[List] Natural preservatives for cosmetics | Luisa Fanzani
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natural preservatives

The ultimate list of natural preservatives for cosmetics. 

Two days ago, I received an email from a potential customer who wanted to hire me for an "intimate parts" product.

We scheduled a phone call to further discuss the project. During our phone conversation, I found out that this client wished to add probiotics to the product . 

My first comment was:

"There's no way probiotics can survive in presence of the preservative".

This is what that prospective client replied: "DON'T ADD THE PRESERVATIVE, THEN. "

There's a new horrible trend going on. It feeds itself on the (false ) belief that everything that is natural is good and vice versa. As a consequence, some brands started making "preservative free cosmetics".

According to some people, preservatives are not necessary and can be even harmful. 

It's true that a high number of skin allergies and reactions are caused by preservatives and fragrances, but...this is not a valid reason to avoid using them

What you can and should do is to inform yourself about the preservatives that are less likely to cause bad skin reactions. 

Want all natural products?

I get that.

But, even natural products should be safe and include a preservative! Just because you don't see any sign of spoilage, it doesn't mean it's not here. We know cosmetics don't have to be sterile. It would be quite ridiculous. At the same time, you don't want an excessive number of bacteria in them and no pathogen ones at all. Sure, not all bacteria, fungi, and mold are dangerous; however, even the innocuous ones could prevent the product from working the way it is supposed to.

As brand owner, you have the legal and moral responsibility of making sure the products you sell are safe. Period.

Misconceptions about natural preservatives

Every now and then someone asks " is glycerin a preservative" ? The question probably arises from the fact that products with a high concentration of glycerin usually don't require a preservative; BUT the glycerin has to be at least 50% which makes the products too sticky.

Furthermore, if you read some DIY blogs, you'll see that some other ingredients are labelled as preservative, yet they're not. To be precise, some might have antimicrobial properties , yet in most cases they're not enough to fully protect a water based product from spoilage. 

Let's see what these supposed "natural preservatives" are: 

  • Vitamin E is not a preservative. It's an antioxidant. 
  •  Essential oils are not ,generally speaking, enough to preserve a product from fungi, bacteria, and mold; however, it's absolutely true that essential oils have anti bacterial properties. The main issue with essential oils is that they tend to have a high affinity for the oil phase of an emulsion, thus limiting their accessibility to the water phase. Furthermore, they might be active against some bacteria , but totally ineffective against other strands. For example, it is well known that Tea Tree oil is not effective against Pseudomonas Aeruginosa. For this reason, if you do attempt to use them as preservative, make sure you use a blend or different oils rather than a single one.  Finally, other ingredients might interfere with their action; before you sell products with essential oils as preservative, make sure you perform the preservative challenge test. 

"Omnia venenum sunt: nec sine veneno quicquam existit. Dosis sola facit, ut venenum non fit" (Paracelsus)

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As the wise Paracelsus figured out many years ago, the dose plays a crucial role as well; to exert their function as preservatives, essential oils should be present as combination and at high doses (sometimes more that 3%). These high doses are extremely irritant for the skin; this is why essential oils cannot be used as preservatives.

Are there cosmetics that don't require a preservative?


Products with no water don't need a preservative; however, if you suppose they'll come in contact with water during use, then a preservative will still be necessary.

For examples, oils mixtures do not require a preservative as there's no chance bacteria are going to grow in them without water. From a stability point of view, though, oils still need something able to preserve their good qualities over time...they need an antioxidant.

Fats are well known to become rancid without a good antioxidant. Vitamin E is a popular and effective antioxidant. This is why it gained the wrong preservative reputation.

To summarize, vitamin E does help to preserve a product, but from a physical stability point of view only. It is not able to kill or prevent bacteria growth.

Other products that don't require a preservative are those with pH values below 4 or above 8 and products with a high content of alcohol (perfumes), salt, or sugar.

Lotions always need a preservative system especially when the water phase is external.

Natural preservatives for cosmetics: the ultimate list.


Bacteria, mold, and fungi can easily spread in a preservative free lotion.

As stated above, you should always add a preservative no matter if you want to keep your product 100% natural.

The good news is that there are many different all natural preservatives for cosmetics. Don't listen to whoever says natural preservatives don't work very well. I've formulated many lotions with all natural preservatives, and they all passed microbiological tests. 

Here's a list that also includes natural and organic preservatives. I keep the list updated with only products that I have personally tested and samples passed the challenge test. Please leave a comment with other natural preservatives options.

  • Benzyl Alcohol. Produced by plants, it has a pleasant odor and can be found in some essential oils ,too. It is considered a safe ingredient and helps dealing with Gram+ (Staphylococcus Aerus), Gram- (such as E.Coli, and Pseudomonas Aeruginosa), fungi, and yeast.
  • Dehydroacetic acid: a broad spectrum preservative suitable for Eco-label cosmetics. Can be used alone or in association with another preservative, for example Benzyl Alcohol. There are products that incorporate both Dehydroacetic acid and Benzyl Alcohol, for instance Geogard 221. Dehydroacetic acid has a pH dependent action; works best with pH below 6. It is also a very good anti-fungicide. Other acids effective as preservatives are sorbic and benzoic acid.
  • Glyceryl Caprilate with activity vs bacteria and yeast. It is Ecocert/Cosmos approved and works in a wide pH range (4 to 8).
  • Potassium sorbate is a natural preservative for cosmetics and food. It can be used in a wide variety of products including makeup, skin care products, hair care products, bath products, nail polish, fragrances, oral care products, spermicides, and insect repellants. It is highly soluble in cold water and works best at pH below 6.
  • Caprylhydroxamic Acid (and) Caprylyl Glycol (and) Glycerin (Spectrastat- Inolex). It's a  complete system for "preservative-free" claims cosmetics. It uses multifunctional agents that have excellent efficacy as biostatic and fungistatic agents.  It performs superbly at neutral pH and is compatible with most cosmetic ingredients. However, it can interact with residual iron found in some clay-type compounds (e.g., bentonite, silicates, etc). This interaction with iron may produce a very mild orange color or color.  It may be added to the water phase, at ambient or hot temperatures.  Lengthy exposure to elevated temperatures should be avoided. Typical use level is 0.7% w/w to 1.2% w/w.
  • Geogard ECT ( Benzyl Alcohol & Salicylic Acid & Glycerin & Sorbic Acid) is a natural broad spectrum Ecocert approved preservative. It's very common among natural products , especially in acid exfoliants due to the presence of salicylic acid which has a double effect (it acts as both exfoliating agent and preservative). The producer states Geogard ECT is water soluble, and it definitely is; however I've noticed solutions don't turn out completely clear. I recommend using it at 1%. Geogard preservative is active in a wide range oh pH (3 to 8). It is sometimes referred as Preservative Eco.
  • Sensicare M4200 (Gluconolactone & Sodium Benzoate) is a water soluble broad spectrum preservative that also improves the moisture content. It is widely used in makeup , especially pressed powders. It is compatible with the most common ingredients including cationic, anionic and non-ionic surfactants. It's stable over a wide pH range from 3 to 7 and at high temperatures. It can be added to the water phase at room temperature as well as at higher temperatures. Use it at a % between 1 and 2 in both leave on and rise off products. It's also suitable for Eco-labels.
  • Anisic acid is a compound with anti-fungal activity only; therefore, it needs to be associated with other preservatives that have anti bacterial activity. Trade name for this molecule is Dermosoft688 by Evonik Dr. Straetmans GmbH. Smaller amounts for can be purchased from Essential Wholesale Website. The acid form is a bit tricky to dissolve in water...to increase water solubility, you can use the sodium salt instead.
  • Glyceryl Caprylate (and) Glyceryl Undecylenate: this is a recent preservative system that is quickly gaining popularity. It's present in a large number of natural products probably because it's versatile and effective. The composition has also emollient, co-emulsifier, and skin re-fatting properties. It may be incorporated in the oil or water phase at any point during the emulsification process. For optimal results make sure the final formulation has a pH of  5.5 or lower. Trade name is Lexgard Natural by Inolex.
  • Naticide: with an appealing INCI name of "parfum" this preservative is perfect for whoever doesn't want to list a preservative in the actual ingredients list, supporting the "preservative-free claim".  Naticide has wide spectrum of activity, being effective against Gram+, Gram-, yeasts and moulds in a pH range between 4 - 9.  Naticide has also the COSMOS certification.  Buy it from Amazon.
  • Biosecur is a 100% natural preservative made from citrus extract.It's Ecocert certified and USDA organic. Therefore, it's a great option for organic lotions. It's distributed by Sharon worldwide. More information available here.

This is my favorite natural preservative (if something like favorite preservative exists ?).

MINASOLVE GREEN B (more info here). Ecocert/Cosmos Approved. INCI: Pentylene glycol (and) Water (and) Sodium benzoate (and) Benzoic acid. Recommended use level : from 1% to 3%. Works best at pH below 6. 

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Formulating with natural preservatives like a pro: guidelines and tips.

I don't know how familiar you are with preservatives, but I am pretty sure you know that there's tons of them out there. 

How to choose the right one (or the right combination)? 

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    Rule #1: pick a preservative among those in the Annex V of the EU cosmetic legislation (regularly updated). Remember, when it comes to cosmetic regulations always take Europe as a reference. The cosmetic industry is highly regulated over there and ingredients are "approved" based on their safety profile. Maximum allowable amounts for a single preservative are also listed. You can find the Annex with the list here. For example , the above mentioned Benzyl Alcohol is allowed at 1% maximum. 

When it comes to cosmetic regulations, always take EU as a reference.

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    Rule #2: Always include a preservative booster. These ingredients help the preservative to penetrate the microbes cell walls. Some of the most common preservative boosters are: glycerin, ethylhexylglycerin, butylene glycol, and pentylene glycol. If you're looking for a natural booster, I suggest Propanediol (trade name Zemea).
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    Rule #3: don't forget to add a chelator to the formula. Chelator agents such as EDTA are usually added at 0.05%. Nevertheless, they play an important role in the formulation. An amazing natural alternative is Sodium Phytate (highly water soluble as EDTA).
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    Rule #4: check your pH. Some preservatives only work within a specific pH range, so you want to make sure your product's pH falls inside the range. This information should be provided when you purchase the preservative. Remember to ask if it doesn't happen. When you have to calculate small pH intervals, strips are not the best choice. Invest some money into a pH meter. Usually if they're cheap, they're not very accurate...If you don't know what to buy, below you can see two valid options (the second one is perfect for semi-solids such as creams). Remember to calibrate the instrument before each  use, or the measure won't be accurate. For other tools to build your cosmetics lab, check this post
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    Rule #5: work following the GMPs (Good Manufacturing Practices). In the pharmaceutical world, it's common to say that "the quality of a product doesn't need to be checked, it needs to be built". Don't waste time by creating a product and checking if it's good enough afterwords (=passes stability tests). Instead, use a set of fixed principles that allow you to create a product you already know will pass stability tests. In the specific case of preservatives, do not add a lot of them to compensate for a poor lab manufacturing hygiene. Make sure you follow the GMPs and periodically check and sanitize working areas and instruments. To sanitize use alcohol or bleach. Avoid tap water and make sure your raw materials are not contaminated/expired.
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    Rule #6: always combine two or more preservatives, a.k.a use a "preservative system" to obtain a broad-spectrum protection. Remember to add an anti-fungal compound as well (for example, sorbic acid).
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    Rule #7: Perform microbiological tests! Send 2 oz of the product to a qualified lab for PET test ( Preservative Efficacy Test). During PET test the product is intentionally inoculated with bacteria to see if the preservative can withstand them.  Lastly, perform one test to make sure your product contain a limited number of bacteria AND NO pathogens (not all bacteria are pathogen). Positivity if the PET test means you need to change the preservative system. Positivity in the 2nd test means the product was already contaminated so make sure you review the production procedure and follow the GMPs. Want to perform a quick, inexpensive, DIY test? Then you might want to check this link out.
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    Rule #8 (lotions only). Add a preservative in the water phase and the other one once the emulsion has been formed (cooling down phase). Do not add the preservative when the lotion is still hot. As said before, make sure the pH of the water phase is acid (you can use citric acid to lower the pH ).

Natural preservatives for cosmetics: conclusions.

In this post we have learned that water based cosmetics (for example hair products, face masks, lotions, makeup etc) do need a preservative to perform the way they're supposed to and to be safe.

We have also learned what are the most popular natural preservatives for cosmetics and how to formulate using them; my final recommendation is to try those that are aligned with your or brand's values and see which one gives you the longest shelf-life. 

Finally, to test shelf life and efficacy, you'll need to perform PET test (Preservative Efficacy Test). Since this kind of test can be quite expensive, I would recommend to try using a microbial Test kit before. It consists of a plastic slide coated on one side with terrain for bacterial growth and on the other side with Agar for yeast and mold growth.  

Now I want to hear from you! What is your  natural preservative of choice when making skincare? 

Share this and make me happy :)

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