Knowing when to use preservatives, choosing the correct one, and properly incorporating it into your handmade cosmetic product is one of the most important aspects of any indie maker’s life. Still, we get asked on a fairly regular basis which preservative should be used for a given product, or what should be used as a substitute when the one we have suggested isn’t available. A lot of that information can be found online with some diligent sleuthing, however the internet is full of misinformation as well, so we decided it was time to make some blog posts about this topic!

As a caveat, I would like to state from the beginning that the use of preservatives in handmade cosmetics is far more complicated than what these few blog posts will be able to cover, however  there will be enough basic information to help get you started making safe cosmetics. As you continue to develop as a maker, you will undoubtedly be able to add to your understanding of cosmetics and preservatives! So let’s crack on!

The first and most important thing to tackle right away is, do we really need preservatives? I know we all come to handmade cosmetics via our own unique route, but for many of us DIY makers, part of that journey is a desire to have products that are more natural and less saturated with chemicals. So adding preservatives to our products can bring up a lot of negative feelings and it often comes with pushback. 

Trust me, I get it! Part of my own personal goal was to have natural, clean, healthy products that I could confidently use on my own body and give to my friends and family without the anxiety of long-term side effects. The last thing I wanted was to be watching a commercial 10 years down the road for class action lawsuits over sugarscrubangioma (which is not a real thing but my brain goes to wacky places!) all because I used preservatives in my sugar scrubs! 

However genuine and well-meaning that mindset may be, it is often detrimental to the actual goal of the handmade lifestyle. And that’s because, for some reason or other–likely in response to so many artificial foods, fabrics, medications, fragrances, etc being thrust on our society–we have come to believe that natural means better. Truth be told, I agree with that ideology in many ways! But the crux of the issue is that the term natural is not defined by any of the governing bodies in the U.S., and furthermore, natural is not in fact always better!

Afterall, flesh eating bacteria, sulphuric acid, and molten lava are all natural and certainly not better to have in your life. Of course I’m being a bit cheeky when I say that, but the bacteria, yeast and mold that will quickly infiltrate and spoil your products are absolutely natural and by no means something you want to have hanging around in your handmade products. 

This doesn’t mean you need to give up your dream of having a natural, holistic line of products! There are lots of different preservatives out there that can still vibe with the goal of eco-friendly products, while still keeping contamination at bay! So don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you the only way to keep your products safe is to pump them full of formaldehyde and parabens! But we will also discuss the very valid place that those have in preservatives. I’ll do my best to give you a balanced and unbiased view, so try to be open-minded and know that I won’t try to push you one way or another–I just want you to be able to make an informed choice!

And guess what? Not every product needs a preservative! Some do and some don’t, so how do we figure out which is which? Essentially, it all comes down to water! Water is the source of life for almost every organism on our planet, including the microorganisms that can contaminate handmade cosmetics!

If the product you make contains water, it will need a preservative. If the product you make will come into contact with water and not be entirely used up, it will need a preservative. Additionally, even if the product you make doesn’t contain water and isn’t intended to come into contact with water, but might have incidental contact with water, then it’s also a good idea to use a preservative.

So a lotion which contains water as one of its main ingredients will need a preservative!

A bubble wand that is intended to be used in the tub multiple times will need a preservative!

A sugar scrub which doesn’t contain water and isn’t used directly in water, but will have incidental contact with water when wet hands scoop product out of the jar, should contain a preservative!

A body butter made without water (anhydrous), doesn’t require a preservative… however, the container in which a product is stored can make a huge difference. Consider, for example, the fact that jars require a product to be scooped out manually, as opposed to pump bottles and tubes.

Sometimes items that are anhydrous can still benefit from a preservative, even if they don’t intrinsically require one! For example, the body butter made without water will still have fingers reaching into it several times a day. Unless you are washing your hands religiously each time before scooping some body butter out, you are likely going to be introducing microorganisms to it. Sure, they might have a harder time growing without water, but it’s not impossible! These organisms are opportunistic, meaning they will take any chance they get to grow. So while this type of product doesn’t necessarily need a preservative, you could still consider adding one!

As one final note on this whole “does it have water” question, if the product doesn’t contain water, but instead contains other liquids like milk, tea, aloe vera juice or a hydrosol, it will often be far more complicated and difficult to preserve than a product made with actual water! So please don’t assume that because you didn’t directly add water, that the cosmetic doesn’t need a preservative! It most definitely will and in fact, might actually be harder to preserve than if it were made with just water.

So when trying to decide if your product needs a preservative, that should be the first thing you consider! Will it come into contact with water multiple times, or does it contain water? Once you determine that, you are ready to go to the next step, which is knowing which preservative to choose!