Why Do Emulsions Need Preservatives?

In our current green focused marketplace, many consumers are looking for the most natural and organic personal care products they can find. Since opening The Grapeseed Co. flagship store last fall, I’ve become even more aware of the many misconceptions and misunderstanding consumers have around natural and organic products and the use of preservatives. Santa Barbara is a very consciously green community filled with people and businesses that are leaders in making policy change to support eco-friendly initiatives. I love this about Santa Barbara, but it also means we get very specific questions since our store attracts a lot of very eco-conscious people who read ingredient labels before purchasing. They do not just buy a skin care product because it smells fabulous or feels wonderful! Our staff is constantly asked, “Why do you use preservatives in some of your products but not in others?” or “Why don’t you use the ‘natural’ preservatives in everything you make?

Operating a retail store gives us the opportunity to interact and educate consumers face to face daily; I like to refer to these situations as “teachable moments. I very quickly realized we needed to train our staff to use these teachable moments to help clear up confusion and educate our consumers on using preservatives in botanical products and why they are so important to use in emulsion formulas.

Let’s start with the basics… What exactly is an emulsion?

Emulsions are fairly simple to understand; they are formulas that combine water and oil. Preservatives must be used in any formula that contains water, juice (like aloe) or a distillate (like green or white tea, lavender and rose) to ensure the formula is safe to apply to the skin and does not go rancid shortly after being manufactured. Bacteria becomes a breading ground in emulsions. It grows when formulas that contain a water, juice or distillates and oils are mixed without the use of a preservative. Any emulsion formula like a lotion, shampoo or body wash needs a preservative to be stable and have a decent shelf life.

In most emulsion formulas, the preservative is a very small percentage of the overall formulation– we’re talking under 1% to 2% of the total formula. If you look at an ingredient deck, you will usually see the preservative listed as one of the last ingredients in the formula. Proper FDA labeling requires personal care product manufacturers to list the ingredients by the percentage they are used, with the exception of anything under 1% which does not need to be listed in the order of percentage of total formulation. For example, an ingredient that is 0.5% of the total formulation could be listed in the ingredient deck before an ingredient that is 0.8% of the total formulation. Any emulsion you see that does not use a preservative is much more dangerous to apply to your body than an emulsion that’s been preserved properly and probably either has one of a few things going on:

  • It has a very short shelf life (we’re talking weeks to a few months)
  • The manufacturer is not including the under 1% preservative being used in the ingredient deck, or listing it as something other than it’s INCI name
  • The product needs to be refrigerated

Products that are not properly preserved can lead to bacteria and fungus growth and other nasty stuff that (in my opinion) is much more dangerous than the very small percentage of preservative added to a natural or organic emulsion formula. Personal care product manufacturers are required by the FDA under GMP (Good Manufacturing Practice) to test every batch they make for micro-organisms that can lead to bacteria, yeast, mold and fungus growth before bringing the product to market.

The only way to safely use natural preservatives (such as citric acid, rosemary oleoresin, vitamin E or certain essential oils like tea tree) and have a decent shelf life on a product is with a formula that has NO water, distillate or juice components. Many of our products that are not emulsions do not contain anything but natural preservatives since there is no juice or distillate in the formula, which explains why we use under 1% of synthetic preservatives in some products in our line and not in others.

There is a lot of misinformation out there, especially on the internet, concerning cosmetic and ingredient safety. Personal Care Truth is dedicated to bringing readers science backed info on the safety of cosmetics and ingredients from the experts in the industry. Below are links to posts on different types of preservatives that have been covered in detail on PCT if you would like to learn more about specific common (and not so common) preservatives used in personal care products:

And Dene Godfrey’s extensive series: Parabens in Perspective
  • Harald Jezek

    Just a few comments here:
    1) there are different kinds of emulsions. They can basically be divided into w/o (ware in oil) or o/w (oil in water). The ones which are more likely to show microbial growth are the o/w emulsion. w/o emulsions are not so sensitive to contamination because the water is encapsulated in oil. Most emulsions, however, are of the o/w type.
    2) Most preservatives are “nasty” to some degree, because their job is to kill living organisms (bacteria, fungi). However, the concentrations used in cosmetic products are very low (in the range of 0.x %) and, unless somebody is allergic to a particular preservative, unlikely to cause any harm.
    Beside, there is a range of natural preservatives available that can be used as long as the cosmetic formulation is adjusted properly (e.g. lower pH allows the use of such natural acids as sorbic acid or bencoic acid and there salts)
    3) EDTA in itself is not a preservative but can increase the potency of some preservatives
    4) Vit. E is used as antioxidant for the oil component, but is not a preservative.

  • Terese429

    Thanks for the information… I have so much to learn about the different kinds of emulsions.

  • Launa

    Great site – thanks for sharing!