Let's talk about preservatives!

Let's talk about preservatives!

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?

 (via SoapQueen.com)

 (via MakingSkincare.com)

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. 

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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Kimberly- rather than use water as a binder, try Witch Hazel or even Isopropyl Alcohol. A preservative will not have any effect on your bath bombs activating prematurely. Regarding your humidity…. that’s tougher to solve. You can store them in a room with a dehumidifier and then shrink wrap them or store them in an airtight container until they are ready to use.

Jenna Moll

Hi 👋 I’m just wondering something.. I DO use a small amount of water as a binder in my bath bombs that I make at home. They’ve been activating prematurely while in their packaging. I do live in a humid environment though. So I was just wondering if I should add some sort of preservative to help with that? Or is it just simply the dang humidity that’s the biggest problem?? I’m hoping there’s something I can do. Please help!

Kimberly Cross

Kimmie, so long as bath bombs do NOT utilize any water-based ingredients, they do not need preservatives. It is pretty rare that they would, so I would not worry about it too much! If you are very concerned, you can email me the ingredients and I can let you know.

Jenna Moll

Sos are bath bombs something that needs preservatives or no because they are dried…. I thought I would be less confused after reading this lol nope! But there was still very informative info in it thank you


Excellent, informative article! I appreciate knowing my cosmetic products are safe and will last a little while far more than that they are “all natural.” That being said, I should have read the directions for application, because I’ve totally been applying my Scary German Guy body butter after the shower with wet hands. :(


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