As you probably know, much has changed in the way of preservatives over the past decade. We learned that some preservatives are more harmful than others. Methylparaben, which was one of the most commonly used preservatives in products such as lotion, hair gel, and conditioners is now considered one of the least desirable by those who sell products and by those who buy products. Any Ingredient with the word "paraben" conjures up bad images. So what has changed for the better?
Well, before I list the different types of preservatives and whether they fall into the good category or the bad category, let's explore why we need preservatives in the first place.
Since preserving lotion is the point of the post I will use a typical lotion formula as the example.
Lotions generally contain the following ingredients:
You don't need a preservative for a product unless you are using water, which you do in lotion. Water is a very welcoming environment for bacteria and this is why any product containing water requires a preservative. Bacteria, mold and yeast CANNOT survive without water! Your water based product can and most likely will become riddled with bacteria, mold and/or yeast after a certain length of time if left unpreserved. These things aren't always visible to the naked eye. A product can look just the same as it did on the day you opened it but that doesn't necessarily mean it is. I once read an article that stated if we saw mold growing on top of a lotion we could just scrape it off and the product was still usable, which of course is absolutely untrue. Bacteria and yeast is microscopic, it can be lurking around in your lotion and you wouldn't even know it was there.
Then what is the issue? Why am I nitpicking about the need for preservatives? Well, it isn't so much the need I'm focusing on, it is more of the type being used that I care about.
Consider this. The reason you can purchase a lotion or cream from say Bloomingdales or Walmart and have it sit on the shelf for 2 years and still be usable is because of the preservatives that were used in that particular product. A product like lotion goes through many environmental conditions that can affect the rate of bacterial growth, such as exposure to heat and moisture. Think of how often you carry a hand lotion in your purse or store it in the bathroom cabinet. If you do either your product has already gone through a heating and cooling several times. Companies have to take all possible exposure conditions into consideration when deciding on a preservative to use. Sadly, with most companies, their goal is to sell a product, not particularly keeping the consumer safe and healthy. This is why you can pick up a lotion and still read a long list of unhealthy, unsafe ingredients, especially preservatives used. For big companies, the bottom line is about how much they are selling, not what research has proven about their product and isn't using a body product like lotion about keeping our skin healthy, soft and supple, preventing dry skin which contributes to premature aging, and staying comfortable?
The most difficult thing for those of us who make body products is creating something that not only is beneficial to an individuals body, which includes being safe, but also something that will last. When someone buys a lotion, they don't want to store it in the fridge and use it up in a couple weeks. A consumer wants a product that feels really good and lasts a while.
So now we come to the preservatives.
A preservative is a natural or synthetic chemical that is added to products such as foods, pharmaceuticals, paints, biological samples, wood, etc. to prevent decomposition by microbial growth or by undesirable chemical changes.
Some Synthetic Preservatives
(The cosmetic safety database rates ingredients from a 0-10 scale. 10 being the worst and 0 being the best. I've used their numbering system to give you an idea about safety.)
The most common "paraben" preservatives used:
Methylparaben = hazard rating 8
Butylparaben = hazard rating 7-9 depending on usage
Propylparaben = hazard rating 4
Ethylparaben = hazard rating 3
The most common "non paraben" preservatives used:
suttocide = hazard rating 2
cosmocil cq = hazard rating2
germall plus = hazard rating 6
potassium Sorbate = hazard rating 1
optiphen = hazard rating 5
Although Grapefruit Seed Extract is touted as a natural preservative there has been some debate as to whether or not that is true. I can't say either way as I haven't used it nor had it tested. Read article here and here.
Some time tested natural preservatives:
Honey (no rating)
Vitamin E (antioxidant: prevents oils from oxidizing) = hazard rating 2
Rosemary Extract (antioxidant: prevents oil from oxidizing) = hazard rating 0
Certain Essential Oils (depends on EO) Tea tree EO = hazard rating 1
Neem Oil = hazard rating 0
Lemon Juice = hazard rating 0
Citric Acid = hazard rating 4
Tinosan = hazard rating 2
What I've discovered is that natural preservatives are often passed up for the synthetic alternative mainly for the following reasons:
1. It can take a mix of several natural ingredients to create a desired preservation affect within a particular product and unless you are a chemist it is difficult if not impossible to find the right balance of ingredients to make sure your product is preserved.
2. Several natural preservatives can end up costing much more than synthetic preservatives, especially when using certain EO's to preserve your product. Ultimately making the product you sell much more expensive.
3. If using essential oils as a preservative you have to make sure you aren't using EO's that although are antimicrobial they evaporate quickly. Products left open to the air therefore would become unpreserved.
4. Some EO's must also be used at a high percentage rate in order to be effective as a preservative and those same EO's cause severe skin reactions if used beyond a certain percentage point.
5. It takes quite a bit of "head" work when using a natural preservative as oppose to a synthetic preservative.
So when we talk about natural preservatives we need to look at the context in which we are speaking. Sure, you can use a natural preservative in a water based product and it WILL work. The only issue is that it doesn't preserve a product for the length of time a synthetic preservative does. When using a natural preservative you aren't guaranteed a shelf life of 1-2 years. And although most people don't hang on to products that long there are a few people who do and no one would want to be responsible for someone becoming extremely ill from something they've made.
What is the solution to the preservative dilemma then? The solution is educating customers and then deciding what it is they really want. If a customer wants a product that can sit on a shelf for up to 3 years it is the job of the creator to educate their customer on what that means. Likewise with a customer that wants a product that is 100% natural. Through my own inner debate about whether to use a synthetic preservative or not I've learned that it is better to create and/or use a product that is 99% natural with a synthetic preservative than to create/use a product that is preserved for 3 years and also contains a host of other ingredients that cannot be pronounced. Body products don't have to be all or nothing in terms of ingredients.
There are some things I prefer to use 100% natural and other things I don't care so much about. As long as I know exactly what it is that I'm putting on my body and I've made the choice for myself, then I'm happy. The same can be said for customers. I'm always telling people what is and isn't natural, what research has shown is or isn't good for us. Just the other day I told a friend that I could whip up some lotion and it would be a 100% natural but she'd have to put it in the fridge and it would last no more than a couple weeks. She decided to pass on 100% and asked if I could whip one up that had a preservative so that she didn't have to deal with cold lotion.
For the creator it comes down to selecting a preservative for the product that has the least hazard rating and the best results, whether synthetic or natural. It isn't impossible to create a natural preservative that gives a product more than 1 year shelf life. Aubrey Organics has done exactly that using vitamins and essential oils. It all comes down to what it is you want to accomplish and of course, how much you want to invest.
One final bit of advice. Don't sell a water based product to the public without having it lab tested to make sure it remains bacteria, mold and yeast free. We create products to make people happy, not to make them sick.
Cosmetic Safety Database
From Nature With Love: Preservatives