As more people look to natural, organic, and GMO-free alternatives for skin, body, and healthcare, it can be hard to know how to create safe alternatives to store bought products. Some of the questions that come up again and again are about preservatives and how to extend the shelf-life of your homemade goodies.
One of the reasons many of us are trying to get away from conventional shampoos, soaps, pastes, and cleaners is that they contain synthetic ingredients used to increase the shelf-life up to months or even years. Those ingredients can cause allergic reactions, may be drying or irritating, and could potentially be linked to some rather unsavory health problems. We know we don’t want to slather those ingredients on our bodies, but are we afraid of life without preservatives? Let's get to the bottom of this...
As a rule, water-based creations will have a much shorter shelf-life than oil and butter-based ones, because water breeds life! This is why salves and balms tend to have much longer stability than lotions and creams. For water-based products like hair rinses, linen sprays, and insect repellents, it is often better to simply make small batches as needed. This has the added benefit of ensuring that you are using the freshest ingredients for your routine.
There are natural ways to help add stability to home crafted skin and body care products, but they are not equivalent to chemical commercial preservatives. Fortunately, we can create small batches to use up quickly or choose some of those natural preservatives to include in our creations. The key is understanding your ingredients and process.
Here are 5 tips for making safe all-natural body care products…
Keep it Clean
Many folks think they need powerful preservatives when what we really need is attention to cleanliness. Use clean, sterilized jars and containers. If you are recycling containers, make sure they've been washed well with soap and hot water. I like to add a bit of white vinegar to the process and allow the containers to dry completely before use. A dishwasher does a great job of cleaning and sterilizing. Make sure there are no bits of food or other particles in containers before you use them. This goes for jars used for oil infusions too—bacteria and moisture can make oils go rancid fast.
If you are ordering new tins, jars, and bottles, it's still a good idea to wash them up before use. Just because no one has used them before, doesn't mean that they're perfectly clean.
If you are making a lot of salves, lotions, and balms, consider having designated equipment. I have a special stainless steel soup pot that I only use for soap making, as well as an immersion blender, wooden spoon, spatula, and Pyrex measuring bowl that are committed to body care products. Even though these are well cleaned between uses, I still want to keep a separation between food prep and lotion prep! I keep all my soap-making supplies in a lidded storage bin so they stay together and tidy.
Putting dirty hands into jars of salve or lotion will also introduce bacteria and shorten the shelf-life. This can be a challenge for busy families. Consider using a bottle with a flip top or pump to cut down on the chances of introducing grimy things. For salves, it’s a good idea to give your hands/fingers a quick wash before dipping in. Keep lids closed tightly between uses.
Use Distilled or Boiled Water or Water-Substitutes
Water-based recipes include hydrosols, aloe vera gel, witch hazel extract, tea or water infusions, and vegetable glycerine. Making sure you use distilled water or boil your water and allow it to cool prior to including it in recipes can help eliminate possible contaminants.
Using Antioxidants as Preservatives
While Antioxidants are not considered actual preservatives by purists, they do help to slow the oxidation in ingredients that can be vulnerable. Oxidation is what happens when exposure to air or oxygen starts to compromise the oils or other ingredients. Vitamin E oil and Rosemary Antioxidant oil are good examples of natural stabilizers. We will often include these in homemade serums, massage oils, lip gloss recipes, etc., to help preserve the integrity of the finished product. They are best added to the oil base, or after the oil base has been mixed together with melted waxes and butters, just not heated directly.
Using Essential Oils and Alcohol as Preservatives
Some ingredients can help inhibit the growth of bacteria and other unsavory micro-organisms, like most essential oils. Even hydrosols, witch hazel extract, and vegetable glycerine have bacteria inhibiting properties and can help a bit with preservation in your hand-crafted items. You can also add alcohol extracts or tinctures (keeping in mind that alcohol doesn't mix well with all fats, so it will depend on your formula). Essential oils are usually added at the end of a preparation.
Storage is important! You will often see us recommend that a serum be stored in a cobalt or amber bottle or jar rather than clear. The dark color helps to keep out strong light that can speed up deterioration. A good rule of thumb is to store creations out of direct light and where they will not be subject to temperature fluctuations.
Salves and lip balms can melt easily in the summer heat, and when left in places like cars and backpacks, they are often subject to warmer temperatures than an ambient room.
Some creations—particularly water-based ones—are best stored in the fridge if you intend to keep them around for a while. If you live in a warm or humid climate, or it is the heat of summer, storage can be a bit trickier than during a long, cold winter.
Infused oils and vinegars, as well as ingredients such as butters and beeswax are also best stored in cool, dry places. Straining as much plant material as possible from your infusions before storing, will also help them to last longer. Clean, snug, lids keep out light and oxygen.
It is important to be educated about the ingredients you are using in your creations. Different oils and butters behave differently: some can be heated to high temperatures while others can be both a solid and a liquid like coconut oil which melts at 76 degrees Fahrenheit. Understanding the shelf-life of the ingredients and how they interact with each other can help you to adjust recipes to suit your body care and health needs and anticipate what the storage needs will be.
Since one of the main reasons to create natural and organic body care products is to avoid synthetic chemicals found in commercial ones, it is important to remember that while we can add some preservation properties to our creations, we cannot expect our handcrafted shampoos, rinses, and creams to have the same shelf-life as mass-produced products. Our advice? Craft in small batches and share with friends and family - use it up while the ingredients are fresh!
AUTHOR: Kori is our Public and Media Relations Coordinator. A West Coast native, Kori is a seasoned nonprofit activist and community organizer. Having launched five adult kids, she spends her free time in her burgeoning organic and very urban “farm”—taming Heritage chickens, building top-bar beehives from reclaimed materials, baking, brewing, and preserving.