The Great Debate: Is There a Natural Preservative?

The Great Debate: Is There a Natural Preservative?

The Great Debate:  Is There a Natural Preservative?

It’s time to take a look at natural preservatives and dive into the great debate within the skin care industry.  A quick search on the internet will reveal articles and blogs on the subject matter, many of which are vehemently opposed to anything other than synthetic s, while others claim to have a working natural preservative.  Step into the virtual room of a forum and you’ll see some very heated discussions on the subject.

So what’s all the fuss you may ask?  And what do you need a preservative for to begin with?  Allow me to explain.  Any product that you make that has water in it (other than soap – which uses water, however, it goes through a metamorphosis known as saponification) or may have water introduced to it by the consumer has to have a preservative.  Water feeds molds, yeasts, and fungi, and placing it in a closed bottle or jar just fuels the fuzzy growths more.  Lotion and creams are the biggest culprits requiring a preservative, but scrubs in which a consumer would likely dip wet fingers into a jar or have shower water introduced to it also presents a possible mold problem.  If you make a lotion bar or body oil and do not add water in your formula, you do not need a preservative.  It’s the water that requires a preservative, not oils.

The debate comes in because of different views on what constitutes an effective preservative.  There are many myths in the small business body care industry and that’s the first spark in some of the most heated discussions besides politics and religion.  Let’s start by first looking at the large companies in the skin care industry.

Big Business Trends

Let’s face it!  Many people have jumped onto the natural bandwagon.  They have heard that parabens, a common ingredient in some synthetic preservatives, cause cancer.  While further studies need to be conducted for a definitive answer on whether parabens in cosmetics and deodorants are linked to breast cancer, the mere suggestion has caused name brands to scramble for alternatives. Organizations opposed to unsafe ingredients then fuel the fire with videos and advertisements that make people think they are dousing their babies in toxic chemicals instilling fear in the consumers who then demand all natural without all the facts and details.  To be clear, there are some not-so-safe chemicals in some products, just as there are some not-so-safe natural ingredients.  There are some great synthetic formulas that have been around for decades and have no history in causing people harm, as is the case with some natural products.  So the key is to find what is safe in both natural and synthetic preservatives.

Regardless of the reasons, and whether the reasons are sparked by truth or myth, the market demand for all things natural is growing at a rapid pace.  Some large companies, such as Burt’s Bees, have always made natural or nearly natural products.  But other companies are now realizing the need to create more natural products for their consumers.  While you may think the solution is simple, it is actually quite complex and there are a host of complications involved with replacing synthetic preservatives with a natural alternative.


The biggest issue in creating a natural preservative is that although there are many natural ingredients known to prevent the growth of molds and yeasts, there is no one ingredient that can do this effectively and still be safe for the skin.  Either the ingredient is just not safe for skin at all or the required dosage is too great to be used safely or to smell right.  With no one ingredient to fit the bill as an all round natural preservative, scientists have discovered that a natural preservative system, or group of ingredients working together, is the best method to creating a working formula.

Large companies that employ scientists and own labs spend a considerable amount of money trying to find a system that will work in lotions and creams.  Lotion is as fiddly to make as soap.  Timing, precise formulas, and the right proportions of ingredients all contribute to the lotion or cream’s consistency, texture, scent, and ability to moisturize the skin.

Since these companies already have a working formula, and typically add their current preservatives at the end of the process, they are finding that systems need to be designed for each product and work with every ingredient in that product, which is why each company seems to have a different natural preservative system – it’s tailored to work with their own product only.

Fine tuning a natural system requires trial and error.  Natural ingredients are not typically as potent as synthetics, so the concentration must be right in order to prevent molds and yeasts.  Where a formula may currently use 0.05% synthetic preservatives, it may need to use a natural system at 0.10 -0.20%.  This affects the scent of the product and may throw off the balance of the other ingredients in the lotion or cream.

What Works as a Natural System?

•Plant extracts can be effective
•Citric and malic acids are effective at higher concentrations
•Glycols derived from plants, not petroleum.
•Essential oils and tannins in herbal extracts make effective antimicrobials. These include spice oils such as tumeric oil, rosemary oil, oils from the family of mints and lavenders, and the essential oils of cinnamon, clove, oregano, thyme, pepper, sage, lemon balm, green tea, and Neem leaf extracts have been cited as effective ingredients, particularly when used as blends.
•Grain alcohol is a wonderful preservative. It works at low levels to kill most germs.
•In addition to using a preservative system, companies also try to reduce the amount of water in a formula.  Glycerin is one natural ingredient suggested to reduce the water and its activity.
•Adjusting the pH level of a formula is another way to prevent bacteria growth.  Products with a pH around the 6, 7, and 8 range tend to be more biologically active. If you formulate with a lower or higher pH, there is less bacteria growth.

Where Does That Leave Small Companies?

It costs the large skin care companies a lot of money in trial and error to find a good working natural preservative system that is effective with their product.  If only a small number of big companies have discovered a good system, what chance does a single skin care artisan have?

Here’s the situation.  You may think to yourself that you have a great formula and you figured out a possible natural preservative system to work with your product.  You then send out 20 samples to friends and family and tell them to try it for a few months and see if they see in a mold.  This is not adequate testing.  The only way to adequately test your products for mold and yeast growth is to send it to a test lab specializing in this sort of product testing.  They will use special processes to enhance the growth of undesirables, some of which can make you sick or cause reactions before you ever see them.
The best thing for a small business person to do is wait for the big companies to sort it all out since they have the money and labs to handle the intense research.  So how long do you have to wait?  Perhaps not at all.  There are some natural preservatives on the market for lotion makers right now.  I am not able to attest to their effectiveness or safety, but I can inform you about the options so you can take a look yourself.  If you decide to try out one of the systems be sure to send a sample to a test lab to ensure that the preservative works in your particular formulation.

Here are a couple of places to look into: has a product called NataPres containing plant extracts.  This is the information listed on their website:

All-natural ingredient with effective preservative properties, based on the synergy exhibited by multiple plant extracts. Easy to use and will not impart any additional color or odors to your formulations. Straw to yellow color liquid, pH 4.9. Soluble in water.

Tinosan SDC, now known as Silverion 2400, sold by and has been around for over 8 years.  Here is the information taken from’s website:

Silver Based Antimicrobial for personal care applications.
+ Formaldehyde Free
+ Paraben Free
+ Non-Halogenated
+ No Phenols
+ No Quaternary Ammonium Compounds

Active Ingredient:
Silver Citrate – Silver ions (2400 ppm) and Citric acid USP (Fruit Based)Appearance:low-viscosity, aqueous, colorless, transparent, highly soluble in water with a almost undetectable citrus scent and no taste.

Not so sure about making your own lotions – has a number of lotion bases containing their own natural preservative system.Look for their organic lotions to see what they have available.

Need affordable testing of the effectiveness of preservatives in your products?
Try owner is a scientist that offers microbiology testing of cosmetics and toiletries at surprisingly low rates.

Commonly Confused Ingredients

There are a few ingredients that some people confuse as a natural preservative.The following are not preservatives for your products containing water.

Vitamin E – Vitamin E is an antioxidant used to prolong the shelf life of oils.It will not prevent the growth of molds, yeasts, and fungi in products containing water.

Grapefruit Seed Extract – This product sparks another heated debate in the lotion making community.This ingredient is chemically altered to the point that it can no longer be called natural under most definitions.However, although not natural, it does have antimicrobial characteristics.It is not considered a good broad spectrum natural preservative though.

CO2 Extract (Rosemary Oil) –This ingredient is also an antioxidant used to extend the shelf life of oil based products.It is not considered an effective preservative in water based products.

Final Thoughts

The industry is off to a good start and is making slow but positive progress in the search of an all round effective natural preservative system. In the meantime, there are a few things to try on the market currently for use by small skin care businesses.

Additionally, here are a few tips to keep your products all natural as you wait for the perfect natural preservative system for your products.

·Make products that do not contain water, such as lotion bars instead of lotion creams
·Try making solid single use sugar and salt scrubs to avoid the introduction of water to jars
·Or place scrubs in Malibu bottles to prevent contamination
·Make very small batches of lotions or creams and store them in the refrigerator for up to 14 days use
·If you do try out creating your own natural preservative systems, be sure to have your lotions and creams tested for effectiveness