Monday, February 20, 2012

The down and dirty....preservatives.

Sorry for the delay in making a new post, but I have been sick around here, and if you're a mom, you know this means the whole household pretty much stops and everything hangs on by a thread.  My kids got taken care of and that was about it!  LOL...then Gabby got sick, and its been interesting.  Well, today is a better day, I'm on the mend and Gabby is taking a nap....sooooo....I've been wanting to make a post regarding preservatives!  I recently was asked about my preservative in my lotion, so here we go.  Bear in mind, some of this information can be boring.  If you've been using commercial lotions for years on end, then obviously your not concerned what's in your lotion preservation wise.  Commercial lotions are overkilled with preservatives (usually 2 or 3 different kinds) so they last for 3+ years on a store shelf or on your shelf.  Plus they are overly perfumed because the chemicals they use stink to high-heavens....literally....that's why alot of them so soooo strong and sometimes will give you a headache.....anyways, I can go on and on about that, but that's not the main reason for this post. 

First off, a little history.  Most of us know what cosmetics are, they are usually defined as anything to improve our appearance.  The FDA has a good page you can find here about whether its a cosmetic, a drug, or both?  (Or is it soap?)  This will give you an idea of our present history of how things are to run in the USA regarding cosmetics, drugs, and soap.  However, cosmetics date wayyyyy back, and was first really brought to light in documented world history with King Tut who ruled in 1350 BC.  Most of the products then were made by priests and considered a much honored art.  Egyptian women used somewhat crude paints and this peaked around Cleopatra's time period.  They all had one problem, preservation.  And even today, there is still ongoing developments in preserving because bacteria continues to develop differents strains resulting in all kinds of nasties. 

The trend right now is "natural."  Everyone wants an "all natural" lotion or "all natural" product.  Well, let me tell you, there is no such thing as a truly ALL NATURAL product.  The only way to have a natural product is if it is something WITHOUT water and is placed here on earth by God.  For example, a whipped body butter of shea and coconut oil is natural.  It requires no preservation because it has no water in it.  Shea and coconut oils have shelf lifes of around 1 year, if you want to make them last longer, add a strong antioxidant like Vitamin E oil up to 1% of your formula.  Now if you want a lotion or cream, you have to have water and emulsifying agent.  As you know, water and oil don't mix, so you need something that is going to make the water molecules attached to the oil molecules to make them one (or the oil molecules to the water molecules, depends on how you are doing your phases).  It's chemistry people! ;)  I use emulsifying wax to do this.  You could use beeswax and borax, but there is a big debate on whether borax is natural, etc., and you really have to work at it to get a good emulification with this, plus do you want to put borax on your skin....also, people with allergens to pollens might not want beeswax in their products.  Here is some information from swiftcraftymonkey's blog (her blog is awesome and has an overwhelming amount of dead-on information, she is highly knowledgeable when it comes to lotion and soap making!)
EMULSIFYING WAX NF (various manufacturers)
INCI: Cetearyl alcohol and Polysorbate 60
Comes in pellet or flake form and must be heated and held to use.

As you can see, this is a high HLB emulsifier (polysorbate 60, HLB 14.9) and a low HLB emulsifier (cetearyl alcohol, HLB 4.5 to 4.7) combined to create an emulsifying system. The cetearyl alcohol is a fatty alcohol that offers some low level conditioning, emolliency, and thickening (much like cetyl alcohol).

Emulsifying wax offers emulsification with the addition of emolliency (the cetearyl alcohol is like cetyl alcohol). So your lotions will have more slip and glide and more greasiness than some other emulsifiers. Some of us (including me) like this feeling and others find it annoying. You can add IPM to the mix to reduce the greasiness, choose other esters, or use dryer oils like macadamia nut or hazelnut oil.

There seems to be some debate about the HLB of cetearyl alcohol with some saying it is as high as 15.5 and as low as 4.5. Since it makes no sense to me that you would combine two high HLB emulsifiers and have them work, I'm going with the lower number. Having said this, I find emulsifying wax NF is not as reliable as I would like, and I tend to use it only in anhydrous scrubs or bars in which I want emulsification on the spot without worrying about stability.
So, this is what I use.  In conjuction with ewax, I use stearic acid, which helps the stability of the ewax and helps with the thickening part of the chemistry action.  If you want to read more about stearic acid, you can go here.  Overall, stearic acid is distilled mainly from animal fats, so not exactly up PETA's ally!  Now, onto the preservative.
I use Optiphen Plus.  ISP's second globally approved preservative in the Optiphen family developed as an alternative for personal care formulations requiring a paraben and formaldehyde-free preservative system, particularly within lower pH systems. Optiphen Plus performs best in formulations below 6.0 pH, but is also proven effective at pH levels above 6.0.
Recommended use levels: 0.5 - 1.5%.
Appearance: Clear liquid
INCI: Phenoxyethanol (and) Caprylyl Glycol (and) Sorbic Acid
(info from
Lotion has a low pH whearas soap has a high pH.  I do not preserve soap because the chemical process with lye kills everything and the water evaporates.  The chemical reaction makes a cleansing agent, so there ya go.  I do, however, add Vitamin E to my soaps depending on the oils I use.  Some oils have shorter shelf lives and need Vitamin E to keep them from going rancid.  Now onto Optiphen Plus.  This is a fairly new preservative.  Another popular one is Garmall.  I chose this one because its about as natural as you can get.  A while ago there was a huge article produced about parabens that gave everyone a big scare.  So then people trended to wanting paraben free products.  When selling, you give what your customers want and what the market trend is.  However, parabens have been around for 100's of years and yes we have increases in cancer, but think of all the other things that have been proven to cause cancer (such as our processed food diets!) and you catch my drift. 

Optiphen Plus has been known to give alot of lotion makers some trouble with their emulsifications and alot of them prefer not to use it.  It can be a difficult preservative to work with.  I have found it to be temperature sensitive to whether your lotion will stay emulsified.  It takes work to work with and to figure out how it works best for your recipe.  I use it at 1% in my formulas and I don't have a problem.  I have tested it to preserve my lotion for close to a year without any problems.  I've never had any fungus or bacteria grow in my lotions using this preservative. 

Phenoxyethanol has been stated to me "it has its own troubles."  Well, let me tell you, everything has its own troubles.  Essential (volatile) oils are natural, yet can cause you to miscarry (such as sage) if you don't know about them and especially if you are using them in your products to sell to other people, you need to know a little bit about what your using when formulating products, especially to sell.  Just because its natural, doesn't mean its safe, and as with all things, you must use the recommended usage.  If you don't use the recommended usage, such as too little, it won't preserve, if too much, you can cause health problems.  Careful formulation (and using a good lotion calculator!) is vital.

Well, phenoxyethanol is not natural.  Its chemically made by scientists in a lab to keep you from getting nasty bugs growing on your skin from the lotion you use.  Anything synthetically made has its own troubles.  Look at the medicines our pharmaceutical giants make.  When you take care of one problem, there will eventually always lurk another.  So, with this said.  I always suggest doing a patch test with my lotion.  Everyone is made uniquely by God and what might not cause a rash for one person, might cause one for another.  Preservatives are usually your culprit, unless you have a sensitivity to alot of natural allergens environmentally.  I'm a very sensitive skinned person and this preservative doesn't affect me.  It also doesn't give me that "burn" you normally get from commercial lotions, especially if you have skin that has cracked on your hands.  So, if your wondering what phenoxyethanol is, here you go:

Now, lets go on to another.....problem.  Many people get into lotion making without doing their research and think they can use a "natural" preservative.  Because like many of us, we want natural.  One of the popular ones is Grapefruit Seed Extract. Grapefruit Seed Extract has wonderful qualities just like essential oils do, but it is NOT a preservative.  It might keep your lotion from going rancid, it is an antioxidant, but it won't keep the nasties from growing.  Read about it some here with links for studies.  From my research, Grapefruit Seed Extract (alone, not when used in a formula) has a 7-9 year shelf life because it has synthetic preservatives mixed with it for bottleing and to be able to be placed on the shelf at your health food store or internet supplier.  Just like with everything else, it too has its own troubles.  It is NOT a broad spetrum preservative and should NOT be used to sell your product.  If you are making lotion just for yourself and use it up quickly, this might be a good way to keep your lotion for maybe 3-4 weeks, along with refridgeration.  I have a motto that goes "when in doubt, throw it out."  If you are weary about making someone sick with your product, then do your research into a broad spectrum preservative and purchase it to use.   If you are a person who doesn't want a nasty skin infection from your lotion or other body products such as balms, creams, sugar scrubs, anything with water in it, then purchase a product with a broad spectrum preservative in it.  And remember that all natural doesn't always mean all safe. 

I use the safest products I can possibly get in my products.  I use distilled water for purity.  Oils and butters for their qualities. I will use Vitamin E for its skin properties in lotion and I use it as a superfatting agent in soaps to keep DOS (dreaded orange spots) and my short shelf life oils from going rancid.  I use a broad spectrum preservative to keep nasties from growing in my lotion.  Researching never ends and better products come out all the time.  One manufactuer is always trying to "beat" the other manufactuer.  You are your best advocate for your health and what you put on your body.  Read your ingredient labels, do your research and go with the product you think is best for you and for your skin.  If I didn't have confidence in my product, I definitely wouldn't be selling it.

Also, if you are interested in reading more on preservatives, go to and she'll give you her insight as well.  She is also way more qualified and more experienced than I am.  I respect her intellect and profound amount of research she has done.  AND she backs up her research, so go check her out. :)

Well, there ya go, the partial nitty-gritty of preservatives and why I use one.  Do your research and be realistic!   


  1. I bought Optiphen Plus to use in sugar/salt scrubs. Do you know if this is the appropriate preservative for those applications? Thank you.

  2. Thanks so much for this breakdown Jodi. very helpful to me.