AAA: Can Essential Oils Be Used as Preservatives?

by Jenna Jones October 16, 2019

AAA: Can Essential Oils Be Used as Preservatives?

If you’ve been around Edens Garden for any amount of time, you know that we’re a little DIY-crazed. Why do we love making DIYs? Let us count the ways. First and foremost, we control what goes into the finished product and are free to leave out toxic ingredients. Secondly, we get to enhance a product using our beloved essential oils! A lot of people in the essential oil world and beyond share our affection for DIYs, yet one question often arises: Can I use essential oils as preservatives? Read on to find out.

What’s A Preservative?

A preservative is simply an ingredient that prevents the growth of mold, yeast, bacteria and harmful microorganisms in a formulation that contains water. All that’s needed for these harmful foes to grow is water, oxygen, a warm environment and organic matter. Anything made with carbon molecules is considered organic matter.

Preservatives work by reducing contamination, stabilizing formulas and preventing microbial growth. This, in turn, increases the shelflife of products and makes them safe to use.

What’s Not A Preservative?

Ingredients that are commonly mistaken for being effective preservatives include grapefruit seed extract (GSE), vitamin E, citric acid, rosemary extract and, yes, essential oils. All of the above ingredients are actually great antioxidants, however, preservatives and antioxidants are not the same. Antioxidants inhibit oxidation, enhancing the stability of a product and preventing ingredients from degrading. In DIY formulations, antioxidants are very beneficial, but they won’t effectively prevent microbial growth.

Examples Of Natural Preservatives

The following are examples of preservatives that are suitable for a variety of water-based products. Each preservative comes with its own set of instructions, including recommended use levels and a pH at which the preservative is effective. Testing the pH is recommended when using preservatives. You may need to adjust pH depending on the product. Ask the preservative manufacturer you purchase from for instructions on how to use the ingredient.

  • Optiphen Plus: A preservative that works best in low pHs, Optiphen Plus is a blend of Phenoxyethanol, Caprylyl Glycol and Sorbic Acid.
  • Leucidal Liquid: Derived from fermented radishes, Leucidal Liquid is a Whole Foods and ECOCERT preservative, approved for use in organic products. Often recommended to be paired with additional preservatives and antioxidants.
  • Radish Root Ferment Filtrate: Plant-based and compatible with a wide array of cosmetic ingredients, Radish Root Ferment Filtrate is ECOCERT-approved and great for natural DIYs.
  • Caprylyl Glycol EHG: A Whole Foods-accepted preservative with added humectant benefits, Caprylyl Glycol EHG is recommended with additional preservatives and humectants.
  • 190-proof grain alcohol: DIY products must contain 20-30% 190-proof grain alcohol in order to be preserved. Any alcohol below 190 proof is not recommended for DIY formulations.
  • Glycerin: Not typically recommended for DIY formulations, as glycerin must make up 50% of a formulation for a product to be considered preserved. Because glycerin is thick and sticky, a 50% concentration in a formula can negatively affect the way a product works.

How To Avoid Using Preservatives

There are a few ways to forego preservatives altogether. One way is to make anhydrous products that don’t include water or water-soluble ingredients. Examples of anhydrous products would be roll-ons, diluted essential oil blends, balms, scrubs and simple body butters. Anhydrous ingredients include butters, carrier oils, essential oils and waxes. You can also make small batches of products, refrigerate them and use them within a week.

Note: It is impossible to tell if a product is properly preserved unless it undergoes challenge testing. If you wish to sell products, it is required by law that products with water contain proper preservative systems and that they undergo challenge testing.

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