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Do you need to use Preservatives in your Aromatherapy Products? Part One

Do you need to use preservatives in the aromatherapy products you are making at home for your family and for your one-on-one clients?  

The answer is not so simple!  So I am breaking down this topic into two separate blog posts.

In this post, Part One, we’ll get the basics down – I want to make sure we all understand what a preservative is, why you would use one. 

Next week in Part Two, I’ll talk about 3 preservatives I use in my practice and how you can ensure the safety of your products if you choose not to use a preservative.

What is a preservative?

Let’s first make sure we understand what a preservative is and why they are used. A preservative is either a naturally occurring chemical that is isolated out of organic material, like specific chemical compounds found in essential oils like Rosemary, or Thyme, or they are synthetically created chemical compounds made in a laboratory by chemists.   

The goal of a preservative, whether it is naturally occurring or man-made, is to extend the shelf-life of the product and prevent ingredients that contain water, like most organic materials, i.e., plants and plant components, from decaying and growing microbes that might make us ill, and threaten our wellbeing. 

To be clear, these microorganisms are part of nature, and usually we can co-exist with them without incident.  But when they start to grow out of control and compromise our ability to fend them off, they can cause adverse reactions on our skin, and in our health. 

There are 3 kinds of microorganisms that preservatives, when used in our skincare products and our food, work to protect us from:

  • Yeast
  • Mold
  • Bacteria

These three things tend to grow when water is present in the product. So that means if you are using water, or a hydrosol, tea, or juice, as one of your ingredients, there is a good chance that bacteria, yeast and mold may develop.  And when that happens, the risk of an adverse skin reaction or even an infection may increase a lot.

How about Antioxidants?

Do they prevent yeast, bacteria and mold from growing?

Nope!  Antioxidants, like vitamin e (tocopherols) and rosemary CO2  extract, are not preservatives.  

They are additives that extend the shelf life by providing stability and preventing oxidation. But they do not inhibit the growth of microorganisms. They are naturally occurring in vegetable and fixed oils, and can help maintain an oil’s freshness by slowing down the process of oxidation. Oxidation is a naturally occurring chemical process that happens when oxygen exposure causes vegetable oils, certain essential oils and other natural ingredients to degrade.  We can often tell when a vegetable oil goes “rancid” because the odor changes, as well as the color.  Antioxidants can help lengthen the shelf life of these natural materials and may be added directly to the fixed oil, or added during formulating.

Vitamin E (tocopherols) – extracted and isolated from fixed oils that have high percentages of natural antioxidants. It’s most often extracted and isolated from soy, corn or sugarbeet. These crops, if not certified USDA organic, are most likely genetically modified, so it’s best to ask your supplier.

Rosemary Extract – extracted from rosemary leaves. Look for a pure extract, though there are several options and depending on what you are formulating, you can choose a specific extract

To be clear, these microorganisms are part of nature, and usually we can co-exist with them without incident.  But when they start to grow out of control and compromise our ability to fend them off, they can cause adverse reactions on our skin, and in our health. 

When you should use a preservative:

  • If you plan to sell your aromatherapy products for retail.
  • If you are making single use DIY products that include water as an ingredient, like gels, creams and lotions, cleansers and toners
  • If you are making large batches of DIY products that include water as an ingredient, like gels, creams and lotions, cleansers and toners

When you don’t need to use a preservative, but should use an antioxidant.

  • If your single use DIY products do not contain water as an ingredient.  
  • Examples: body, face, scalp, hair, cuticle and massage oils, butters, balms and salves
    • You can choose either tocopherol or rosemary CO2 extract, and I recommend using at .5-1% in your recipe.

Next week, I’ll share details about a few different preservatives I use in my practice along with a few tips to ensure the longevity and safety of your single use DIY product if you choose not to use a preservative. Specifically I’ll be breaking down details about Good Manufacturing Practices and Hurdle Technology.

Stay tuned for Part Two!

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