How to Pick a Preservative

Picking which preservative to use is one of the hardest choices to make when crafting a formula, for both seasoned formulators and newbie DIYers…

One of the most common questions asked in skincare forums and groups is the classic “what preservative should I use for this product?” question. Unfortunately though there is no easy answer to this question as there is no one fits all preservative for all formulas. There are so many factors that need to be considered when selecting a preservative, and I thought I would delve into them a bit here before referring you on to the more experienced crafters.

Let me tell you about the first ever face cream I made. It featured a blend of oils and beeswax, whipped with a bit of tea infused water. It was one of those marvel products that defied some of the basic scientific premises of emulsification. Looking back, it was not a safe product, and while I did not suffer any ill consequences from using it, it is not something I would share with family knowing what I know now.

I’m hoping by writing this blog post I can help some of you avoid making the same mistake I did. Or more specifically, mistakes. The three big mistakes I made with the above product were:

  1. Not using a preservative.
  2. Using freshly boiled tea with tap water.
  3. Not employing good manufacturing practices.

Lets explore why these were mistakes, starting with the easy stuff.

Using a Good Manufacturing Practice

While as a home crafter you will never be able to get your work environment completely sterile, you can certainly get it clean. This is critical to producing safe, well preserved products. You can have the most amazing preservative and botanically balanced product, but if you don’t minimize environmental contaminants then that will be irrelevant.

In the home environment, a good manufacturing practice can include:

  • Using separate containers specifically for skincare. I recommend glass (stainless steel is also fine) as you do not want little bits of plastic in your product. Some ingredients such as fragrance oils can also break down plastic. It is also important to use skincare specific tools as you don’t want bits of food that are stuck in your tools getting into your products. To minimize this, I also use a separate cloth to wash my skincare dishes. Susan has written an article discussing this.
  • Sterilize everything (equipment, counter space) with rubbing alcohol.
  • Wear gloves, especially if you will be handling raw ingredients. You may also want to wear a face mask to both protect you from inhaling fine powders, and to prevent you from breathing on your product.
  • Wear clothing that will not shed. I discovered this after making a batch of face cream while wearing a blue jumper. Afterwards I would find small bits of blue wool in the cream.
  • Use distilled water. Or even better, purchase cosmetic water from a supplier. Distilled water has been treated to remove any minerals. These minerals can prevent the preservative from working effectively, and also feed bacteria growth. Cosmetic water is similar to distilled, but has also been treated to remove bacteria.
  • Heat your formula phases to 75 degrees Celsius. Another option is to heat and hold, which you can read about here , here, and here (I’m a big Point of Interest fan). I personally do not heat and hold for a variety of reasons, and as a formulator whether you heat and hold is a decision you will have to make based on your own academic research. For some reasons, you can see here.
  • Date and write down everything. If something goes wrong, you want to know why and how long it took, so you can prevent it from happening again.

For more on good manufacturing practices, have a look here for some other factors you may want to consider, though these are more from a business perspective they are still worth considering. Marie Gale also has written a book on the subject.

All About Preservatives

You want to make natural skincare to avoid all of the ‘nasty chemicals’. I get you. Everyday on the news there is another scare article about new research claiming that something is dangerous and will kill you. The recent baby powder scare is a perfect example of this.

It is hard to know what to believe, and it can feel like corporations are just out there to make money no matter the cost. But I have something to tell you. Yes, corporations are motivated by money. But creating a dangerous product with negative health effects is not the way to make money, as all it results in is lawsuits and the high costs associated with pulling a product off the shelves. Moral of the story here – don’t believe everything you read or hear.

Currently in the green skincare world, brands are rushing to create preservative free, paraben free, everything free products. This is an incredibly unsafe practice (read here). Furthermore, this approach is contributing to a fear of preservatives, when they are not something to be afraid of. What re preservatives? Susan has written in depth on preservatives and their functions. Preservatives are essential to any formulation, and here’s why.

Why you should use preservatives:

I’ve read numerous horror stories about unpreserved or inadequately preserved products. These include infections and other general sickness resulting from nasties that grow in skincare. You wouldn’t eat mouldy bread or drink out of date milk, so why would you rub it on your face? If I haven’t convinced you enough, have a read of these:

Okay, I want to use a preservative, but how do I pick one?

Before you pick your preservative, you want to try and ensure that your formula is as botanically balanced as possibly. By botanically balanced, I basically mean not having too much bacteria/fungi food. Tea, for example, would add too much bacteria food into your formula. Additionally, if your formula is high in hydrosols and extracts, you may want to select a stronger preservative to account for that. Making skincare has a wonderful guide on selecting a preservative and minimizing growth here.

If you are new to crafting, I recommend picking a broad spectrum preservative that is widely tested and used. I use Optiphen Plus, but this can destabilize some formulas and is often not recommended as a beginner preservative. A commonly recommended broad spectrum preservative is Liquid Germall Plus for it’s ease of use and proven efficacy; and if you are not afraid of parabens, something like Phenonip may be another good choice, especially in botanically heavy formulas. Antioxidants such as vitamin E are not preservatives and should not be used in place of preservatives. You can read about this here. I recommend you search for any preservative you are interested in on the blog Point of Interest to gain more information. I do not recommend natural preservatives for beginners, but if you are more experienced they can be worth a try. Just understand that they are not sufficiently tested as of yet, and if you plan on using them in products to sell – please get your products preservative efficiency tested.

It is also important to consider the solubility of your chosen preservative, it’s PH range (the PH range your product needs to be within for the preservative to work), which phase you need to add the preservative, and whether any ingredients inactivate your preservative.

And there you go! That’s my guide to preservatives. It is no where near thorough, but I hope you find it helpful nonetheless.

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