Natural Preservatives That Aren't

The other day I happened across an article in an e-zine about natural beauty and health. It had an article title that caught my eye. The description promised to 'reveal which natural ingredients could act as preservatives for homemade beauty products'.

This sounded interesting.

And it was.

I was amazed at how much misinformation could be packed into a single article. There wasn't a fact in sight. The author, 'Sharon', was listed only by first name. There was no contact info to be found so it was impossible to write the site owner for further information or documentation.

So, since I can't write Sharon about her thumbsuck, let's have a look at her list of 'all natural, easily available preservatives', shall we?


Beeswax adds structure to products such as lip balms, and can also be used to thicken creams and lotions. Used in anhydrous products (products with no water content), there is no need of preservative.

In the food industry, beeswax can be used to coat cheeses - effectively sealing out the air and thereby providing protection against aging.

And all of this is great, but it doesn't make beeswax a preservative.

On its own, beeswax has a pretty long shelf life, but having a long shelf life doesn't make it a preservative either.

Vitamin E Oil

The very name of this ingredient is a bit misleading. I think the author meant vitamin E, and not vitamin E oil (which – commonly – is thistle oil with added vitamin E).

Vitamin E is an antioxidant. It retards the rancidity of vegetable oils – meaning it will help slow – but not stop – oils from going rancid. It will not stop bacteria growth.

It is not a preservative.

Rosemary Oil

I am in doubt as to whether the author meant Rosemary Essential Oil , Rosemary Oleoresin, or Rosemary Leaf Extract. Regardless - neither of these are preservatives.

Rosemary contains antioxidants – which is not the same as being a preservative. In food, rosemary has some great functionality. It's used for helping meat stay fresher longer, but that still doesn't make it a preservative for use in DIY cosmetics.

Sorry Sharon - rosemary 'oil' isn't a preservative.

Grapefruit Seed Extract

The efficacy of grapefruit seed extract as a preservative has been shown to be due to the addition of preservatives such as benzalkonium chloride, triclosan and/or methylparaben. In other words, grapefruit seed extract doesn't have any antimicrobial function on its own.

It is an efficient antioxidant. But, antioxidants are not preservatives. (check more here).

The Time I Tried it 

Years ago, one of my suppliers offered an 'all new natural preservative' (they had given it another name, but the label revealed it was grapefruit seed extract). I ordered a portion to test it out. Within a month, my supplier issued a warning to all of their customers. It appeared that the new preservative was non-functional. I had done a small batch of cream that was on my 'under observation' shelf at the time. Directly after reading the warning from my supplier, I opened the lid of one of my 2-week-old creams. There was a thick green growth covering a third of it.  Yuchh! That was my first (and maybe last) experience with this 'preservative'.

Essential oils

The author listed the following essential oils as preservatives:
  • thyme
  • oregano
  • lavender
  • lemon
  • rosemary
  • benzoin
  • eucalyptus
  • clove
  • sage

None of the above are preservatives and cannot be used as such without exceeding a safe level of use.

It is true that essential oils are unpreserved and have a relatively long shelf life (especially when stored optimally), but that doesn't make them preservatives. This would be like claiming virgin olive oil or honey is a preservative.

It's just wrong every way you look at it.

Sorry, Sharon, but you struck out completely with this article. Nothing was correct. I can only hope it hasn't been read by anyone.

I discussed with myself whether or not I should link to it, but decided there was no reason to contribute to the spread of misinformation.

Have a safe day.


LeKenda said…
I'm surprised she didn't say tea tree oil. UGH!
LisaLise said…
LeKenda – you're right. She left that one out. (snicker)
Anonymous said…
Are there any natural preservatives that you would recommend?
LisaLise said…
Hi Anon - I use benzyl alcohol to preserve many of my products. It has the broad spectrum properties that parabens offer, but it does bring a characteristic scent to the product. This can be 'worked with'. There is a blog post about it if you look under topics: preservatives. :)
Lorraine said…
Great post, Lise! I've been researching 'natural' preservatives all week and it certainly makes for interesting reading. :)
LisaLise said…
Thank you kindly Lorraine! have a great weekend
Great article, Lise! It's amazing how much we want these things to be preservatives, to the point of putting our health and safety at risk. One of the reasons I don't use Pinterest is that there isn't a community to vet what gets posted. (Because you know if we posted something like Sharon's article, our readers would shout at us until we took it down!)
Dawn said…
Hi! This post that you've made is really intriguing. I just came to know about your blog through Tisserand Institute. The question still remains: is there such a thing called 'natural preservative' now that you've highlighted what most of us thought are actually not. Can propolis act as one since it's natural? Will love to hear from you soon!
Thewildirishskincare said…
Great stuff as usual, simply put without ego or jargon for a very tired little worker ant like me to read...
LisaLise said…
Hey there Dawn - Thanks for your comment! You ask an excellent question about whether or not natural preservatives exist, because the answer isn't as straightforward as one might imagine. Yes, there are natural preservatives, but this will depend on your definition of natural. There is no industry standard for what constitutes natural, so there are loads of interpretations of this term.
You ask about propolis being a possible preservative and the answer is (unfortunately) no. I will be touching on a few of these things at the upcoming free webinar at Tisserand Institute. If you've signed up, you'll get a bit more information. :)
LisaLise said…
@Thewildirishskincare - Thank you kindly. I do try and make things clear and concise but admittedly, I was seriously peeved at the author of this article for not even attempting to check facts.