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The Ultimate Guide to Natural Preservatives and Cosmetics

Top tips for choosing best natural preservatives for your cosmetic brand.


Photo: Shutterstock

Whether you’re an upcoming indie brand or an existing cosmetic brand wanting to switch to natural preservatives in your products, or a consumer who wants to know more about the preservatives being used in the cosmetics you use, Novi Connect createdan ultimate guide to help you make an informed decision. There are so many different ingredients and suppliers out there, choosing the best natural preservatives for your cosmetic brand can be a daunting task. Understanding the ingredients that impact your products, brand, customers, and the environment are essential. 

What are Natural Preservatives for Cosmetics?

Natural preservatives for cosmetics are natural ingredients that prevent the product from prematurely spoiling. They are necessary to include because consumers typically want a product that can last for months without microbial or bacterial growth. 

Sodium benzoate and sorbic acid are among the most popular natural preservatives in most cosmetic products. These ingredients are typically extracted from plants or fruits to create various skincare products, makeup, and perfumes. Other natural preservatives include potassium sorbate, phenylethyl alcohol, benzyl alcohol, and salicylic acid.

One particular natural preservative won’t work for every product. The different properties of these ingredients determine if they’re better suited to a cream, powder product, or a lip product. 

When companies understand the impact of natural preservatives in their formulas, they can create products that are kinder to the environment, last longer, and eliminate health hazards.

Why Use Natural Preservatives?

There’s a common misconception that natural preservatives and ingredients are superior to synthetic materials. This is not always the case—the truth is, natural preservatives simply haven’t undergone as much testing as synthetic ones. Some natural preservatives may trigger allergic reactions. In contrast, synthetic preservatives may be safer because the industry has been testing them for decades.

“Natural” does not mean “safer.” Natural preservatives simply provide formulators alternatives to synthetic preservatives. If a brand’s story focuses more on botanicals and plant-based ingredients, the formulators may decide to use natural preservatives, thinking it aligns better with the brand. 

Unlike some synthetic preservatives, like those derived from fossil fuels, natural preservatives may have less of an environmental impact. However, it’s crucial to understand from where ingredients originate, because it’s not always the case. For instance, unsustainable palm oil farming is a leading cause of deforestation. Palm oil may be a “natural” ingredient but using it in a formulation is not necessarily better for the environment. Thus, brands should ultimately be aware of the source of their ingredients. Both synthetic and natural preservatives can be totally sustainable based on the sourcing.

Synthetic preservatives can pose dangers during the manufacturing process. Workers may inhale toxic fumes during production, which could negatively impact their long-term health. Responsible brands spend more money improving their manufacturing procedures, safety equipment, and facilities. Natural preservatives are becoming increasingly popular among many cosmetic brands because they achieve the same cosmetic benefits as artificial preservatives, helping build a cleaner and more sustainable brand.

Do All Cosmetics Need Preservatives?

Contrary to popular belief, not all cosmetics need preservatives to be safe for consumer use. Most oil-based, acidic, high-alcohol, and aerosol products do not need preservatives to have a long useful life. Examples of these products include body butters, spray deodorants, and body balms. Even though these products don’t always require preservatives, they must contain an ingredient that helps maintain product quality. This will often be the case for products that come into frequent contact with water, like body scrubs or face washes. Water-based products such as moisturizers and shampoos need preservatives to preserve their shelf life and prevent mold or bacteria growth. There are two types of natural preservatives—antimicrobial and antioxidant preservatives. 

Antimicrobial preservatives prevent bacteria, mold, and yeast from growing in a cosmetic product. This is perfect for water-based products because mold, bacteria, and yeast need a moist environment to thrive. 

Antioxidants prevent oxidation but are not preservatives on their own. Oxidation is the chemical reaction when a substance comes in contact with oxygen. Formulators must combine antioxidants with antimicrobial preservatives. For example, oil-based products may become spoiled and rancid quickly if there is no antioxidant to prevent oxidation from happening. 

Formulators should understand the preservatives they use and how these preservatives assist with extending a product’s shelf life. If formulators don’t use them correctly, they could create a product that’ll spoil quickly and be unsafe.

What Happens if You Don’t Add Any Preservatives?

With all the controversy regarding preservatives and whether or not they have a benefit in products, one may wonder, “Is it worth it to include preservatives in a formula?” Suppose you don’t add preservatives to your products. In that case, the product will likely spoil quickly, develop foul odors, and be unsafe for use. Natural preservatives maintain a product’s quality and protect it from exposure to different environments. Cosmetics are exposed to different environments daily. From the production warehouse to the shop shelf, it’s touched by different people and stored in various conditions. Preservatives prevent the spread of bacteria in such conditions.

There are measures brands can implement, such as workers sanitizing their hands and equipment after every batch they create, but microorganisms are everywhere. Hence formulators need preservatives to protect consumers from cross-contamination.

Most preservative-free cosmetic products aren’t safe for use. This is especially true if a product is water-based. Most bacteria need water to thrive. If a cosmetic product becomes contaminated with deadly bacteria, there could be severe legal repercussions for manufacturers and brands too. 

On the other hand, preservatives aren’t always necessary if a product is 100 percent oil based. But still, keep cross-contamination in mind. Cross-contamination can increase the risk of premature spoilage, so it’s helpful to include natural preservatives.

What is the Best Natural Preservative for Cosmetics?

So, now we approach the most crucial question: what is the best natural preservative for cosmetics? It’s entirely up to what the product formulators want to create and what the product should achieve.

Here are a few recommendations on safe, natural preservatives to use in cosmetics.

  • Citric Acid – Citric acid is an organic acid derived from any citrus fruits like lemons and limes. It’s a renowned natural preservative that has many cosmetic benefits. Not only does it preserve the quality of the product, but it also has excellent uses for the skin and hair. It prevents ingredients from separating and acts as an exfoliant.
  • Geogard ECT – Geogard ECT is a natural, broad-spectrum preservative. This means it includes a few preservatives and has a broad pH range, so it doesn’t need to be used with other preservatives. It includes benzyl alcohol, salicylic acid, glycerin, and sorbic acid. It’s prevalent in scrubs because salicylic acid acts as an exfoliant.  
  • Optiphen BS – Optiphen BS is a natural microbial preservative that includes sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate. It works best in products with a low pH; 5.4 or below is ideal. When formulators use it in products with a low pH, it improves the efficacy of the product. 
  • Propylene Glycol – Propylene glycol is a popular natural preservative for water-based products. It prevents the growth of microorganisms because it is an antimicrobial preservative. Its other benefits include being a great moisturizer and making other ingredients more effective because it helps active ingredients penetrate the skin. However, it can be an irritant to people with sensitive skin.

Keep in mind that the ingredients listed above are only recommendations. It would be best if formulators did more research on other natural preservatives so that their product meets the brand’s standards. 

Tips for Formulating Beauty Products with Natural Preservatives

There are many things to consider when formulating beauty products. Here’s an established list of a few essential tips to make the process easier. 

  • Decide whether a product will be water-soluble or oil-soluble. This will determine whether you need only antimicrobial preservatives or if you need to include antioxidant preservatives, too.
  • Decide what the pH range of the product will be. The pH level is essential to determine because the natural preservatives you add will have to work with the pH in your product to have a long shelf-life.  
  • Ensure the preservative is compatible with the rest of the ingredients in the product. If this is not possible, formulators will have a product that will likely spoil or harm consumers. 
  • Ensure the cosmetic formulas are stable. It can spoil or disintegrate when unstable. 
  • Include preservative boosters in formulas. Boosters improve a product’s efficacy, destabilizing the microorganisms infecting the product so that preservatives can easily penetrate them. 

Finally, brands should ensure that they’re sourcing natural preservatives from a transparent manufacturer, such as those recommended and vetted by Novi Connect, a company that suggests brands should strive towards being sustainable. Natural preservatives can be as effective as synthetic preservatives, so there’s no need to hesitate to use natural preservatives in cosmetic products. When choosing suitable preservatives, formulators and brands should consciously choose to be more environmentally and consumer friendly. 

About The Author

Julie is the co-founder of Well Defined and a longtime influencer and advocate in the wellness world. Along with her work at Well Defined, she is an executive recruiter and marketing specialist for Hutchinson Consulting. She is also a consultant and content strategist for numerous wellness brands. She is the former editor-in-chief and publisher of American Spa and was named a 2019 Folio Top Woman in Media in the Industry Trailblazers category and a 2018 winner of ISPA’s Innovate Award. She is also a seasoned journalist, specializing in spa, travel, health, fitness, wellness, sustainability, and beauty. She has been published in Departures,, E! Online,, Insider’s Guide to Spas, Luxury Travel Advisor, Marin Magazine, Ocean Home, Smart Meetings, Spa Asia, and Travel Agent.