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Preservative free cosmetic formulating – How to make them

There was an interesting question posed on the cosmetic science forum the other day. The forum member wanted to know whether they could still call a cosmetic “preservative free” if one of the raw materials was known to have a preservative (methylparaben) in it. That lead to a discussion about what a preservative free cosmetic is and isn’t.

Can you claim preservative free?

The answer to the first question depends on the ethics of your company. The cosmetic industry guidelines allow for you to not list processing aids so technically, you may be able to get away with claiming preservative free. However, this certainly breaks the spirit of the law as the claim is misleading and could quite possibly be illegal under FTC guidelines. I’m not certain how things would be different in places outside the US.

What are preservative free cosmetics

Forum expert Duncan added the following comments which is helpful for any cosmetic formulator looking to create a preservative free formulation. (Note comments have been edited slightly).

Preservative free formulations will include:

1. Waterless products:oil based

That would include things like baby oil, massage oil, or wax based things like lip balm. They don’t need preservatives because harmful microbes will not grow in them. Spores might land and rest on the product surface, but they won’t germinate.

2. Waterless products: Non oil based.

If your formulation uses something like glycerin or other glycols, these will not need preservatives. They also heat up when exposed to water which is why they are used for self heating formulations.

3. Water containing products that are preserved by a non preservative.

This would include cosmetic formulas that have a high level of alcohol as the alcohol kills the microbes. You might also consider formulations with high levels of sugar to preserve it like Jam, or high levels of salt. Reducing the water activity will reduce the ability of microbes to grow and thus be self-preserving.

4. pH controlled formulas.

Having a pH of 10-11 will discourage bugs, as will a very acidic pH. Only really ok for hand washing type products, or kitchen cleaners.

5. Using non-preservative preservatives.

The cosmetic raw material suppliers continue to research and have launched some materials that are not technically preservatives but they have a preservative effect. These products are in no way good enough to get registered as preservatives, but have some antimicrobial effects.

For example, Sensiva SC50. It is sold as a skin feel additive, with some limited antimicrobial activity. Used as a skin feel additive it allows you to reduce preservative levels. A bit of a grey area when some people use a lot of it to “Preserve” products.

6. Air tight packaged products.

Finally, you could technically make a standard water-based formula under aseptic conditions then package it into an air tight container (like an aerosol can). This should stay suitably preserved through the lifetime of the product.

Preservative free challenge

Preservative free products are very difficult to create because your options are limited. I personally don’t think it’s a compelling reason to buy a formulation and that your time would be better spent working on new benefits for your products, however, a number of consumers and your marketing group might disagree. Good luck!

{ 37 comments… add one }
  • Lisa 01/19/2016, 9:02 am

    I love your website, thank you for such great information.

    I am working on a mask that includes honey, clay, veg. glycerin, and small amount of witch hazel. Will I need a preservative due to the witch hazel? I am thinking of dropping it all together if so. Please let me know your initial thoughts as the mask is honey and glycerin heavy. Thank you!

    • Perry Romanowski 01/19/2016, 9:54 am

      It really depends on the amounts of the ingredients in your formula. If you have no free water in the formula then a preservative is of less concern. Although, it also depends on the type of packaging because even though microbes can’t grow in an anhydrous formula, if moisture gets on the surface they can grow there.

  • Michelle 11/16/2015, 1:08 pm

    I have to share this. On day while working in my yard I was bitten by a fire ant…one of those nearly 3/4 of an inch long and a beautiful shade of red. I hadn’t even noticed until the next morning. I had been scratching this spot all nigh with my foot. By morning it I was desprite to find a way to remove the poison from my ankle. SOOOOOOOOOOOO the story being shre: I mixed egg white then thought to add Tea Tree Oil, and for good measure a lot of honey as a preservative. I needed a poltice and quick. The so drawing save sold in drug stores doesn’t work…so I used my home made mixture. At first I kept this in the fridge…then I started leaving it out. Believe it or not it lasted me two years… Wish I could have looked under a microscope. But, it continued to work as long as I kept it, it never grew ANY form of mold, and I never showed any bacterial reactions to any bacteria which may have been present. I still use this remedy for insect bites.. LOL .of course not the same batch. This worked most of time with one application if applied immedietly. Perhaps two – three applications if the bite is larger and if you wait to apply. I REALLY enjoy summers NOW!

    • Perry Romanowski 11/16/2015, 8:16 pm

      An interesting story but I wouldn’t recommend using any product that wasn’t properly tested for disease causing microbes.

  • MANDEEP CHAWLA 08/26/2015, 10:58 pm

    i have to made my own rose water and rose air freshner water base with essential oil of rose. which preservative will be best for these products. that these product will not expire upto 2 years.

    Mandeep chawla

    • Perry Romanowski 10/22/2015, 4:58 pm

      That depends on your manufacturing and storage conditions but DMDM Hydantoin at 0.3% should work in most instances. Probably not for 2 years though. 1 year maybe. You have to test it.

  • Grace 08/02/2015, 6:26 am

    I have recently started making my own body butters. No water included. But I think that my customers might contaminate it with water during use. I’ve looked for a solution to this but I am unable to find one preservative that would work best for this. Please help

    • Perry Romanowski 08/03/2015, 9:30 am

      I’d suggest you search through our forum for an answer. http://chemistscorner.com/cosmeticsciencetalk
      Probably you should use propylparaben

      • Jessica 01/21/2016, 1:54 pm

        What about when you’re trying to avoid parabens, phthalates, sulfates etc.?

        • Perry Romanowski 01/21/2016, 2:00 pm

          It really depends on the formula. Phenoxyethanol might work.

  • Maya 02/09/2015, 5:45 pm

    If I add glycerol to a face mask I made at home that contains water and it is refrigerated in between uses, how long before the bacteria will grow? 1 week? 2 weeks? 3 weeks? Longer?


    • Perry Romanowski 02/09/2015, 7:16 pm

      It’s tough to say without knowing what the manufacturing conditions were like. But It probably will be contaminated within 2 weeks.

  • Alex 01/07/2015, 4:07 pm

    I hope someone will help em out here… I know water is needed for microbes n spores to develop.. I think I would be fine by not adding preservatives if I formulate something which is most oil and butter and bee wax based and contains some glycerin and glycols but what if I add 1% each of of dry vitamins, dry herbal extract, and dry milk powder? but no water at all. Would it still be ok without preservatives? Thank you

    • Perry Romanowski 01/07/2015, 5:31 pm

      You probably wouldn’t need a preservative if you formulate as you’ve said. But if there is any water in the formula microbes will find a way to grow.

      • Juli 09/28/2015, 8:36 pm

        I’ve formulated (a face mask) something similar to Alex but with a few exceptions, the biggest being I’ve included dry clay. This is a product that will eventually be for sale. What kind of a preservative should be used? Would Liquid Germall Plus work in this case (if water is somehow introduced)? Or is this still a case where a preservative is not needed?


        • Perry Romanowski 10/22/2015, 8:35 pm

          It might work. You have to test it to find out.

  • veronica 12/28/2014, 12:35 pm

    There is a product that is used for a tone and they claim all natural no preservatives. The product ingredients are Organic Rosewater, organic vegetable Glycerin, and organic tea tree EO. It is in a clear 4 ounce bottle. No mention of preservative and my question. How can this be?

    • Perry Romanowski 12/31/2014, 9:13 am

      Two ways.

      1. They are lying and the product contains a preservative. This could be unintentional since they might not realize their raw materials have a preservative.

      2. The product is dangerous and contains microbes.

      Either way, I wouldn’t use a product produced from this company.

      • Magdalena 06/10/2015, 4:32 am

        I believe, the rosewater is pure (distilled).
        Tea tree oil is antibacterial, antimicrobial, antiseptic, antiviral, isn’t it?
        So maybe this is enough to preserve the product…

        • Perry Romanowski 06/17/2015, 10:14 pm

          Rosewater is not a preservative. Tea Tree oil has some antibacterial properties but it is not broad spectrum enough to be a reliable preservative.

  • Agnes 09/16/2013, 11:17 am

    Being preservative free is definitely a challenge. The butters used to formulate most of the skin creams are fat based. If very little water is used to give it a creamy texture it can self preserve itself for a long time. Yes, the initial formulation takes time, but once it has been achieved it becomes easier.

  • ZPD 04/30/2013, 8:24 pm

    One of the most popular OTC products in the market that has 10% Menthol, 4% camphor and 30% methyl salicylate as active ingredients. %. I noticed that there is no other preservative except for edetate disodium. Will this be enough to preserve the product? Thank you.

    • Perry Romanowski 05/01/2013, 10:02 am

      You’d have to test it to find out. It really depends on how much water is in the formula.

  • erhan 03/24/2013, 12:21 pm

    Hi Perry, thank you very much for notice

  • Ayur 03/22/2013, 11:40 pm

    Hi. Plz help me with some good preservative for my homemade face pack. It is made from almond, rose water, turmeric and hydroquinone cream. I would love to use this pack round the year but it doesn’t last long as rose water plays spoiler. Plz plz help me with some preservative which will keep this formula at least for a year without affecting performance.

  • tiana 02/13/2013, 2:46 am

    If my raw materials come with preservatives already included will I still need to add preservatives to the finished product for resale? The products I’m interested in making is makeup FYI

    • Perry 02/13/2013, 6:44 am

      Typically, the amount of preservative in the raw material is not adequate for preserving your whole formula so, yes, you will need to add preservative to the finished product.

  • Jerome 02/05/2013, 11:59 am

    I have posted on this issue before.

    My flagship product, Crema Conditioner has been manufactured for over 30 years; 9 years by me and has never had a preservative in it. pH is not too extreme: not within limits noted above. Not one cfu, not one test failure (under my nose anyhow).

    I recently used an off the shelf non preservative preservative in my new shampoo formulas. It passed the PET USP 35 sect. 51 and 61 on first try at the recommended amount against staph, E. coli, Pseudomonas, C. Albicans, A. Niger. Undetectable after 7 days. It sits well on stability, in-fact better than an alternative I was using and is cheaper. Case closed? What is the issue here?

    Am I missing something or just lucky? Taking these courses and reading these forums, I worry/loose sleep about this all the time and wonder if it is needless worry. I do keep my manufacturing area/ equipment sanitary.

    • Perry 02/05/2013, 12:19 pm

      I have two thoughts on this.

      1. Maybe your testing isn’t rigorous enough. Is it done by an outside testing house or internally?

      2. Do your raw materials come supplied with preservatives in them already? Many / most raw materials are preserved.

      It seems unlikely that you would be so lucky so there must be something about your formulation that makes it repellant to microbial growth (or you’ve got growth but your testing hasn’t detected it).

      • Michelle 11/16/2015, 4:54 pm

        Perhaps Jerome’s formula has some tea tree oil, honey, Rosemary, and a few other essential oils which are anti-bacterial. I’d sure like to know what you used Jerome! :)

  • amo 02/03/2013, 10:06 pm

    Hello! Wondering if any of the folks here have any opinion or experience with the preservative Citric Acid (and ) Silver Citrate, aka Silver Dihydrogen Citrate aka Tinosan SDC aka Silverion 2400. I have been using it in my oil/water formulations as an alternative to other so-called “natural preservatives” that seem a little suspect to me.

    • Perry 02/04/2013, 2:27 pm

      I’d suggest you post this question to the forum where you might get answers from more chemists. I would be skeptical that the preservative you’ve suggested will have a broad enough kill spectrum to be used regularly in cosmetics.

  • Jackie 01/31/2013, 1:04 pm

    Good luck educating the general public with that philosophy. The average joe seems to think that natural is best and we should all be living chemical free. Excuse me while I go bang my head against a wall!!

    • Perry 01/31/2013, 1:18 pm

      It is definitely frustrating but we can’t give up! Must continue to educate and fight the good fight. Everything is a chemical!!

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