What Are Natural Preservatives?

Natural preservatives are ingredients that are found in nature and can — without artificial processing or synthesis with other substances — prevent products from prematurely spoiling.

sliced and whole lemons

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:

  1. antimicrobial: inhibits the growth of microbes such as bacteria and fungi
  2. antibacterial: inhibits the growth of bacteria such as mold and yeast
  3. antioxidants: delays or stops the process of oxidation (usually the beginning of something deteriorating because it is losing electrons)
  4. acting on enzymes: stops aging of cosmetic products

Popular Natural Preservatives

The most popular natural preservatives are harmless substances we’re all familiar with:

  • salt
  • lemon juice
  • grapefruit seed extract
  • Rosemary extract
  • sugar
  • 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

Within the beauty and cosmetics world, natural preservatives are specifically used in skin care products, hair care, lip balms, essential oils and more.

Here is a short list of ingredients and how they tend to match up with different types of products:

Aloe Vera

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.

Benzyl Alcohol

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

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

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.

Sorbic Acid

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.

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Comments (2)

  • Methylisothiazolinone is another big no no that is commonly used in the natural preservative world.

    “One study at the University of Pittsburgh found Methylisothiazolinone to be a neurotoxin, but in that study, the neurotoxicity occurred after direct exposure caused a chain reaction involving zinc levels and DNA enzymes to destroy rat brain cells in culture samples. Despite this evidence, the Cosmetic, Toiletries and Fragrance Association deemed Methylisothiazolinone safe for use in cosmetic formulas (Wikipedia).

    The EWG lists Methylisothiazolinone as a sensitizer and irritant. It is approved for use in rinse-off products by the CIR.

    In 2016, the Canadian government revised its Hot List to include additional warnings about this ingredient. Leave on products may no longer be formulated with this ingredient. As of June 2016, children’s products with this ingredient can no longer be sold in Canada. In August 2016, the European Union banned MIT from leave-on products. Companies selling in the EU have until Febraury 2017 to reformulate products to exclude MIT”. – Truth in Aging

    “In 2013 the substance was declared the 2013 Contact Allergen of the Year by the American Contact Dermatitis Society.[17] In 2016 the Dermatitis Academy launched a call to action for patients to report their isothiazolinone allergy to the FDA.[18]” – Wikipedia

    • Thank you for the info! I hadn’t heard of that ingredient. I’ll keep an eye out from now on and see if I can add a note to the article.

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