Article by: Guest Author

This is a post by Nitesh Rajput

Cosmetic products become easily contaminated by bacteria and fungi. Containing water, oils, peptides, and carbohydrates, cosmetics are a very good medium for growth of microbes. All these factors contribute to the fact that cosmetic products need preservation to prevent microbial growth, spoiling of the cosmetic product and potential skin infections.

Need for cosmetic preservatives

The need to control microbial activity is inherent in two major facets of personal care. The first area is that of antimicrobial care where the product helps to retard the growth of topical pathogens, or eliminates them. The second is in the area of preservatives that retard the growth of microbes in personal care product formulations.

Preservatives have potent antimicrobial properties preventing personal care products effectively from spoiling and prolonging substantially the shelf-life. Some of these agents also have stabilizing effects able to preserve the function of various active ingredients including anti-oxidants (vitamins), emulsifiers and surfactants.

Natural Preservatives

Among the most effective natural preservatives are essential oils and various herbs such as rosemary, clove, thyme, cinnamon, tea tree and lavender,neem, grape seed etc. which are more organism specific than their synthetic counterparts. This means they may be effective against one organism but not another. They must be carefully blended to create a synergistic effect against a range of organisms.

The subject of natural preservatives is one that probably has more academic interest than practical or economic virtue because cosmetic preservatives have to fight a broad range of microbes. However, natural preservatives do give a wonderful marketing angle.

Preservative assists

The preservative activity can be boosted by operating at as low a pH as possible. Natural acidity could be obtained from one of the many of the alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) which are obtained from citrus species, where the major components are citric and malic acids.

Antioxidants such as natural tocopherol and ascorbic acid will further aid in preservation, as well as reducing the potential rancidity.

Why are preservatives necessary?

Most cosmetic products contain water and nutrients for microorganisms to grow and flourish. It has been amply demonstrated that inadequately preserved cosmetics can be hazardous to human health. Cosmetics with contaminants are not only unappealing to the eye and smell bad, but they may also be pathogenic resulting in the need for medical attention. Skin infections can result from contaminated body products, especially when applied to cracked dry skin.

Cosmetics are often stored in the bathroom where the environment is warm and moist. Our skin carries an abundance of microorganisms in addition to tap water which in turn is not sterile. Often times this water is introduced into products in either accidentally or even on purpose. The most carefully prepared products may become contaminated under these circumstances.

What to look for when choosing a Preservative

Ideally, when looking for a suitable preservative for cosmetics there are many things to be considered and to look for:

1. What ingredients are you using? Are they oil soluble or water-soluble?
2. What will the final pH of your product be?
3. Non-sensitizing: It should not have any allergic or sensitizing tendencies.
4. Broad Spectrum Activity. It should be active against both gram positive and gram negative bacteria.
5. Long lasting: it should continue to work under normal conditions and even less favorable conditions.
6. Rapid action: if your cosmetic should become contaminated the preservative should act quickly to re-sterilize it.
7. What sort of packaging are you using?
8. Non-toxic and Non-irritating
9. It should be compatible with all the ingredients in the formula
10. Stability: It should be chemically stable to heat or not undergo disintegration during storage.

Potential Natural Cosmetic Preservatives

Here is a brief list of materials that could be used as possible “natural” preservatives.
Neem Oil
Salt (sodium chloride)
Sugar (carbohydrates)
Lemon
Bee Propolis – The propolis is effective in protecting the hive offering both antibacterial and antifungal properties.
Rosemary Extract
Grapefruit Seed Extract
Citric acid
Alpha tocopherol (also known as vitamin E)
Potassium Sorbate
Phenoxyethanol
Salicylic Acid
Potassium Sorbate
Sodium benzoate
Sorbic Acid
Citric Acid
Grapfruit Seed Extract
Cranberry extract
Essential Oils (various)
Lactic Acid

For more see this article about alternative cosmetic preservatives

80 comments

  1. smith cosmetics

    In a hair compound containing only tragacanth gum and water, is clove oil or glycerol oil enough as a preservative.

    1. Perry Romanowski

      No.

  2. Lovelylook

    Hi,
    Am making a Shea butter body cream with coconut oil and argan oil, what preservatives can I use to extend the shelf life to at least one year

    1. Perry Romanowski

      It depends on the exact formula but propylparaben would work.

  3. poonam vallabh

    Hi, I’ve read most of the posts and answers but I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.

    I making a product that includes fresh lemon juice, honey and turmeric and would like to know what is the best preservative I can use for the lemon juice without harming the face as it will be used mainly for the face.

    Thank you

    1. Perry Romanowski

      The “best” would probably be parabens. Specifically, methylparaben and propylparaben. You could also add some phenoxyethanol to make it more broad spectrum.

  4. Leard

    Hi,
    I’m trying to make my own hair product, leave in conditioner, but I’m stuck on the preservatives. I know for safety reasons standard preservative is a must. Which ones do u recommend ?

    1. Perry Romanowski

      Using Methylparaben and DMDM Hydantoin would be your safest choice.

  5. Sheen

    i use simple home made toner for my sensitive and oily skin which tans at the slightest pretext. i boil water and cinnamon sticks, cool and strain the liquid. I need to refrigerate to keep this fresh though refrigeration keeps it good just for a week…i want to use a preservative so that i dont need to refrigerate and i can use this even when i am travelling….pls suggest which preservative do i use to keep it fresh for atleast 2 to 3 months and how much do i use for 200ml toner……..Thank you.

    1. Perry Romanowski

      You could use a blend of methylparaben and dmdm hydantoin.

  6. Jacqueline

    Hello, I can see you advised another person in regards to preserving Magnesium oil as it is mixed with water. I’m looking at a mag. gel so mostly water thickend. The pH of the magnesium chloride is 14 so very difficult for microbes to grow. With such a high pH you would still recommend a preservative?

    1. Perry Romanowski

      I wouldn’t recommend that you put a product on skin that has a pH of 14!

    2. Paivikki Buchwalter

      Mg-chloride is a salt that ionizes completely in water creating more of an acidic solution than a basic one. Mg – chloride solution pH of 14 seems quite unreasonable. Just for reference, the pH of lye is about 13. As already said by Perry Romanowski, do not use any solution with a pH of 14 on your skin.

  7. Humala

    Hello guys, i am making tonic for hair. Its compounds are ascorbic acid, tea extract and water.
    Can you please suggest me a suitable preservative which will not damage or harm hair skin and the tonic?
    In addition, may i know how much is the maximum percentage for using potassium sorbate as preservative for skin?
    Thank you.

    1. Perry Romanowski

      You should use parabens and DMDM Hydantoin as they will be effective preservatives and will not harm or damage skin.

  8. ruth kamau

    Hi. I would like to make onion juice for hair treatment. What is the best preservative?

    1. Perry Romanowski

      That really depends on what else is in your formula but the best preservatives are parabens and DMDM hydantoin.

  9. Nico

    I have phenoxyethanol at home but I don’t use it because I’ve read that it’s not a complete preservative. Sources said it’s something that needs to be partnered with another preservative to be able to be completely effective in products that contain water. I wanted to hear your thoughts on this as you did include phenoxyethanol in your list of preservatives. I would really like to be able to use mine on its own, if I can. Also, is it lip safe? And would an anhydrous product such as lipstick need a preservative like phenoxyethanol since it does come in contact with saliva? Thank you so much!

    1. Perry Romanowski

      Typically, you need more than just phenoxyethanol as your preservative but it really depends on the formulation. Yes, it can be lip safe. Yes, an anhydrous formula that is used on the lips should have a preservative. Parabens work the best for this.

  10. m.p

    Hi, I am making Shea butter lip balms for personal use. I only use 3-4 ingredients when making the lip balm. Bees wax, shea butter, rosemary extract and flavourings (the flavourings are water free). I try staying clear from any water touching my recipe. Do I need to be worried, and worst case what preservative can I use to make sure the Shea butter or beeswax does not become rancid?

    Thanks

    1. Perry Romanowski

      That depends on the nature of your rosemary extract. IF it’s water based you should probably use a preservative like phenoxyethanol.

  11. pinkal

    I am making a commercial foundation cream using corn starch powder,jojoba oil,cinneman powder,cocoa powder and almond oil. Please suggest me the right preservative for my product

    1. Perry Romanowski

      Methylparaben and propylparaben would probably be your best choice.

  12. Zydun

    Hi, I am planning a startup business making different kinds of organic nut butters. I am researching on different natural preservatives other than palm fruit oil and flax seed which companies normally use. is organic coconut oil a good alternative for nut butters?

    1. Perry Romanowski

      That depends on what you want to use it for. Coconut oil is not a preservative.

      1. Zydun

        I want to use it for food consumption. So is Palm fruit oil the only choice for preservation? are there any natural powders maybe like dried blueberries that I can use?

        1. Zydun

          I would highly appreciate it if you could guide me into the right direction so that I could test and research for the best natural way of preserving my nut butter.

          1. Perry Romanowski

            This is a website about creating cosmetics, not food, so I don’t have any information to help you in this regard.

  13. Deepak

    I have made flaxseed hair gel.To prevent it from being rancid at least for 1 week without refrigerator,is common salt sufficient.

    1. Perry Romanowski

      Probably not. It really depends on what is in the formula though.

  14. Mark Christian

    Hi Perry

    We are commercialising a hair clay product containing Coconut Oil, Grapeseed Oil, Bentonite, Beeswax, and a combination of essential oils. Can you please advise what ingredient is most suitable and economical to add as a preservative.

    1. Perry Romanowski

      If it is a water-less formula you could incorporate something like Propylparaben.

    2. Mark Christian

      Thanks Perry and since we are not adding water, will it be necessary to add a preservative and if so can you please suggest a natural material which is not manufactured synthetically.

      1. Perry Romanowski

        You can try any of the ingredients listed above. But almost everything is manufactured synthetically. There is no “cosmetic preservative” plant. Some are just considered more “natural” than others. It really depends on what definition of “natural” you follow.

  15. Gisa

    Hi! I make a magnesium lotion w she’s butter, coconut and avocado oil, beeswax and lavender and Rosemary essential oils, I make my own magnesium oil by mixing magnesium flakes w distilled water. Is this still water or oil and would I need a preservative? Thanks !!!

    1. Perry Romanowski

      Yes, that is water and yes you need a preservative.

  16. Pedro G.

    Hello Perry,

    I have a Hydrosol that I would like to be able to sell retail. It would be an addition to the retail line I already have but run into the problem of preserving. We do really well in keeping the Hydrosol free from contaminants in our storage. However that will most likely not be the case once it leaves our facility.

    I would like to preserve the Hydrosol so it will last a little longer in the consumers hands without spoiling. The Hydrosol is 100% organic and I would like to keep that claim.

    My thoughts of preserving would be using a preservative system involving Lactic acid and ascorbic acid. I have read a few papers on the antibacterial properties of these ingredients either alone or in combination with each other or some other ingredient. The results of those studies seem very promising. Use levels for individual ingredients would be at 0.2% – 0.4%. What are your thoughts and would additional ingredients be needed to stabilize the solution?

    1. Perry Romanowski

      I don’t think Lactic acid and Ascorbic acid would be adequate enough to preserve your hydrosol. If you’re not going to choose standard preservatives, you should consider Benzoic Acid, Sodium Borate, or Benzyl Alcohol.

  17. Priscilla

    Lotion recipe….fresh aloe, lemon juice, boswella powder, coconut oil, cocoa butter, mando butter, essential oils, lavender, chamomile, rose absolute, holy basil, orange, frankenscense, cannabis oil. Having issues with it molding after two weeks out of drug. Looking for a preservative that is natural and easy on the skin. Sorbic acid and the other acids you mention. Are they known for sensitivities in the skin? Any help is appreciated.

    1. Perry Romanowski

      Your best choice would be parabens if product safety was your highest concern. If you are driven by a marketing story you could try Phenoxyethanol and Benzyl Alcohol.

  18. Grendel

    Hi,

    I’ve been going back and forth in this website to find information regarding natural preservatives since I’m currently formulating my own lipbalm and lipstick and wanted to make it as natural as possible if I can. However, 2 days ago, I noticed a white substance forming around the base of my lipstick that I made from a week ago. My formula consists of beeswax, candelilla wax, castor oil, avocado oil, shea butter, tocopherol, and peppermint essential oil. Do you think the white substance is mold forming? What can you suggest I should use to preserve the product and make it long lasting? Thank you very much for the valuable information.

    1. Perry Romanowski

      Since you don’t have water in the formula (at least you didn’t list it) it’s probably not mold. It is more likely one of the ingredients bleeding out of the product. But you could add propylparaben just to be safe.

  19. Barry Haycock

    I am trying to find a natural preservative suitable for hair conditioner made exclusively from Kaffir Lime. I would appreciate any suggestions you can make.

  20. carolyn

    Hello: I would like to make an anti aging vitamin C serum for brighter skin. It will contain only oils of Rose hip seed, carrot seed, and jojoba.
    Can you please help me?

  21. Maxine

    I have fibromyalgia and I make basil, clove, oregano oils that helps me a whole lot. I was wheelchair bound and now take no meds for this illness. I do make these oils in large quantities. what preservative should I use for a long shelf life. I also make it for my sister that has the fibromyalgia and chronic arthritis. any help would be appreciated.

    1. Perry Romanowski

      That really depends on your formula and what is in it. If you are not using any water or emulsifier then you could just add an antioxidant and keep the container in a dark space.

    2. Sara

      Maxine, I suffer from Fibromyalgia too. Can you tell me how you make these oils, and how you use them? Thank you sooo much!!!

  22. Magda

    Hello Perry,

    I was wondering that is would be great to include in your article natural preservatives like: Sodium Levulinate, Sodium anisate (or blend), Glyceryl Caprylate ? Have you got any experience with these raw ingredients?

    1. Perry Romanowski

      I do have some experience. These ingredients are preservative helpers and not necessarily preservatives themselves. That’s why they weren’t included.

  23. layla

    Im trying to make a body wash that contains a lot of Hydrosol. I have read that Hydrosol ph ranged from 4-6 and since natural/synthetic preservative availability in my country is limited, i planned to use combination of Potassium Sorbate and Sodium benzoate as preservative, since they work well in low Ph. But the though about sodium benzoate will form benzene when mixed with vit C is bothering me. So i would like to know what is your though about this ? Thank you.

    1. Perry Romanowski

      If you are worried about that problem then don’t mix sodium benzoate with vitamin C. The reality is that vitamin C is not stable in a water solution so it will effectively be broken down before any consumer gets to use it.

  24. Pingback:Conservadores naturales en los cosméticos - Conoce tus opciones naturales - Hacia lo Natural

  25. Debbie Moore

    Is there any way to make a bath wash that uses no saponified ingredients, I only want to use natural ingredients ? I don’t mind if there’s no lather, but I don’t want too oily a residue afterwards. any ideas?

  26. Sarah

    Hi, I’m looking to make a gentle cream cleanser. I’m using non-sls / sles surfactants, water, emulsifier, carrier oils, essential oils (less than 1%), actives (less than 1%). Would lactic acid be an effective preservative for this type of formulation or would an additional preservative be required? If so would any of the following work with / without lactic acid (Benzyl alcohol, Sorbic acid, Benzoic acid, Dehydroacetic acid ). Thank you.

    1. Perry Romanowski

      No lactic acid will not be an effective preservative. Maybe those would work (if you keep the pH below 5). But you have to test it to make sure.

  27. Kayla Haraguchi

    Is there one preservative better than another that would be suitable for a mascara? or even an eyeliner?

    1. Perry Romanowski

      It depends on what is in your formula.

  28. Kristina

    I’ve been wanting to start making a few organic products to sell to my local community and friends. I came across your blog and have now realized that it may be more complicated than I imagined… I appreciate the post, and your educational insight.

    I was thinking of making…Lip Balm, Body Butter, Sugar Lip Scrub, and Vitamin C Serum (to start). All except for the vitamin C serum will not have water, and will have coconut oil, Shea butter, beeswax, and vitamin e. I didn’t see coconut oil in your post but I wanted to see if you could confirm whether it is naturally anti-microbial, anti-fungal, and anti-bacterial? If not will the vitamin e be sufficient or should I add another preservative? If so, which?

    Also – the vitamin c serum will consist of vitamin c powder, water, vegetable glycerin and rose essential oil… What are your thoughts on best preserving it without compromising the ‘natural’ integrity that I am trying to achieve?

    Thank you in advance for any insight.

    1. Perry Romanowski

      No, vitamin E will not likely be adequate enough. But you have to test products using a preservative efficacy test. I personally don’t believe you should sacrifice product safety in order to use what people consider a “natural” cosmetic. Product safety should be your most pressing issue.

  29. Brian

    I’m interested in developing my own personal deodorant spray. Using water, sea salt, and aloe vera barbadensis extract, will I need to add a preservative like grapefruit seed extract, or will those three ingredients suffice for shelf life? Should I add something like lavender or tea tree? What amounts, portions or parts do you suggest I use to mix an effective solution? I’ll start at making a gallon to fill into spray bottles. Thank you in advance for sharing your knowledge, and advice!!!!

    1. Perry Romanowski

      Grapefruit seed extract is not a proper preservative, nor are lavender or tea tree oil. It really depends on your formula but if you want to avoid your best option (methylparaben) then you might use a blend of phenoxyethanol and sorbic acid. Also, be sure to conduct a preservative efficacy test before selling.

      1. Brian

        Thank you!!!!!

  30. anupama chhikara

    I want to make body butter with shea butter coconut oil , wheatgerm oil , fullers earth and red raspberry seed oil .
    What organic preservatives can I use? Is it okay if I use neem oil, tea tree oil , orange oil, lemongrass oil , geranium oil and citric acid?

    the recipe: 1/2 cup shea butter
    1/4 cup coconut oil
    1/4 cup wheatgerm oil
    1/4 cup fullers earth
    5 drops of red raspberry seed oil

    1. Perry Romanowski

      Those are not really preservatives but you may not need a preservative for a formula that has not water in it. You have to do the microbial testing though.

  31. Vanessa

    I’ve heard two schools of thought when making lipstick. 1) you do not need to use a perservative and 2) tocopherol can be used as a persevative. Which is correct. If neither what u can use as a perservative besides parabens?

    1. Perry Romanowski

      Tocopherol is not a preservative in the sense of preserving against microbes. It is an antioxidant that can prevent fats from going rancid but this is not cosmetic preservation (that’s food preservation). Technically speaking you don’t need to preserve the product from microbes because they won’t be able to grow in an anhydrous product. You can try phenoxyethanol instead of parabens. Optiphen is a brand name = phenoxyethanol in a base of caprylyl glycol. Use rate 0.75%-1.5%, broad spectrum + yeast + mold inhibitor.

  32. chops

    Just wanted to to know if potassium meta bi sulphate can be used as a preservative. If yes how much to use. Secondly is there any formula to use citric acid as I dont have access to ph meter. Thirdly what is the max amount of water phase components that I can add if I am using only stearic acid. The other day when I used more than 30% of water Base the solution separated with GMS glyceryl mono sulphate. I don’t have any other emulsifying wax to mix.

    1. Perry Romanowski

      No, it is not a proper anti-microbial preservative.
      I have no idea what type of formula you are making so can’t answer your other questions.

  33. Mardi OBrien

    If you aren’t a chemist, how does one go about formulating how much (for example) citric acid to use, and how long does this particular substance preserve a product?

    1. Perry Romanowski

      Citric acid is not a particularly good preservative and you should really use something else (for example Benzoic Acid or Sorbic Acid). However, your goal would be to make the formula with a pH of less than 5.0. You just need to experiment to see how much you need to get below that level.

  34. Jazmine

    Hi there,

    So I’m looking to make my own products. Such as homemade face toners etc.. So one toner I want to make includes brewed organic green tea, and DIY rose water. Both only last up to a week in the fridge. I’m wondering what natural organic paraben-free preservatives you would suggest to extend the life of toners with green tea and rose water. Would essential oils work? Like Tea Tree, Lavendar or Rosemary and if so for how long and what should the ration be? Thank you so much for your help!

    1. Perry Romanowski

      You have to experiment but it’s doubtful that essential oils will be adequate. Something like Sodium Benzoate or Benzoic Acid and reduce the pH to under 5.0 may work. But it really depends on your manufacturing conditions too.

  35. JuniorLabs

    Grapfruit Seed Extract is not natural/pure in “this” sense because it has to be mixed with synthetics to act as an effective preservative/antimicrobial.

  36. Danny Greer

    Great article. Anything that is good for our health is always interesting. I have never really though about using preservatives because I just follow what the products state about its expiration dates. Thanks for the enlightenment though.

  37. Pingback:Cosmetic Preservation – Some Definitions

  38. Mark Fuller

    I do a great deal of NSF, NPA and USDA/NOP Formulating. I am always open to new preservatives. I will reinforce that in these cases PET is most definitely warranted.

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