Natural Soaps, Natural Products and Preservatives

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September 3, 2013 by thesoapalchemist

“My natural bath and body products only contain natural ingredients. They’re made with pure, nourishing oils, soft well water which is high in minerals, and only essential oils, because those are the only natural scents. My natural products are chemical free, and I don’t ever use preservatives, except vitamin E and grapefruit essential oil.”

Ok. That was good for a laugh.

But all joking aside. The above paragraph is basically a condensed version of what I hear many makers of natural cosmetics shouting from the roof tops (or booth tops!) of their 10 x 10 spaces at craft shows.

Hopefully, you’ve listened to me enough, or read enough of my natural rants to know that while I am addicted to seeking out natural ingredients for my cosmetic products, I am also an educated person who seeks the truth and tries to spread information, rather than sensationalize misinformation.

So, let’s start with that well water.

Water is a lovely little molecule. It’s essential to life. It’s definitely natural. But it’s the “universal solvent” after all. It’s quite happy to dissolve any minerals it comes in contact with. Water (especially well water) can contain alkali- and alkaline-earth metals such as calcium, lithium, sodium, potassium, and magnesium, to name a few. These minerals aren’t so bad for US, but they’re not particularly good for lotions and other cosmetic preparations containing oils.

The dissolved metals eventually bond with the oil molecules in the lotion, and hasten a process called “auto-oxidation.” Auto oxidation is what causes oils to go rancid, forming compounds that smell really bad. Ever smell a container of nuts you’ve forgotten you had? Yuck! This probably isn’t the scent you’re looking for in a natural lotion.

To prevent oxidation, lotion crafters should ALWAYS begin with distilled water. Distilled water has been purified, and is free of those dissolved molecules. Adding a bit of an anti-oxidant, such as vitamin E, isn’t a bad idea, either (but Vitamin E is NOT a preservative: It does nothing to control bacteria). A host of “chelating” ingredients will also slow oxidation by binding to the metals in the water, and keeping them away from the oils.

So,  while Mineral Water may sound like a more natural ingredient than distilled water, it will likely contribute to your product going bad more quickly. ALL homemade lotion products and water based products  should be made with distilled water, and not “soft water from the well on my property.”

On to the next ridiculous claim, and the people who advertise that they never use preservatives, as if that’s a good thing! This is where the  “not all natural things are good for you, and not all chemicals are bad for you” comes in.

Among natural things that aren’t good for you, you’ll find most bacteria, virus, mold and a host of other microscopic critters. Conversely, in the category of “Chemicals that are Actually Helpful and Beneficial,” you’ll find preservatives.

You see, science really has helped civilization progress in many good ways. People who tout that their lotions are “preservative free” are doing their customers a disservice by selling potentially dangerous products.

Some of you might be thinking, “Potentially Dangerous? Oh right! She’s making this stuff in her kitchen! It might be filthy, or her sink may be filled with last night’s dirty dishes… That’s why her products should contain a preservative.”

But, actually, we need a preservative for another very important reason. Think about the way lotion is applied.

Generally, the container is opened, the product is dispensed on the hand, and the container is closed. Each time this happens, the lotion is exposed to air, and possibly skin, and is becoming contaminated with germs. What do germs need to survive and thrive? Water. What is lotion made of? Oil and water.

That bottle of all-natural lotion is the perfect breeding ground for little nasty microbes that could infect you with staph, mold or a host of other maladies. Another problem with microbes is that they give off enzymes that break down the chemical structure of the oil, leading to rancid lotion. Yuck!

This is why using a preservative system in a water-based product is so important. It has little to do with how well-prepared the lotion is, or how sterile of an environment your kitchen laboratory is. It has everything to do with keeping the product safe for use AFTER it is made, and during its use.

Keeping your lotion in the refrigerator can slow auto-oxidation and rancidity, but it won’t kill the critters that are growing in it.

The third ridiculous statement most people make is about all natural scent, and how essential oils are the only true natural scent ingredients. I blogged a while back about natural fragrances and you might find that interesting. Essentially, there are many scents found in nature that come from things that simply don’t produce usable essential oils. Apples are a great example. They certainly have a scent. But, you’ll be hard pressed to find apple essential oil. Scents are complex combinations of natural chemicals. These chemicals can be isolated and combined with other isolates to form new scents. The fact that they are “created” really doesn’t take away from the fact that their ingredients came from nature. Certified natural fragrances don’t contain synthetic compounds, and are as appropriate as essential oils are for use in natural soaps and lotions.

Staying “all natural” is a fun pursuit for me. There are many many natural ingredients that can be used to create products that are just as safe, effective, beautiful and fragrant as commercially produced “synthetic” ones. But, in our efforts to keep things natural, let’s remember the “natural” things we can do without-  namely mold, bacteria, viruses, oxidation and rancidity.

Preservatives are not bad chemicals. They were created to keep us safe. To date, there are no “natural preservatives” that are as effective as the good old, made-in-the-laboratory sort. If you see some ingredients on an otherwise “all natural” product that you can’t pronounce, or that don’t look familiar, ask about the ingredient before you dismiss the product as containing “bad”  chemicals. They might just be in there to protect you.


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