Are Preservatives Really Necessary?
There is a lot of misinformation out there when it comes to preservatives, especially concerning bath and body products. Commercial products are often loaded with preservatives to allow them to remain fresh during the long span between manufacturing and user consumption. Although the preservatives do extend the longevity of the products, the preservatives themselves could be unhealthy. Some are reported to promote skin problems, or even to cause cancer. Some manufacturers like to leave them out to promote a natural or organic aspect of a product, but at the same time the product could be a breeding ground for all sorts of microorganisms that could make us sick, or worse. At Bay Berry Bliss, we do use preservatives in products that require them, and also strive to offer a natural version of that product that does not require any preservatives.
What Products Require Preservatives
Preservatives are needed in most products that contain a large percentage of water. If you don't use a preservative in a product that requires one, its shelf life is greatly reduced. Microbes need water to live, and they also require an environmnent that is not too hostile. If you combine these things you could have the perfect habitat for microbial growth. The presence of microbes will eventually become clear once the fuzzy green layer on the surface becomes visible. Microbes can be present in harmful amounts long before any such visible signs are present.
If the idea of preservatives bothers you, we would encourage you to look for products that naturally do not requrire them. All lotion contains water, and in our opinion needs a preservative. If you want a similar product without preservatives look for some type of a balm or body butter which does not typically have any water. This means it would be naturally preserved. At Bay Berry Bliss, all of our all-natural products are naturally preserved, meaning the conditions of the product are such that additional preservatives are not necessary.
Nature has some ways of naturally preserving products. These preservation methods listed below are not specific to bath and beauty products since conceptually it doesn't matter if you are preserving a lotion or a jar of spaghetti sauce. The same methods are potential solutions, each with its own pros and cons.
- Glycerin - glycol will bind to the water making it unavailable to microorganisms. High levels of glycol usage in a formula (15-20%) will also preserve a product. A typical preservative would be used at betwee 0.5% and 1.5%.
- Alcohol - Formulas with an ethanol/alcohol content of greater than 15% do not need preservatives. Alcohol tends to be drying to the skin, and generally not the most preferrable method of preservation in skin care products.
- Sugar - high levels of sugar in a product can protect a product from spoilage. Honey is naturally preserved with this concept. Even though the honey has a high level of water, the water is bound with sugar and will not allow microorganisms to grow in it.
- Heat - heating, cooking, and pasturizing are all natural forms of preservation. This is particularly useful if the product is single use, and often used with food products. Once the jar is opened, it is consumed.
- Dessication (Dehydration) - Removing all the water from a product will protect it from spoiling.
- Anhydrous - products that do not contain any water such as lip balm are self preserving and only need an antioxidant.
- Salt - High levels of salt in a product will also act as a preservative. Meat was often preserved this way by our ancestors.
- Cold - placing a product in cold refrigeration will greatly slow the growth of microbes.
- pH - those products that are low on the pH scale (acids) or high on the pH scale (bases) will prevent the growth of microbes.
Antioxidants are not preservatives! Oxidation is a chemical reaction that involves giving up electrons. Antioxidants will help to keep the oils in your product from going rancid (an oxidation reaction), but they will not have any affect on the growth of microbes. If you only used antioxidants in a product that required preservatives you would have oils that stay fresh (not rancid) and grow mold (or other microbes). Antioxidants are great additions to many natural bath and body products, they are just often misunderstood.
Vitamin E oil
Vitamin E oil is a thick and viscous oil that contains natural antioxidants which extend the life of your products. It does not affect microbial growth.
Rosemary Oleoresin, also known as Rosemary Oil Extract or ROE is an oil-soluble, all-natural extract that is used to help extend the shelf life by increasing the amount of time it takes for the oils to go rancid. It does not affect microbial growth.
Grapefruit Seed Extract
Grapefruit Seed Extract (GSE) is a thick and golden antioxidant that helps prevent oils from going rancid. It does not prevent microbial growth.
Below are some preservatives readily available for use in skin care products. We give a brief description of each and offer some comments on them, as well as identify what their INCI Nomenclature is. The INCI nomenclature is an international system setup to ensure everyone is using the same name for the same chemical.
Germaben II is a convenient broad spectrum anti-microbial preservative for a variety of bath and body products. It is highly effective against gram positive and gram negative bacteria, yeasts, and molds and does not need any additional preservatives. Because it contains three different preserving chemicals, it is suggested for use as a preservative for products that are hard to preserve.
Since Germaben II is soluble in water, it works well for any sort of emulsion. Germaben II needs to be added to the product at a temperature below 140F. It is meant to be used as 0.3% to 1.0% of the total weight of your product.
INCI Nomenclature: Propylene Glycol, Diazolidinyl Urea, Methylparaben and Propylparaben
Phenonip is a powerful preservative used to inhibit a full range of microbial growth in creams, lotions, salt scrubs, and liquid soap bases. It is suitable for those creations that might have a ton of botanical or natural ingredients, and consequently be a little more difficult to preserve.
Phenonip is oil soluble, and is great for emulsified scrubs, oil based scrubs, lotion bars, scrub bars, hair care bars, and other products that don't contain water but might be exposed to it during normal use. It is more suitable than Germaben II for products that are manufactured at higher temperature ranges. Temperature should be below 200F before added to recipe. It is recommended to be used at 0.5% to 1% of the total recipe.
Phenonip is inactivated by some non-ionic ingredients, such as polysorbate 80 (at 5%, Phenonip is completely inactivated by polysorbate 80), and slightly by polysorbate 20 and 80 at 2.5%. It also doesn't do well with cetareth-20 (5% would inactivate it), but it is not affected by ceteral alcohol.
INCI Nomenclature: Phenoxyethanol, Methylparaben, Ethylparaben, Butylparaben and Propylparaben
Optiphen is paraben and formaldehyde-free and can be classified as a mild preservative. It is best used on oil-based recipes like shampoo, conditioners, and some lotions. It is suitable for products that have a pH between 4.0 and 8.0, and safe for use at levels between 0.5% and 1.5%. Optiphen ND should be used for appropriate high surfactant-based systems such as toners, floral waters, shampoos, or body wash. Optiphen plus may be a good choice for water based formulations that are slightly acidic. Optiphen does have a slight odor to it, and can destabilize emulsions.
Optiphen is a globally approved preservative system consisting of Phenoxyethanol and Caprylyl Glycol. A true, multi-functional ingredient, caprylyl glycol also acts as a humectant and wetting agent in cosmetic and skin care formulations in addition to providing viscosity modification in some formulations.
INCI: Phenoxyethanol and Caprylyl Glycol
Optiphen ND is a mild, broad-spectrum preservative that is paraben and formaldehyde free that works best in surfactant based products. It is suitable for products containing water and can be added at any point in the manufacturing process since it isn't very heat sensitive. It differs from Optiphen with the addition of Dehydroacetic acid, which tends to work very poorly when included at a pH below 6.0 and can easily become inactivated by non-ionic surfactants and emulsifiers.
Optiphen ND is water soluble, and not suitable for anhydrous products. Optiphen ND contains 79%-81% Phenoxyethanol, 11.5% - 12.5% Benzoic Acid, and 7.7%-8.3% Dehydroacetic Acid.
INCI: Phenoxyethanol, Benzoic Acid and Dehydroacetic Acid
Optiphen Plus is another mild, broad-spectrum preservative from the Optiphen family. It is also paraben and formaldehyde free. This preservative functions particularly well in slighty acidic formulations. Like Optiphen ND, it is also water soluble. It differs from Optiphen with the inclusion of sorbic acid. Sorbic acid is a good fungal, mold, and yeast inhibitor at pH 6.0 or less, and a decent bactericide. The biggest downside of using Optiphen Plus is the limited pH range of the product.
INCI: Phenoxyethanol, Caprylyl Glycol and Sorbic Acid
Preservatives in Soap?
Even though there is water as an ingredient in soap, preservatives are not necessary. That is because the pH of the real soap is too high for microbes to grow. Some liquid soaps can have an adjusted pH, at which point a preservative might be a safe bet.
Essential oils like Tea Tree (and others) can help to reduce some forms of bacteria when used in high concentrations under ideal conditions. Products located in your bathroom, car, or purse are not under ideal conditions. Heat, direct sunlight, steam, and other adverse conditions help to encourage bacterial growth and most "natural preservatives" can not be used in strong enough concentrations to fight contamination without risk of skin irritation or allergic reactions.
Why do other brands not use preservatives?
We aren't really sure about this. We believe if they aren't, they should be properly informing their customers. Products that require preservatives and don't have them will grow bacteria/mold/fungus, it is just a matter of time for these microorganisims to grow to a point that you can observe them with the naked eye. Not only can this ruin the products, it could actually harbor something that could be toxic. Below we offer 5 possible explanations of how a company might get around this.
- The product does not actually have preservatives in it and would actually fail a challenge test to verify microbial growth counts.
- It is possible preservatives are hidden in the ingredient list. Aloe Vera juice is a good example of this. Aloe Vera juice is mostly water, and is commonly sold with preservatives in the juice. It seems possible a company could just identify Aloe Vera juice as an ingredient and leave out the ingredients of the aloe vera juice (which would contain preservatives). We feel it is best to list all of the ingredients in a case like this.
- The product may actually have a preservative in it, but it may not be fully disclosed. A company might leave an item off the ingredient list because they think it might "look bad". We definately would not endorse this approach.
- Extracts could be used as a way to hide preservatives. Tinctures (a type of extract) have high alcohol percentages; if used in the proper ratios this could be one possible way of preserving a product naturally. Extracts can also be made in a propylene or butyl glycol base and preserved with parabens, triclorisan, and urea but not disclosed as the manufacturer is only required to list the extract. If these extracts are used at high concentrations the product could be properly preserved, but without fully disclosing all of the ingredients, it would appear the product is preservative free.
- It is possible the combination of ingredients do not need preservatives. If the product actually falls into one of those cases where it is naturally preserved, it does not actually need a preservative.
We do not generally use a preservative if it is unnecessary with one notable exception. Salt and sugar scrubs are naturally preserved; yet many people would use them in the shower and splashing water seems like a real possibility. We decided to use a preservative just to be on the safe side. We felt it was just not worth the risk. If you feel differently, we would encourage you to reach out to us, we would love to hear from you.