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.
Lucky Me said…
Hi Lisa,

When making beard oil, butter, or balm for men, do you need to add a preservative? Men sometimes like to use their products in the shower or straight out of the shower with wet hands, and I don't want fungus or mold to develop. I also don't want the perseverative to be harsh for their skin either.
LisaLise said…
Hi Lucky Me — You might try letting packaging help on this end. Beard oil in a serum or pump bottle is not likely to get water into the contents. Balms might be packaged in tubes where the contents is dispensed out. That said, you can also add information to the packaging to ‘keep contents water free’. Adding a preservative to a product of this nature is going to have to be a judgement call. I suggest putting a few products through some rigorous testing with exposure to water and checking for microbial growth. I have seen anhydrous products pass these kinds of tests with flying colors and am guessing beard balms and oils might be just fine without preservatives. Only way to know for sure is to test. Best of luck with it :)
Unknown said…
Hi! Thanks for the informative article! It was really enlightening. I want to ask you about a recommended preservative for aloe vera gel? Your answer will help a lot. Thank you.
LisaLise said…
Hi Unknown - If you check the label of (a large majority) of the aloe vera gel sold, you'll see that a combination of potassium sorbate and sodium benzoate seems to be the industry standard preservatives for this product.
B’more Natural said…
Thank you for sharing this! I just came across a recipe for a natural healing sray via an IG alive. The ingredients included an infused herbal tea, rosemary and lavender essential oil. Im assuming that it still needs a preservative despite not being used on the skin. What kind of “natural” preservative works well in this situation?
LisaLise said…
HI B'more Natural - If that is the entire ingredients list, there is an emulsifier/solubiliser missing as well. It's hard to comment on which preservative without knowing the entire formula.
Anonymous said…
hi ! so what are some natural preservatives I can use to preserve cleaners or toners. Also, if I use black soap and liquify it with water & add purr aloe vera gel would I need a preservative being that the soap base already has one ?
LisaLise said…
HI Anon-- If you visit my main site and do a search for 'free e-book', you'll find an ebook with an overview of natural preservatives that may help. :)