Natural preservatives are ingredients that are found in nature and can — without artificial processing or synthesis with other substances — prevent products from prematurely spoiling.
These substances can be safe, effective alternatives to controversial synthetic preservatives such as parabens.
There are no federal laws that define what natural preservatives are. To avoid legal risks, some corporations instead claim “no artificial preservatives,” according to Campo Verde Solutions Founder Kim Greenfeld, who has decades of experience in the organic food industry.
Because of this lack of regulation around the term, people have made assumptions about what natural preservatives are and how they work. Some consumers have believed, for example, that vitamin E can act as a natural preservative. In reality vitamin E, even in its oil form, is only useful as a supplement and skin treatment.
We’re here to clear up all that confusion and help you understand exactly what natural preservatives are.
What Are Natural Preservatives Used for?
Manufacturers use natural preservatives to extend the shelf life of their products, reduce spoilage and retain smell or taste. After all, the goods need to survive the shipping process, and they might be sitting in a store or warehouse for a while before someone buys them.
Natural preservatives are popular in natural brands of cosmetic products, including makeup and moisturizers. These ingredients are also common in shelf-stable food products such as peanut butter and jelly.
To become available for consumption, most of these formulas need to pass a preservative efficacy test [PET], also known as a “challenge test.” This process simulates natural contamination by injecting products with microorganisms. If the preservative succeeds in eradicating these organisms, the product is ready for market.
Like synthetic preservatives, natural preservatives fall within the category of what scientists and industry insiders often call a “preservative system.” This phrase refers to three ways preservatives tend to work, and we added antibacterial to make the list four total:
- antimicrobial: inhibits the growth of microbes such as bacteria and fungi
- antibacterial: inhibits the growth of bacteria such as mold and yeast
- antioxidants: delays or stops the process of oxidation (usually the beginning of something deteriorating because it is losing electrons)
- acting on enzymes: stops aging of cosmetic products
Popular Natural Preservatives
The most popular natural preservatives are harmless substances we’re all familiar with:
- lemon juice
- grapefruit seed extract
- Rosemary extract
- citric acid (from citrus fruits)
To give you an idea of why these ingredients are so special, let’s get into what Rosemary extract is and how it can protect products. The process starts with deriving antioxidants from Rosemary leaves via a method called carbon dioxide extraction. As we mentioned when explaining a preservative system, antioxidants can prevent organic substances from deteriorating.
The extraction creates a small amount of oil that can be mixed into products. Rosemary extract in particular is very popular for cosmetics.
Natural Preservatives for Beauty
Here is a short list of ingredients and how they tend to match up with different types of products:
Around 2005 a team of researchers in Spain invented an aloe vera gel that functioned as a natural preservative for produce. This ingredient has been a sustainable alternative to synthetic food preservatives such as sulphur dioxide.
Since then scientists have developed aloe vera preservatives for other industries. Aloe vera — in its juice, gel or powder form — is one of the most pervasive natural preservatives for makeup products.
Manufacturers will often mix the aloe vera in makeup products with controversial synthetic ingredients such as parabens. The justification is that aloe vera alone is not an effective preservative.
This chemical can be extracted from plants or the anal glands of beavers, although obviously the former is preferable. You can find it in essential oils, perfumes and many other types of products.
Citric acid occurs naturally in citrus fruits such as oranges and lemons. It has a ton of applications, everything from food and supplements to disinfectants and cleaners.
Potassium sorbate is a naturally occurring white salt and another alternative to parabens. It is used to prevent microbes from developing in food and hair care and skin care products such as shampoo and moisturizers.
This antimicrobial white powder is a key ingredient in preserving facial and eye makeup, skincare and hair products. Derived from the berries of the mountain ash tree, sorbic acid has also been included in wine and food.
Preserve Yourself, Too
Natural preservatives do tend to be in healthier products than synthetic ones, but remember that they aren’t guaranteed to be good for you. Take the aforementioned benzyl alcohol, which some people are allergic to. If you experience any sort of negative reaction to a product, consult your doctor.
Download Our Free Guide to Sustainable Living.
From reducing waste to recycling and upcycling, our e-book shows simple ways to make choices you can feel good about.