Preservatives in homemade products may be a HUGE topic of debate with very, very strong opinions on either side, but let's make this simple: appropriate preservatives are MANDATED by the FDA.
When are preservatives necessary? Preservatives are required when water or a water-based ingredient is introduced into a mixture. Common ingredients that may be water-based are botanicals (like aloe vera), extracts (like Green Tea extract), and purees. I use the word "may" because there are oil-based anhydrous (no water) or powdered versions of the above ingredients. The only way to know for sure is by having the ingredient's INCI code.
What happens when a preservative isn't used?
Yep. No point in beating around the bush. Failure to use a preservative can result in dangerous microbial growth within hours. What are microbes? Bacteria, mold, and yeast. The pictures above were admittedly used as a scare-tactic (though they are genuine pictures), but please remember that a product can be contaminated long before you can see or smell any problem. Besides the obvious ick-factor here, contaminated cosmetics can cause severe problems- skin & eye infections, rashes, food-poisoning, and worse. Individuals with allergies or pre-existing health vulnerabilities are even more at risk. If you'd like more detail about the beasties that can potentially grow, check out this post.
Can't I just keep it in my fridge? If you insist on risking your safety, make sure it's for personal use only and use it within a week. I really love a quote by Susan Barclay-Nichols, a cosmetics expert:
"Think of it this way. If you made a cup of tea today and left it on the counter, would you feel comfortable drinking it in two days or seven days? Would you feel comfortable putting it in the fridge and drinking it a week from now? If you said no, then why would a lotion be different? If you won't drink it, why would you bathe in it?"
What preservatives should I be looking for? The expert I mentioned above created a fantastic guest-post for SoapQueen that describes the most popular broad-spectrum preservatives. Not all preservatives are appropriate for all concoctions. Furthermore, preservatives need to used at the appropriate percentage and at the appropriate temperature and pH level.
For example's sake, let's look at my sugar scrub ingredients:
Sucrose, Macadamia Ternifolia Seed Oil, Prunus Amygdalus Dulcis (Sweet Almond) Oil, Hydrogenated Palm Kernel Oil, Sesamum Indicum (Sesame) seed oil, Mangifera Indica (Mango) Seed Butter, Emulsifying Wax NF, Euphorbia Cerifera (Candelilla) Wax; Less than 1%: fragrance, preservative (Phenoxyethanol (and) Caprylyl Glycol)
This scrub recipe is extremely common in that is anhydrous (no water) so it requires an oil-soluble preservative. Appropriate oil-soluble preservatives are Optiphen (INCI: Phenoxyethanol (and) Caprylyl Glycol) and Phenonip (INCI: Phenoxyethanol (and) Methylparaben (and) Ethylparaben (and) Butylparaben (and) Propylparaben (and) Isobutylparaben). If you have a sugar scrub with no preservative listed on the label... honestly, I would trash it. Is it really worth the risk?
For more preservatives and their appropriate uses, please check out Susan's preservative chart as well.
WAIT. You said anhydrous formulas do not require preservatives! I did! But your hands are wet when you're digging into your sugar scrub. =)
What about body butters? If the body butter is completely anhydrous, no preservative is necessary. Again, for example's sake, let's look at my body butter ingredients:
Organic Orbignya Oleifera (Babassu) Seed Oil, Organic Shorea (Sal) Butter, Organic Prunus Armeniaca (Apricot) Kernel Oil, Organic Macadamia Ternifolia Seed Oil, Organic Oryza Sativa (Rice) Bran Oil,, Tocopherol (Vitamin E), Mica, Fragrance
Because it is completely anhydrous and normally used by clean, dry hands (RIGHT?), no preservative is used. Vitamin E is used for its skin benefits and as an anti-oxidant.
Aren't Vitamin E, honey, grapefruit seed extract, rosemary extract, etc. natural preservatives? NO, NO, NO. NOOOOOOO. Some of these ingredients may have anti-oxidant qualities, but anti-oxidants ARE NOT anti-bacterial, anti-microbial, or anti-fungal.
Aren't there any "all natural" preservatives? There are no effective, affordable, "all natural" preservatives currently available to indie bath & body makers, unfortunately.
This topic helps to reinforce the necessity of proper research, formulation, and labeling. Even knowing what I know... I can still get caught up in hypes and buy a potentially dangerous product. It happened to me last week.
I shopped a restock, and didn't even think to demand an ingredient listing first. (The ingredients were not listed online, but I've seen this occasionally and assume it's to dissuade copycats- who knows!) I received my order and on the body butter label, the third ingredient was aloe vera (no INCI codes). Hmm. Aloe vera is normally water-based, but there is also an oil soluble version... so I emailed to ask. The company responded that it was aloe vera juice- which is water-based. Still trying to give her the beneift of the doubt, I asked it the aloe vera juice was part of a pre-purchased body butter base. Perhaps there was a preservative and she didn't know. She came back and told me that they purchased the body butter as a pre-made base. (*linemouth*)
Genuinely shocked at this point, I tried to nicely explain that a water-based additive would require her to include a preservative in her body butter. She replied that the base manufacturer told her that shea butter, jojoba oil, and Vitamin E were all natural preservatives.
My head exploded, but again, I nicely responded that she was flat-out wrong and included informational links.
LESSON LEARNED. So please- pull out your homemade products and check the labels. Does your sugar scrub have a preservative listed? Are there non-oil ingredients in your body butter? If anything concerns you- ASK. Email them, google the ingredient, ask about it on their site. It's up to us to take responsibility for our own products and you have EVERY right to ask questions until you are satisfied.
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