Article by: Perry Romanowski

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!


  1. Ree

    What is your take on liquid germall plus as a preservative? I honestly have no idea why people are so big on “no preservatives” products!

    1. Perry Romanowski

      It’s a good preservative.

  2. Pauline

    If using 100% pure aloe Vera (from the plant leaves) along with oil still need a preservative? I make my own products when health allows on very small amounts; and have just been successful in making an aloe Vera oil suitable for face body and hair using extra virgin olive oil as the main ingredient. Because the aloe Vera has a large percentage of water, I was wondering if this affects the oil base? I will not be selling but just making for myself and others for gifts.

    1. Perry Romanowski

      I personally would use a preservative.

    2. Janae

      Yes, the aloe vera’s water content does impact the integrity of the product. I would try to switch the aloe vera for something else. Or atleast, not use fresh aloe vera gel. There are credible companies that sell organic aloe vera gel with a mild preservative. You can also seek other alternatives that don’t contain water (because germs live where water is.) If you continue applying this to your skin, you are also applying germs. If health is something you care about or prioritize, consider oils like apricot seed oil, jojoba oil, carrot oil (beautiful color), almond oil which can be reasonable. Go for don’t need the bacteria – just the moisture.

      Quick Tip: Look up DIY Body Butter and you may pick up a new hobby 🙂

    3. Laura

      Absolutely, aloe vera is water based and will grow fungus, bacteria and mold. What kind of question is that? 100% pure aloe vera means nothing.

  3. shannon

    Hello i have a question about skincare . If my cream has only Glutinous Rice powder , Castor Oil, Glycerin , vitamin E , rosehip, Jojoba oil , wheatgerm , peach oil, green tea oil, avocado oil …do i need a preservative giving the fact Rice powder is a protein . Thank you kindly

    1. Perry Romanowski

      You’d have to do a preservative efficacy test to know for sure. It depends on a lot of factors. Any water that would get into your product (like during use or natural condensation) could result in contamination. Personally, I’d put in a preservative.

  4. jeff jaquith

    Thanks for the information! I would like to add 10% of a white willow bark glycerite 1:3 water to glycerine to a lotion base preserved with (propanediol ethylexylglycerin, potassium sorbate) Would I need to add more preservative to this now? Can I add preservative to the glycerite then blend it in? If so, could you recommend one? Thank you.

    1. Perry Romanowski

      I’m not sure but you probably would need to add more preservative. The ones you mentioned are not particularly good and will only work with a pH below 5.0. I’d suggest you post your question in our forum.

  5. sahar

    I would like to ask if my product depends on shea butter and wax without water it is safe and suitable to use phenoxyethanol please I need your advice and other preservatives that can be used with these compounds

    1. Perry Romanowski

      Yes phenoxyethanol would be appropriate

  6. Mariah Palrang

    Hello! I recently ventured out into the homemade skin care business and never had any problems with mold. I made a body butter with colloidal oatmeal and BOOM mold. Should I use the oils form (oat kernel extract) ? Also, my body butters contain NO water. Do I still need a preservative ? I use mainly butters, with oils, and EOs.

    1. Perry Romanowski

      As you’ve discovered that even though you don’t have water in your formula you can get contamination, so yes, you should use a preservative. I think companies who don’t are being unnecessarily reckless. You could probably use phenonip.

  7. Louise Godber

    Hello. I have recently started making body bars and lip balm from coco butter, coconut oil and essential oils… do I need to add preservative? If yes which ones?….. how long will their shelf life be and could I sell them? Thanks.

    1. Perry Romanowski

      Yes. You should use Phenonip. You would need to test the product to make sure it is safe if you want to sell them.

  8. Julia

    I was wondering. I need to combine water + oil. I will not use an emulsifier. Just shake he mixture vigorously. Will I need to add a preservative just to the water? Or preserve the whole serum? Oil does not need a preservative. Would preserving the water and adding and oil be enough?

    1. Perry Romanowski

      You’ll have to test it but that will probably be a good enough strategy.

  9. Tennille

    Can I use vegetable glycerine as a preservative? If not how much Propylene Glycol should I use in 8 oz of homemade lotion. I’m also making salt water based face wipes how much salt should I use in 1 cup of water to keep it safe?
    Thank you for your time

    1. Perry Romanowski

      No, glycerine is not a preservative. Propylene glycol is also not a preservative. You haven’t given enough information for me to provide an answer. I’d suggest you post your question in our forum.

  10. Holly

    Hi, Since essential oils have natural chemicals why cannot they be used as a preservative, especially if you use a variety of them in a product? And if I make a hand “sanitizer” that has aloe, water and witch hazel with essential oils I assume I need to add a preservative. Can Vodka be used? If so, how much per ounce?

    1. Perry Romanowski

      You need to use a preservative that works. Oils are not used because they don’t work. If they worked, they would be used. Vodka shouldn’t be used as there are VOC regulations which mostly prevent it.

      1. Andrea

        Hi there, I want to make essential oil spray blends for children. I likely will use witch hazel or distilled water as the solvent. I have purchased and or looked at many people who currently sell these products and they NEVER put in a preservative. Is this because it is intended for children? and preservatives are considered Taboo? or is it because people simply do not have the knowledge to add a preservative and are taking a risk. Also I have Opithen on hand…would that work for a room spray?

        1. Perry Romanowski

          The reason they don’t use preservatives is because they don’t care about breaking the law and harming consumers. If you care about that then you will use a preservative even for (especially for) children’s’ products.

  11. dariya

    hi good afternoon
    I need make rice bran oil,beewax,liquid paraffin
    then I need preservative? and I need u tell me how can make at home preservative?

    1. Perry Romanowski

      I’d suggest you post your question in our forum.

  12. Andrea

    Hello, This is where you should end up when planning to sell hand made products. I had no idea how complicated it really is. I have a few questions. I use a liquid dish soap recipe comprised of water, sal suds, citric acid, vinegar and kosher salt. Will all those ingredients act as a preservative due to the acid content? Second question… I use herbal infused oils in my oil based salves/ body butters. Even though they are only fat/ oil ingredients, infused oils can go rancid quicker. Is there a “closer to natural” antimicrobial preservative you would recommend and, is there one good for both water formulas as well as oil based formulas or do you need a different one for each?

    1. Perry Romanowski

      No, those ingredients will not be adequate to work as a preservative. Although the risk will depend on the pH. You have to test it in a preservative challenge test.

      It depends on what you mean by “closer to natural.” Parabens are found in nature as is formaldehyde. You probably want organic acids like Benzoic acid or Sorbic acid and to keep the pH level below 5.0. But there is no preservative that you can say will work for every formula. It just depends on the ingredients, your packaging, and your manufacturing conditions.

  13. Savannahsmiles

    I just found your site, after doing a Google search. The last 2 replies confirmed my decision to use a Preservative. People on the 100% “natural”(me included!)side…or those desperately looking for a “way” to preserve their products, Most likely have not experienced the Human Body under attack from Staph and other horrid microbes.

    We have all had the pleasure of smelling products gone bad. When the human body is attacked….it carries MUCH that same smell X-100. I Just lost my Best friend a few days ago…..Everybody SHOULD BE WORRIED AND Afraid of all these Bacterial. If not for yourselves, but @ the VERY LEAST,to anybody you want to give them too.
    I have personally decided that my products will contain a Formal Preservative…..along with “natural additives”. Taking a chance with my own health,is,just not worth it to me. And “if” somebody happens to be concerned about the Preservative, I feel confident that they will purchase in the end.
    These bacteria are TUFF!!! THEY “consume” from the Outside in.Once in, it eventually just becomes a matter of “time”. Bacteria “evolve” fight and change their chemical makeup…continually. 5 YEARS, my friend fought them….in the end….not one Vascular Dr. would touch him….because there was nothing left to work with 🙁

    Just something to SERIOUSLY think about……

  14. Priyanka

    I want to make anti anti aging cream I used bee wax rosehip oli apprikot kennel oil glycerine rose water .is here any type need of preservative?and also I want to start mybusiness purpose plz I need your help

    1. Perry Romanowski

      Yes, you need to include a preservative. Parabens are probably your best option.

  15. Sandra

    If I would make a mask with honey (maybe around 80% of the formulation), carrier oils and some fruit powders (e.g. Camu camu, hibiscus, amla, guava fruit powder, raspberry. ……) or with some green powders (Chlorella, spirulina, matcha, moringa powder…….) do I need a preservative here? (There are no hydrous products like hydrosols in the mask.) There are many brands out there, which offer honey masks with manuka or hawaiian honey, oils and powders and co2 extracts and have no preservative in the mask. Is this ok? Can I make such a mask with honey, oils and powders without a preservative? If not, what natural preservative can I use here? Thank you so much for your answer. I am really wondering about this.
    Kind Regards Sandra

    1. Perry Romanowski

      It is all a matter of what risk you are willing to take. When you don’t include a preservative you risk selling a contaminated product (illegal) and also risk that someone will use your product and contract a disease or otherwise be hurt. If you don’t mind taking the risk that someone will sue you and have a very good chance of winning since you haven’t done anything to prevent microbial growth in your product, then it’s fine.

      I personally don’t see any upside to not including a preservative and would recommend that one is included in all formulas even if there is no water present. Moisture from the air can settle on your product and mold could grow. This isn’t a good situation.

      But again, it just depends on what you’re willing to risk.

  16. alexis

    I formulated a honey, white clay, roses seed oil and maracuja oil with strawberry fruit powder, reship powder and vit. e and essential oils. I have been using for months now with no problems and even shared with a lot of friends to test and try. No problems yet. until today, I had shipped one to italy and my friend sent me a pic bc the smell was acidic and it was chunky, not smooth. what do you think happened here if there was no water added to the formula? i know honey contains water but the sugar levels are so high its self preserving. please help!

    1. Perry Romanowski

      You could have gotten some condensation inside the bottle and without a proper preservative, microbes were able to grow. This is why you should include preservatives even in non-water based formulas. It’s just more safe.

  17. winnie

    Hi Perry, lets say i’m formulating a simple oil based product with no water. If the ingredients that i am using are said to last for 2 years, does that mean that there’s already preservatives in these raw materials? If yes then is a preservative system needed?

    1. winnie

      Or rather, why is a preservative still needed if there’s water in the formula?

    2. Perry Romanowski

      Yes, you still need a preservative even if your ingredients have preservatives in them. The preservative system for an ingredient only works at the concentration of the ingredient. When you dilute it you need more preservative.

      1. Ayra

        So if I am using already preserved aloe vera gel (97% organic) with oils, waxes and essential oils then do I need to add preservatives again and how would I calculate the amount of preservative?

        1. Ayra

          Please note that aloevera gel’s concentration is only 5 percent. Thanks for your valuable time.

          1. Perry Romanowski

            Yes, you need a preservative. The aloe is preserved as itself. Whenever you add anything else you need to adjust the preservative levels. There is no simple answer to how much preservative to add. That depends on many factors including the type of preservative you’re using, your manufacturing conditions, the other ingredients in your formula, etc. But 0.2% DMDM Hydantoin would probably be effective enough.

            However, no matter what preservative you try you’ll need to have a preservative efficacy test run to make sure that it’s working.

  18. Maria

    Hi Perry; and thank you for sharing your knowledge!
    I am making a face cream with calendula infusion and I am adding Naicide(R) preservative. I am advised to use 1 to 3% of preservative. Is this percentage related to the whole formula, the water elements or the oils elements? Thanks for your help!

    1. Perry Romanowski

      That would be a % of the whole formula

  19. Mary carver

    I was wondering if you have ever used aspen bark as a natural preservative and if so how did it work . I am always searching for a natural preservative , this sounds promising but not sure how well it will work , would love to know your thoughts on this .
    Thank you Mary

    1. Perry Romanowski

      No, I’ve never tried it. I wouldn’t think that it would have a broad spectrum of effectiveness however since aspens have a limited type of microbe that would attack it.

      1. umrao singh

        Here in India we habe the under bark of neem tree which used as natural persative for cosmetics and herbal medicines and it is very effective

  20. sabs

    Hi Perry!
    Hope you are doing great.
    Does clay, zinc oxide and glycerin mask need preservative.? How long will it stay good in refrigerator?

    1. Perry Romanowski

      If those are the only ingredients than a preservative may not be required. However, there is no good reason not to put a preservative in the product as moisture could get in it and that would lead to the potential for microbial growth. You should always use a preservative.

  21. Melanie Molloy

    Hello I’m planning on creating a serum based purely on oils. It obviously has no water content in it. I’m presuming here that I don’t need a preservative because it is oil based. Plus do I need to still get it tested? And if so how much does it cost to get it tested. And what tests will it need? I’m based in UK and am planning on selling it in UK first. I’m getting conflicting messages on the net. Thank you

    1. Perry Romanowski

      You may or may not need a preservative as it depends on many factors like the purity of your ingredients, the sanitary conditions of production, etc. YES you should get it tested. It is illegal to sell unsafe cosmetic products so you need testing to demonstrate that it is safe.

  22. Lisa

    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!

    1. Perry Romanowski

      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.

      1. Lisa

        Thanks! I plan to challenge test nonetheless. Do you happen to know of any budget friendly labs?

  23. Michelle

    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!

    1. Perry Romanowski

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


    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

    1. Perry Romanowski

      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.

  25. Grace

    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

      1. Jessica

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

        1. Perry Romanowski

          It really depends on the formula. Phenoxyethanol might work.

  26. Maya

    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?


    1. Perry Romanowski

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

  27. Alex

    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

    1. Perry Romanowski

      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.

      1. Juli

        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?


        1. Perry Romanowski

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

  28. veronica

    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?

    1. Perry Romanowski

      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.

      1. Magdalena

        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…

        1. Perry Romanowski

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

  29. Agnes

    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.

  30. ZPD

    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.

    1. Perry Romanowski

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

  31. erhan

    Hi Perry, thank you very much for notice

  32. Ayur

    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.

  33. tiana

    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

    1. Perry

      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.

  34. Jerome

    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.

    1. Perry

      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).

      1. Michelle

        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! 🙂

  35. amo

    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.

    1. Perry

      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.

  36. Jackie

    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!!

    1. Perry

      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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