Confession time. When I first began making my own herbal skincare products, there’s a lot I got right, but there’s a LOT I got wrong. And that makes sense, because I learned on my own through years of trial and error. I had emulsions boil over and nearly start fires, my creams and lotions separated, I accidentally grew colorful strains of mold, yeast, and goodness knows what else. But I always went back to the drawing board and found a way to make it work with the next batch. However, in my very early days of making custom skincare products for other people, I found that some of those mistakes started rearing their ugly heads again. Why did that happen? Because even though there was a lot I learned really well on my own, I found that I had unfortunately learned a great deal of misinformation about very important things like natural preservation.
When you make herbal skincare–or any skincare at all–keeping yourself and your customers safe is the top priority, hands down. Microbial contamination is the number one risk when you make any product containing water. The ONLY way to inhibit microbial growth in a water-containing herbal product that’s intended to sit on a shelf (or in a drawer, cupboard, cabinet, etc) for months on end is to use a proper natural preservation system.
To this day, I still see the same natural preservation misinformation I learned written all over the place. These myths are written into herbal skincare books, shared on wellness and herbal blogs and Instagram pages, and even taught in herbalist and aromatherapy courses.
So today, I’m going to debunk the 5 most common natural preservation myths in herbal skincare.
1.Essential oils are effective natural preservatives.
Essential oils are powerful medicine–there’s no doubt about that. I’ve seen multiple images of resistant strains of bacteria and even viruses recoiling from a single drop of a powerful antimicrobial essential oil. There are multiple PubMed studies which have shown antibacterial, antiviral, anti fungal, antimicrobial, anti-et-cetera effects. I am not here to dispute that. What I am here to say, is that to adequately preserve a water-containing skincare product, you’d need to use too high a percentage of the essential oils to be safe for topical application, especially daily topical application to delicate facial skin, and in such close proximity to the eyes and mucus membranes. Please do not rely on essential oils as natural preservation for herbal skincare.
2.Herbs with naturally occurring antimicrobial properties don’t need added preservatives.
Herbalists might get mad at me for this one, but I had to list it, because I see this one just as frequently as the essential oil one. I see herbal cream recipes that say that products made with infusions and hydrosols blended with oils and beeswax last several months to a year without refrigeration. The explanation is that the antimicrobial constituents of the plants themselves are enough to prevent contamination of bacteria, mold, and yeast.
Like honey (read more about that here), once you add water to any plant matter at all, it’s going to grow microbes. This is also the case with hydrosols–hydrosols are water and plant constituents, and therefore are susceptible to microbial growth. The plants’ natural sugars act as food for the microbes, and there is no way to predict which microbes will grow–beneficial or pathogenic.
I also see herbalists relying on antioxidants like rosemary antioxidant, Vitamin E, or grapefruit seed oil to preserve their products. These are antioxidants–not preservatives. They do not do the same thing. Most unpreserved herbal emulsions (creams, lotions) should be used within 3 days unrefrigerated, or within 7 days refrigerated. If you are an herbalist and you don’t want to add a preservative to your recipes and products, please educate your clients and audience with this important usage information.
3.I don’t see, smell, or feel a change in my herbal skincare product. Therefore it’s still fine to use.
Nope. While it is true that many instances of microbial contamination can be detected with the senses–it might start to smell like compost (or something else that’s just not the lovely floral or fresh scent you were going for); it might separate or curdle or otherwise change in consistency; or you might see actual spots, a colored film, or fuzzy mold–that’s not the case with all contamination.
Back in the day, I had an instance where I had a product that looked, smelled, and felt fine. But I started to get a rash on my face, which I had no other explanation for. After a chemist friend offered to run a microbial test (which I had no idea was even a thing), we found that my cream tested positive for both bacteria and yeast. Lesson learned.
4.You can use raw apple cider vinegar or kombucha as a preservative.
The theory with this one is that because both of these would lower the pH of the product, and they contain probiotic strains, “bad” microbes won’t stand a chance. This is an excellent example of how theories don’t always translate to real life. First, for the pH to be low enough that pathogenic bacteria, mold, and yeast couldn’t grow, that pH would be too low to be safe for topical application. You could literally cause a chemical burn.
Second, the piece about the probiotic strains being powerful enough to overpower any “bad” microbes that might enter the mix…how could you possibly know that? As Dr. Maya Shetreat taught in the Herbal Skincare Summit, with microbes, it’s not always about the good guys and the bad guys. Biodiversity is what’s important. Like a crowd of people at a party, sometimes there are uninvited guests that can be easily dealt with; but other times an all out brawl can happen. There is no way to predict how microbes will act once put into a bottle or jar with other ingredients to interact with. There’s no way to tell how long a probiotic strain will remain viable, or simply convert into sugar (which then becomes food for other microbes). While there are new and exciting advances in fermentation-derived antimicrobials (which many of my students love to use), relying on wild strains or untested strains is just an unnecessary risk.
5.I can just buy a natural preservative online and add it to my product, and I’ll be fine.
The great news is that we have such a wonderful, growing array of natural antimicrobials available to students, indie formulators, and small skincare business owners today. We also have a nice variety of synthetic preservatives that have been approved by organizations such as Made Safe, EcoCert, Cosmos, and Natrue for use in non-toxic or organic products. Every time I attend a conference, or speak to suppliers, I’m constantly being told about new advances in natural preservation, and after years of resistance, the cosmetic chemistry industry has finally embraced the fact that the demand for safer, more natural products is only going to continue to increase. All that being said, there’s not a “best” natural preservative to use that’s effective against gram positive and gram negative bacteria, mold, and yeast. Sometimes you get lucky, most other times, multiple formulation attempts, tests, and adjustments are necessary to ensure that your natural preservation system is effective for each individual herbal skincare formulation.
Luckily, effective natural preservation for herbal skincare can be learned!
One of the reasons my Create Your Skincare students value me as a teacher is because my own educational experience has been so varied. Though I began formulating my own products from the perspective of an herbalist and aesthetician, once I realized that my knowledge of natural preservation was not only lacking–but was actually based on incorrect information–I added cosmetic chemistry to my educational journey. I also learned more about microbes and the microbiome in general in my education about functional nutrition and fermentation, in addition to bio-individuality and genetics.
I respect my students’ (be they herbalists, aromatherapists, aestheticians, health coaches, or other wellness practitioners) desires to create products that are as close to nature as possible. I understand not wanting to interfere with the powerful medicine nature provides us, or mess with the synergistic or energetic properties of the plants.
But I also cannot condone the spreading of unsafe recipes and practices. When you are making products for yourself that will be used quickly, certain allowances can be made (though you of course should never put yourself at risk with unsafe practices). However, when you are creating for or selling products to other people–or you are sharing recipes and tutorials online–you have a responsibility to do so in the safest way possible.
Do you want to learn how to start or grow a successful, safe, and smart herbal skincare business?
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