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 environment 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 require 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.

Natural Preservatives

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 between 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 preferable 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 pasteurizing 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.

Example Antioxidants

  • 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

    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.

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 as Preservatives?

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 microorganisms 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.

  1. The product does not actually have preservatives in it and would actually fail a challenge test to verify microbial growth counts.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 definitely would not endorse this approach.
  4. 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.
  5. 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 where they are continually exposed to splashing water which at some point could compromise the natural preservation qualities of the salt and sugar. 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.