Understanding Preservatives 

When making handcrafted soaps and cosmetics to sell, you of course hope that they will quickly fly off the shelves and be used up by your ravenous, amazing-product-loving customers! Sometimes, though, this is not the case; your products may need a little bit of a bump in their shelf life and anti-microbial defenses.

When we hear the word “preservative”, there are often negative associations. These days, products are favored for being organic, natural, and devoid of GMO’s; preservative seems to be among those dirty words. In truth, the preservatives that truly work and are both affordable and accessible to the every day handcrafter are not natural, but this doesn’t mean they aren’t a great addition to your products.

Anti-Microbial vs. Anti-Oxidant 

Channel your inner scientist with us for a moment and let’s start with a fundamental overview of the difference between an anti-microbial and an anti-oxidant.

Anti-microbial: a substance that destroys or stops the growth of unwanted microorganisms such as harmful bacteria and mold. 

Anti-oxidant: reduces the rate of oxidation in materials that oxidize quickly; in soap and cosmetics, this usually means oils. 

The biggest and most obvious different between these two products is the defense that an anti-microbial offers against bacteria, mold and even fungi. This is especially important for products that contain water or may be exposed to it.

For example: say you make a scrub. It’s a fantastic scrub, and it contains no water. You may think, an anti-oxidant is probably enough to stop the oxidation of the oils I’ve used.This is a bit of a gray area, because technically you’re right. However, many people use their scrubs in their showers and most likely in their bathroom in general, which means there is a very high likelihood that water will at some point enter the container. Even though you didn’t originally formulate your product with water as an ingredient, it’s a good idea to add a preservative to it to avoid any future microorganism growth as a result of it’s usage.

Types of Preservatives 

There are many affordable preservatives available to soap and cosmetic handcrafters, and also a few misconceptions about what is and is not a preservative.

For example, although commonly marketed as a preservative, Vitamin E oil does not qualify as one. It is an effective anti-oxidant, but does not contain the anti-microbial properties that at true preservative must possess in order to be considered the sole preservative.

Synthetic preservatives are available for any and all types of products. Optiphen, for example, is a formaldehyde and paraben-free preservative that works great in oil-based products like lotions and shampoos. Phenonip is another great option for oil-based products that can be used at higher temperatures (under 200 degrees), and prevents a full range of microorganism growth. These preservatives are readily available from suppliers and when used correctly can help to protect the hard work you put into your products.

When Do I Need a Preservative? 

Consider adding a preservative if you can answer “yes” to either of the following questions:

Does your product contain water?

Is there a chance that my product will be exposed to water that may stay in the container? 

When making cold process, hot process, and/or melt and pour soap,  adding a preservative is not usually necessary because the water content “disappears” during the saponification process. The same is true for liquid soap, but many handcrafters add a small amount of preservative, just to be safe. It is strongly encouraged to use a preservative in lotions, creams or body butters, too.

Final Thoughts 

There are many differing opinions about preservatives, but the most important takeaway from anything you may read about them is that although the bulk of readily available preservatives may not be natural, they can protect your product and your business from unnecessary fallout if your product develops mold soon after you sell it to your customer. It is also important to educate your customers about the importance of proper care for products like scrubs; encourage them to store their product outside of their shower with a tightly closed lid to avoid bacterial growth. Sometimes, a bit of product education goes a long way!

NOTE: Some material in the How-To Library is limited to R Registered Users or M Members. If you Login or Register you can take advantage of more available content.