria, fungi and molds. Products without preservatives may have a short shelf life, even if refrigerated. Products that are not properly preserved, even if made in a pristine environment and free of microbes when shipped, can become a health risk when exposed to the yeast, mold, fungi and bacteria present in all of our homes.

Basically, anything made with water is harder to preserve.

While many skin care products contain both oil and water, for example creams, lotions, and moisturizing cleansers, some products may contain only oils. Oils are subject to rancidity, but are much less susceptible to spoilage by bacteria and mold. An excellent article by Marina Tadiello on SoapNaturally.org makes the distinction:

Bacteria, fungi, yeast and other potentially dangerous microorganisms typically avoid waterless compounds (such as balms, salves, pomades and oil-only blends) and also substances with a relatively high pH (such as soap), but thrive in humid environments. For this reason, soaps and oil-based skin care applications do not need preservatives - but unlike these, creams, lotions and any other compound where water is present require adding a preservative if the shelf life and integrity of the product need to be extended further than 2 or 3 weeks. [Emphasis original]

Therefore, recipes and instruction books I’ve encountered advise using distilled water and exercising great care and sanitary conditions while both making and using natural products made with water.

Even still, without preservatives your finished product can spoil anywhere from 2 days to 3 weeks depending on ingredients. Even with preservatives, any personal care product made with water will eventually spoil — it’s the law of nature — preservatives simply prolong that length of time. And because water is the basis of all life, by their very nature all preservatives that effectively kill mold and bacteria are to some extent toxic to humans.


Tips to Avoid Preservatives

To avoid the kind of preservatives necessary when using water, there are essentially two options:

  • Do not use water.
  • Replace the water with different aqueous substance naturally resistant to bacteria and mold.

When making your own personal and skin care products, making versions of products without water, such as salves or balms instead of creams or lotions, will eliminate the need for anti-microbial and anti-fungal preservatives.

Formulating anhydrous products is another way to eliminate the need for chemical antimicrobial preservatives. Bar soaps typically do not require an antimicrobial but stay fresher when an antioxidant is used. You do have natural antioxidants available to you for this purpose. Switch to the use of natural balms made of oil and butter instead of creams and lotions which require an antimicrobial preservative. Create dry bath products such as bath salts, milk baths, bath bombs, bath teas etc. to eliminate the need for antimicrobial preservatives. Salt scrubs, bath oils, bath melts and other oil based products can stay fresh as long as water is not introduced to the container during use. Again, you may wish to use a natural antioxidant to keep the oils fresh. Minimize contamination potential by choosing your packaging carefully. Dispensing bottles are better than open mouth jars. (FromNatureWithLove.com)

This is another good reason to use salves and oils over lotions and creams wherever possible. For example, after showering or bathing, apply an oil, rather than waiting until you or your child’s skin dries out to apply a cream or lotion, which is essentially a salve with water and emulsifier added to it. Applying an oil while your skin is still wet locks in the fresh water you’ve just applied!

Although not suited to every situation, another recommendation is replacing the water in your recipe with aloe vera oil or glycerin, both of which are moisturizing and have natural preservative qualities.

There are of course situations where a preservative is necessary, even when making items for your own use in small batches. For my next post, I’ll be listing natural preservative alternatives and their pros and cons. Until then!


Mama Hope

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3 Responses to “Water vs. Oil in Preserving Homemade Skin Care Products”

  1. What is the difference between Aloe Vera Juice and Aloe Vera Oil? Can either one be used as a good water substitute?


  1. A Guide to Natural Skin Care Preservatives, Part 1 :: hippie dippie bébé
  2. What’s Behind the Brand Names? (Natural Skin Care Preservatives, Part 2) :: hippie dippie bébé

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