Using preservatives to extend the shelf life of homemade lotions, salves, infusions, and elixirs can be a double edged sword. On one side, you want your recipes with natural ingredients to last longer. But, on the other side, certain preservatives can be toxic chemicals. So, what are your choices? First, you could just not add any preservatives at all, but water based recipes would only last a few days. Kept in a refrigerator, they may make it up to a week. Using distilled water versus tap water in a recipe may increase the shelf life of products a small amount.
How do I know if my homemade products have gone bad?
You can’t always see spoilage and microbial invasions. So use your sniffer. Smell test because spoiled or rancid products wont smell right!
Recipes without water will have a significantly longer shelf life.
Try making balms, salves, and oil infusions over creams, lotions, and emulsions with water.
Packaging, packaging, packaging….
Packaging is a very important way to lengthen shelf life. Choose seal tight colored glass or high quality plastic jars. And, VERY IMPORTANT: Make preparations in a sterile environment with ultra clean utensils and equipment.
Why should I use preservatives?
Preservatives have either an antimicrobial and/or an antioxidant action. Antimicrobials kill nasty bacteria, yeast, and molds that can form in home products that can be very dangerous for our health! Antioxidants reduce spoilage. The natural preservatives listed below will help prolong the shelf life of products, but they are not as effective as commercial brand preservatives.
Grapefruit seed extract is often mixed with vegetable glycerin and added to a product to offer antimicrobial, antiseptic, preservative action. However, many grapefruit seed extract products sold on the market as natural preservatives contain the toxic chemicals benzethonium or benxalkonium chloride.
Vegetable glycerin is a sweet tasting preservative and emulsifier often used with ingested recipes like cough syrups and condiments.
Essential oils are naturally antimicrobial, reducing the bacteria and fungal growth. However, essential oils would need to be added to a recipe at an unsafe dilution percentage to be effective against microbes, causing potential skin irritation and other unhealthy reactions.
Citric acid is a strongly acidic antioxidant, and reduces moisture with an antimicrobial action.
Salt binds with water to draw out moister and create an environment not favorable for bacteria and fungi.
Vitamin E (alpha tocopherol) and rosemary extract are both antioxidants that help reduce the oxidation process of oils to help prevent them from going rancid, but additional ingredients are needed to ensure strong enough antimicrobial action.
There are Several Effective Commercial Brand Preservatives
Look for brands that are paraben free, formaldehyde free, and do not contain isothiazolinone. Many products will also have emulsifying action, blending water with oil effectively. Some are aromatic and some are odorless. Here is a list of a few options:
Essential oil based products made by the company Biobotanica use a combination of essential oils and other natural ingredients. Brands include Neopein, Suprapein, and Biopein.
Silver based preservatives include Silverion 2400, which contains silver salt and citric acid.
Fermented products include Leucidal, made by Active Micro Technologies. It is made from radishes fermented in a bacteria traditionally used to make kimchi.
GeoGuard Ultra contains primarily gluconolactone, a polyhydroxy acid safe for the skin, plus glucuronic acid lactone, sodium benzoate, and calcium gluconate.
Geoguard 221 has the key ingredient of benzyl alcohol, a sweet smelling constituent found in jasmine and ylang ylang. The product also contain dehydroacetic acid, which is not totally natural, being petro-chemically obtained, but shown to be safe for use, even with children.
Other natural preservative brands include: Preservative Eco, Microkill, Geoguard ECT, and Plantaserv, with the key ingredients are of benzyl alcohol, salicylic acid, glycerin, and sorbic acid. Naticide, made by Amitech, and Plantaserv, made by New Directions Aromatics are two more brands worth investigating as an option.
By: Kathy Sadowski, MS in Aromatherapy, RA, LMT, RYT