Ingredient Intel: The Clean Beauty Preservation Society

When it comes to clean beauty, there’s more that unites us than divides us. I have the privilege of collaborating with a great number of founders of clean beauty brands, and indeed, while their success stories are as varied as their products themselves, there’s one common theme that underlies them all: a steadfast commitment to the highest possible ingredient quality and formulation integrity. After all, this is what makes their products Hero worthy. We know that all ingredients are not created equal. Where, how and when botanical ingredients are procured is the critical X factor in natural beauty. This is often a proud point of differentiation between brands, and formulators hold their ingredient partners in the highest esteem (and close to their chest!) But, when it comes to preservatives in natural beauty, the conversation can turn from proud to protective quite quickly. Not because there’s anything to hide – we’re all in this together – but because there’s so much debate about what works best, which preservatives in natural beauty are most effective for various kinds of formulas, what is the acceptable PAO (Period After Open) range, and what are general best practices to guarantee the perfect trifecta: peak potency, maximum shelf life and the absence of harmful chemicals.

Commercial Vs. Natural – the Great Debate

Have you ever seen a Twinkie with mold? We haven’t either. Mass produced junk food is very similar to conventional beauty products in that they are both manufactured to withstand long shelf lives, often reaching three to five years from the date of manufacture, with strong preservative systems in place to ensure this level of stability. Isabel Ramos, Co-Founder at Ayuna Less Is Beauty, explains the problem many consumers and natural beauty brands alike have with this type of preservation system. “Preservatives in natural beauty are necessary to protect the product from microbial contamination.  There has been a controversial debate around this topic. Why are preservatives negative? They act on living bacteria; therefore, if they are not able to be highly specific, they may also cause some disturbance to skin cells. Many synthetic preservative systems have fallen out of favor with consumer. While very effective and cost-efficient, alarms have been raised on their safety due to issues like sensitization and other health concerns. This includes some types of Parabens, Formaldehyde Donors, Halogenated Compounds (chlorinated, brominated), and Isothiazolinones.” Dr. Sarah Villafranco, founder of Osmia Organics, can empathize. “Preservation is one of the most difficult elements of natural formulation, especially when using the standards we use: no parabens, no petrochemicals, no synthetic fragrance, and no ethoxylation. (Many of the natural preservatives fall into one of those categories, unfortunately.) We serve a sensitive skin population, from allergies to eczema to dermatitis, and want to make sure we continue to provide products that don’t exacerbate their already delicate situation. At the moment, we use a combination of lactobacillus ferment, sodium benzoate, gluconolacctone, and essential oils (not isolates, but whole essential oils) to preserve our emulsions, which have all passed preservative testing.”

Ayuna and Osmia are just two among many natural beauty formulators who choose not to preserve their products with commercial, chemical-laden and often toxic preservatives, and this means they must contend with many other factors that commercial brands do not. From operations to sourcing components to storage to production volume, finding the perfect preservative solution can become much more nuanced and volatile. “At Laurel, it’s definitely been a long process to find the preservatives that are the safest and work the best with our products,” says Laurel Shaffer of Laurel Whole Plant Organics. “Over the 10+ years that I have been formulating, I think I have tested maybe 20 different preservatives!  Preservatives in natural beauty products containing water of any kind is non-negotiable for me, because I consider the health of those with compromised skin barriers or immune systems.  Most safer preservative options do not cover all types of microorganisms, so most products formulated with safety in mind have to use 2 or more different preservatives to ensure their safety. We use a whole organic plant citrus blend, potassium sorbate and Radish Root Ferment Filtrate. It has been the most challenging part of the process for me to find preservatives that feel the safest for me to work with and that work the best with the botanical ingredients, while balancing the industry’s perception of said preservative.”

Oil, Water or Both?

One way to reduce risk and potentially increase shelf life is to formulate products that are anhydrous, meaning they don’t incorporate water into their formulae, reducing the opportunity for bacteria, mold or yeast to proliferate. “I would consider the fact that I love oils so much to be a great benefit when it comes to formulating given I don’t have to worry about the addition of water, tea or other aqueous materials given their potential to grow mold and bacteria if not properly preserved,” says Kari Gran of her eponymous line. “Luckily, many plant oils have a naturally occurring abundance of Vitamin E, such as Jojoba. While Vitamin E is not a preservative, it is an antioxidant and can extend the shelf life of plant oils. Also, adding Non-GMO Vitamin E derived from sunflower protects oils from oxidative rancidity.”

But most brands have a blend of both oil-based and aqueous formulae and thus a need for multiple preservation systems, or a unique, proprietary blend. “Different types of products require different preservative systems, even though they are doing the same thing, preventing the growth of bacteria, mold and fungus,” says Josh Rosebrook, founder and formulator of Josh Rosebrook Skin and Hair Care. “Furthermore, each product needs to be assessed based on the ingredient list, as well as its water activity level.” 

When it comes to preservatives in natural skincare, one size hardly fits all. Kapua Browning, founder and formulator of Honua Skincare, experimented with dozens of synergies before finding what worked for her brand. “We decided the best system for us and our native ingredients was to blend methods of traditional preservation with modern technology. I worked with a 20+ year seasoned herbalist and formulator on our current preservation system. For one, we don’t use any plain water. We use coconut water, which contains monolaurin, an antiviral, antibacterial and antiprozoal monoglyceride that is used to kill viruses such as HIV, Herpes, cytomegalovirus, flu and various pathogenic bacteria. We also use aloe vera juice and vitalized water, employed as a preservative to help eliminate bacteria and balance pH providing a rich source of minerals. Our traditional ingredients, such as noni and ‘olena (turmeric) make up a good part of our formula and actually act as a natural antioxidants and preservatives. We also use a potent blend of rosemary anti-oxidants, vitamin E, sage, and grapefruit seed co2 from Germany for stability and freshness. We are always learning about other new preservative systems, but for now our third party tests have all come back great, so we are very happy using our unique system. ”

Lauren Bilon, Co-Founder of Plume, shares that their preservation system is also a hybrid that works for their unique formulae, calling it a “symphony of various ingredients in specific ratios that work together in harmony to not only preserve our product(s), but to do so without irritation or sensitization.” It’s an innovative technology called Hurdle that uses more than 1 preservation approach, or hurdle, to ensure that the unique combination eliminates all pathogens. Their synergy creates an environment in which bacteria and other pathogens are quickly eliminated. “Vitamin E acts as antioxidant and anti-rancidity agent to preserve the oil-based ingredients,” she adds. “Additionally, inclusion of natural antimicrobials like honey further assist in our novel approach to cosmetic preservation.”

Annie Tevelin, founder of SkinOwl, found a preservative system that supports both kinds of formulae in her range. “The use of proper natural preservatives are crucial when working with products made with water and other aqueous liquids to prevent the presence of yeast, mold, and harmful bacteria. While chemical preservatives such as parabens, quaternium-15, and diazolidinyl urea might keep a product on a shelf for two years without mold, we’ve found stabilizers that don’t compromise our health, such as sweet almond oil, specific essential oils, rosemary and vitamin E, as well as antioxidants (specifically protecting the oxidation of a product) and very active plant anti-microbials.”

Putting the “Care” in Skincare

Another factor that natural brands must consider is production volume and component styles. “Making our products in small batches allows us to source and use the freshest ingredients in each batch,” says Tevelin. “Choosing pumps and eye droppers over open-mouthed jars, which invites more oxygen and bacteria, is a way to keep products air tight and protected. These elevated and intentional practices is why the word ‘care’ is in skincare.”

In the rapidly evolving industry of clean beauty, where should one begin when researching and vetting safe preservatives in natural beauty? Gay Timmons, Founder of Oh Oh Organics, a reputable ingredient supplier and member of the NSF (Certified Organic) Standards Committee, told us that the only preservatives she recommends are those that have been assessed for safety and that are on the NSF305 Standard Allowed Preservative List:

  • Benzoic Acid and its salts and esters (non-petroleum feedstock when commercially available)
  • Sodium Benzoate derived from partial petroleum feedstock (until non-petroleum derived feedstock is commercially available)
  • Grapefruit Seed Extract
  • Potassium Lactate
  • Salicylic Acid, its salts and esters
  • Sorbic Acid, and its salts and esters
  • Benzyl Alcohol (non-petroleum feedstock only)
  • Glucose, Glucose Oxidase, Lactoperoxidase

“Regardless, of the actual preservatives used, all formulas should be challenge tested for efficacy of the preservative system,” she adds.

“Green chemistry is rapidly evolving, along with new alternative preservative systems such as fermented systems, nature identical systems and botanically inspired systems, says Greg Starkman, Co-Founder and Formulator at Innersense Organic Beauty. “These new systems require months of micro and challenge testing to ensure they meet safety standards and formula stability and compatibility.”

Josh Rosebrook urges consumers to be proactive about getting the information they need to make smart, safe choices. “I recommend that consumers contact brands directly if they have questions about their unique preservative system, and companies should be ready and willing to provide them with that information. If a company can’t or won’t share that information, that should raise some concern as consumers have the right to know how the products they used are preserved.” 

If there’s one simple truth to be uncovered about preservatives in natural beauty, it’s this: There’s not one simple answer. Preservation has always been – and will continue to be – an important and complex part of natural product formulation. In our experience, each brand we work with approaches preservation differently and painstakingly weighs the options available to create products that are stable, effective and safe.


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