Preservatives and Essential Oil DIY's: An Overview

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Preservatives and Essential Oil DIY’s: An Overview

What’s a preservative and why do you need one?

Preservatives are necessary for water-based products to prevent the growth of mold, bacteria, and fungus. Also, any product that comes in contact with water will need a preservative. A great example of this is sugar scrubs! Since they are used in the bath, they come in contact with water and should be protected.

Common DIYs that need a preservative:

closeup woman cleaning sofaThere are many different kinds of DIYs with essential oils that may need a preservative. Here are some of the most common projects where you’ll want to consider adding a preservative:

  • Foaming Hand Soap
  • Lotions (made from scratch)
  • DIY Spray Cleaners
  • Linen Sprays

DIYs that don’t need a preservative:

oil dropper essentialThere are, of course, DIYs that won’t need a preservative. Here are some examples:

  • Bar Soap: Bar soap does not need a preservative because the pH levels are too high to allow the growth of bacteria
  • Essential oils diluted in a carrier oil
  • Facial Serums
  • Lotion Bars

These do not need a preservative since they do not contain water.

But which preservative should I use?

There are a few preservatives that are broad-spectrum, meaning they protect against mold, bacteria, and fungi, and are great for most uses.  Other preservatives have limitations and need to be used together with additional preservatives to achieve full protection. Let’s break it down:

1. Optiphen ND

(Phenoxyethanol, Benzoic Acid, Dehydroacetic Acid)

Optiphen ND is a water-soluble, paraben and formaldehyde-free preservative that offers broad-spectrum coverage.

This preservative is great for surfactant-based products, such as shampoo. However, it cannot be used in products with a pH higher than 6 and must be added at temperatures no higher than 176 ºF.

  • Recommended use level: 0.2% – 1.2%
  • Pros: Paraben-free, formaldehyde-free,
    effective against bacteria, mold, and yeast
  • Cons: pH: Best below 6
  • Temperature: No higher than 176 ºF

2. Optiphen Plus

(Phenoxyethanol, Caprylyl Glycol, Sorbic Acid)

Optiphen Plus is a paraben-free preservative that offers broad-spectrum protection for water and oil-based products. It’s effective at pH levels below 6.  For this reason, it is not ideal for foaming hand soaps.

  • Recommended use level: 0.75-1.5%
  • Pros: Paraben-free, formaldehyde-free
  • Effective Against: Bacteria, mold, yeast
  • Con: Best below pH 6

3. Phenonip

(Phenoxyethanol, Methylparaben, Ethylparaben, Butylparaben, Propylparaben, Isobutylparaben)

Phenonip is a broad-spectrum, paraben-based preservative for products that do not contain water, such as an oil-based salt or sugar scrub.

  • Recommended use level: Varies based on product type
  • Pros: Effective against bacteria, mold, and yeast
  • Cons: Contains parabens

4. Germaben II

(Propylene Glycol, Diazolidinyl Urea, Methylparaben, Propylparaben)

Germaben II is a paraben-based, broad-spectrum preservative that protects against bacteria, mold, and yeast in products that contain water. It is inactivated by polysorbate 20 and 80 and must contain less than 25% oil.

  • Recommended use level: 0.5-1%
  • Pros: Formula pH: No restrictions
  • Effective Against: Bacteria, mold, yeast
  • Cons: Inactivated by Polysorbate 20 and 80

5. Germall Plus

(Propylene Glycol, Diazolidinyl Urea, Iodopropynyl Butylcarbamate)

Germall Plus is a broad-spectrum preservative that is compatible with nearly all ingredients. It has no known inactivators. It is paraben-free and experts agree that despite supplier recommended use below a pH level of 8, it is effective protection for a pH level below 10.  Use Germall Plus in water-soluble formulations as well as in the emulsified portion of oil-in-water formulations.

  • Recommended use level: 0.1-0.5%
  • Pros: Paraben-free
  • Effective Against: Bacteria, mold, yeast
  • Cons: Formaldehyde releaser

Some notes on Germall Plus:

If the pH is below 10, a preservative is needed and liquid Germall Plus can be used effectively, despite the supplier recommended use below PH8.

Experts suggest that anhydrous products containing all oil, sugar/salt need a water-soluble preservative used in conjunction with an emulsifier so that the preservative can protect the water that is introduced to the product.

6. For Linen Sprays:

Linen sprays are a little different. To preserve a water-based spray, use at least a 120 proof grain alcohol for 20-30% of the product.

The basic formula would be 75% water, 25% alcohol.

Robert Tisserand has an excellent article, helpful for learning the specifics of using alcohol for aromatic blending.

Resources:
http://makingskincare.com
https://theecowell.com/blogs/well/a-guide-to-cosmetic-product-preservatives
https://formulabotanica.com/checklist-natural-preservative-skincare/
http://www.allsortsofsoap.com/preservatives.html
https://www.modernsoapmaking.com/how-to-ph-test-handmade-soap/

127 thoughts on “Preservatives and Essential Oil DIY’s: An Overview”

  1. Oh wow! This is all so interesting and also overwhelming. All of the DIY recipes you see online never mention preservatives. Looks like I’ve been doing it wrong all along.

        1. Hi Beth, if you use straight rubbing alcohol, it can be used as an emulsifier. Keep in mind, it would not be enough to act as a preservative for recipes with water, which is why we recommend Everclear. Here are the specifics of blending with alcohol that you might find helpful!

  2. Thank you for this very informative post! This is just another example of why I love Plant Therapy so much! it’s shocking the number of DIY recipes that are out there without proper info on preservatives. Thank you for taking the time to educate your customers!!

  3. Does aa product with only Witch Hazel and essential oils need a preservative? It seems commercial Witch Hazel already contains a preservative.

    1. Hi Carol, you would need a preservative if adding additional contents into your witch hazel. Also, witch hazel will not dilute your essential oils. You will need to use an emulsifier as well. You can learn more about emulsifiers here.

  4. Thanks for all the information! This made it much easier to research the ingredients in each kind of preservative. Do you know if there are preservatives that are more organic and don’t have ingredients with possible side effects?

  5. I never realized I needed a preservative in my foaming hand soap. I’ve been making it for years without one but now I’m gonna look into these options!

  6. Thank you for this. I am not 100% sure what I need, but I have been considering a preservative for a while. I make small batches of lotion, because they mold. EVERY essential oil Ihave used has made it mold faster. That incudes tea tree oil.

    So many cleaners start with water, vinegar, and essential oils. I have had mine mold, so I make my cleaners as needed. It would be nice to simply have a spray bottle on hand. I don’t want to refrigerate them, and I love in Southern Virginia.

  7. Thank you for this article! But I’m still a little bit confused on which one to choose. I just want to make a hair spray with water and Get Em Gone, which preservatives would you recommend?

    1. Amanda, you will want to use Optiphen Plus as your preservative, but remember that you will need an emulsifier as well so that the essential oil blend is able to be diluted 🙂

    1. Kendra, aloe vera can come in several different forms, including as a jelly, a gel, and a juice. You’ll have to check out the ingredients of your aloe product to determine whether or not a preservative is needed 🙂

  8. Love having all this info on one place… I still feel really confused on which to choose without breaking the bank purchasing lots of options, lol. But love that I can reference this article easily.

  9. This is great! I too wish there were more “natural” options.. but I suppose a preservative isn’t all that natural in and of itself. I love the included gem of knowledge about blending with alcohol (the link to the Tisserand article), since I’ll be able to utilize that information for sure.

  10. Can you use ever clear as a preservative in hand foam? My concern would be the drying effect and the concern of it being alcohol. If so, what would be the ratio?

    1. Jennifer, ever clear may work as a type of preservative, but you’ll have to reach out to our aromatherapists to help you determine the ratio for your particular recipe 🙂 You can reach them at [email protected].

  11. I wish there was a more natural preservative option. I feel like the ingredients in all of these is what I’m trying to avoid when making my own soap. Maybe plain Castile soap and oils is the best option rather than trying to make it foam.

  12. Thank you so much for this information! I’ve been making foaming hand soap for quite a while and while it never seemed to get yucky- who knows what was hiding in the water. I’ve recently started using Germall+ in my soaps.

  13. This is a great overview of how to use preservatives. I’ve used Germall Plus, and it works great for lotion – and is very forgiving regarding the starting PH of your product. You can find small portions of many preservatives at lotioncrafter.com (not sure if that’s an approved link here on PT). They also give more detailed information about each preservative, so you can further assess what would work best for you.

  14. Most of the DIY recipes on the blog dont call for a preservative. How do we know when to add one if its not listed on the recipe.

    1. Michele, preservatives are needed if the DIY is water-based. Most of our DIYs contain carrier oils, butters, and lotions, which are not water-based and don’t need a preservative. Please reach out to our aromatherapists at [email protected] if you need any more guidance 🙂

  15. This is very informative and at the right time. I’m very new to EOs and just started to make DIYs. I’m waiting to find the suitable ingredients to venture more.

  16. I am surprised to see that Optiphen Plus is not recommended for foaming hand soap when I found a PT foaming hand soap receipt that called for it.

    1. I was searching the comments for this exact statement before I said the same thing! I’m confused now since I see it in PT/SEOR foaming soap recipes regularly. My Optiphen Plus is arriving this week and that’s the only reason I ordered it

      1. You are correct that some of our blog’s older recipes may include Optiphen Plus and we are working toward ensuring all our recipes, from the past and recent additions, have consistent instructions. Please feel free to reach out to our team of aromatherapists at [email protected] to help clarify this issue, or ask our aromatherapists on SEOR to clear this up. I hope this helps and we apologize for any confusion this has caused 🙂

        1. This confuses me a lot. It says you need it in lotion but lotion can be made of all diff things. Also says you need it for water based recipes but then there are water based and witch hazel recipes that don’t call for one!! AHH! lol

          1. Kendra, we are sorry for the confusion. You are right that lotions can be made of many things and you should always look at the ingredient list of whatever lotion you are using to make sure it is right for you and your DIY. Also, there are lots of water-based recipes, including ones with witch hazel and hydrosols, that do not call for a preservative but probably should if you plan on keeping the product for longer than a few weeks and out of the fridge. We are working hard to ensure all of our recipes are up to par, though many of them have been written years ago before we realized this issue. However, we cannot speak for the recipes coming from any other source that do not include preservatives. For those, you’ll have to make your own educated choice for what is right for you 🙂 I hope this helped clear up some confusion and please don’t hesitate to reach out to our team of aromatherapists at [email protected] if you have any more questions 🙂

    1. Vitamin E is an antioxidant. It is not a preservative. While it will extend the shelf-life of a product because it slows oxidation, it is not anti-bacterial or mold inhibiting in the same way a true preservative is. If you are referring to grapefruit seed extract, yes – it can be used a preservative, but its effectiveness is controversial. It is also often very chemically altered in production, and thereby not as natural as you may think. From my research, most commercially available GSE contains benzethonium chloride or benzalkonium chloride which are only present because of the way it is processed and not very “natural.” Neither of these are present in truly natural GSE. Maybe someone can correct me if I’m wrong?

  17. How much preservative would you need for a 16 oz bottle of hand soap? Also a 2.7 oz bottle of linen spray? or can someone lead me to a place on how to calculate this?

  18. Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for this article!!!! I’ve been watching countless YouTube videos on healthy DIY products and was super confused by whether preservatives are needed and if so, what kind. I printed this off for reference and am going to use all my new PT oils to make some good, healthy, mold free goodies! 🙂

  19. I find this whole preservative bit intimidating. For that reason, I have not made any water based products. Germall seemed to be the best choice but I’m not so sure about the con.. What exactly does “formaldehyde releaser” mean?

    1. Amber, as aromatherapists, we are not formally trained in emulsifiers and preservatives so we cannot say for 100% certainty. However, from my understanding, this is a term coined to represent chemicals and other things that release formaldehyde over time.

  20. I apologize if this was answered in a previous response, but what would be the best preservative for making water-based all purpose cleaners with oil and vinegar? Thanks!

    1. Katy, as aromatherapists, we are not formally trained in emulsifiers and preservatives so we cannot guarantee any ingredients beyond what is recommended in the recipes we provide will work. You are free to try it out and report back your findings, though 🙂

    1. Quina, does the aftershave and beard oil recipe you are using include water? Often they are made up of carrier oils and essential oils, possibly with some vitamin E oil as well. We recommend using preservatives for water-based products. Please don’t hesitate to contact our awesome Aromatherapists at [email protected] if you need some more information! 🙂

  21. So glad I saw this before I made some DIY Christmas gifts. Otherwise it would’ve been, “Merry Christmas! Here’s a little mold and bacteria spray for your pillow…” Yikes!

  22. Excellent info! I spend a lot of time trying to explain to people the importance of using a preservative or else they are just growing bacteria to smear on themselves or spray into the air. Thanks for sharing good, safe info.

  23. I have been considering making DIY linen spray as gifts for Christmas. So glad a ran across this blog as I had no idea I needed to use a preservative. I feel like the more I learn, the more there is to learn!

  24. Wow…This is super confusing. This blog does not mention facial toners. When I was first introduced to EOs, I was excited to make my own facial wash, toners. .then saw your video regarding preservatives, then also came across one of your recipes for a toner that called for an emulsifier but not a preservativer….Makes my head hurt..I will stick to non- water- based DIYs. Maybe this will help control my shopping habits here on PT.

  25. Thank you PT for this post. I am new to DIY and preservatives can be a bit overwhelming. This helps clear up a lot of confusion.

  26. If I want to create a room spray that will last, should I follow the directions for the linen spray? Thank you for your help!

  27. Wow. So much to learn. I have been accumulating a nice collection of single oils and synergies but have really only diffused or used them in inhalers or roller bottles. I want to expand into DIY projects now but had no idea about the number of preservatives available and their specific limitations. Thank you for all of this info, I will start studying up so I can make sure my projects are safe to use!

  28. This post has a lot of good information, but I’m still confused about when I need a preservative. If I mix EOs with a carrier oil and then add to a made-from-scratch lotion, do I need a preservative? Also, which preservative is best for a spray cleaner?

    1. Shannon, if you mix your EOs with a carrier oil and add it to a made-from-scratch lotion, you only need to add a preservative if that lotion you made has water in it. For a spray cleaner, it depends on how it was made. Contact [email protected] for more specific information 🙂

  29. Oh thank you for revisiting preservatives and posting this information!! Older posts reference an old post that’s no longer available on preservatives so this is what I’ve been looking for, thanks!!

  30. Thank you for this incredible post! So many DIYs I find don’t use a preservative and I’ve been so hesitant to begin projects. This has helped a ton and given me the confidence to move forward with ones that follow safe practices (which I’m learning thanks to you all of you at Plant Therapy!)

    1. Thank you so much for commenting, Katie. We definitely saw a need to help clear up some misconceptions about preservatives and offer additional insight. So glad you have some more confidence to go forward and make some amazing DIYs!

  31. This is a wonderfully informative post, and clears up a lot of confusion about preservatives. I love that Plant Therapy has made consumer safety and education one of their top priorities. It is a rarity to find a company that goes above and beyond for their customers the way that this one does! Thank you!

  32. I am confused because Phenoxyethanol was listed both for #2 and #3 and one says its paraben free and the next says its a paraben. Also would like info as to what are the safest and least safest. I am assuming number 1 is the safest? Overall helpful info! Thanks!

    1. Great question, Nina! To answer your first question, preservatives are not single-ingredient products. They work much like a synergy would, with several ingredients working together to preserve a product. This is why one product is paraben free and another is not. As far as safety is concerned, this will be a matter of opinion. Some may consider parabens unsafe, while others are completely fine with them. While Optiphen ND sounds great, it works best below a PH of 6. For DIYs like foaming hand soap, they can often have a PH of 8+. That means this preservative would not be ideal, though it has no parabens and sounds like the “safest” option. This is where individuals will need to research which preservative is best for them and their family while still providing the best range of coverage for their DIY. Also, these preservatives are not in order of safe to least safe. It’s simply how the information was compiled as the information was pulled from the usage guidelines supplied by the manufacturer. I hope this helps!

  33. Great information! Reading this makes me realize how much more research and studying I need to do when using preservatives! Thanks for the info!

  34. Thanks for this one! I’ve been staying away from any DIYs that need a preservative. I’ll definitely be coming back to this post!

  35. Thank you for compiling this information. I agree with Tiffany that this is why I stay away from formulations that use water.

    1. I am not familiar with that product. With preservatives we do recommend customers do their own research to determine what is best for them and their families

  36. Thanks for the great info. Another great natural perservative is Naticide this is uses alot in Australia and New Zealand cause its natural. Effect for PH 4-9.

  37. Thank you for this helpful article, which answers s lot of questions I had about preservatives. It’s great to have a list that I can refer to as needed.

  38. I am so thankful for this blog post and the Live the other day to talk about preservatives. I had heard anything made with water needed a preservative to prevent growth of bacteria but I had no idea how much, which type, etc. I made a very small amount of PT’s Itch Away with Aloe Jelly for my daughter and now that I read this I’m thinking if I made a larger batch I would have to add a preservative since Aloe Jelly is water based?

    1. Aloe jelly does not act as a preservative. You would need to determine which of these would work best for your recipe.

  39. I have always been so confused when it comes to preservatives. So glad now I have some great information to go by. Thank PT for my preservatives foundation.

    1. We know there has been some confusion, and while we are not preservative experts, we thought this post could help give more info for our customers to research further 🙂

  40. Great information! I just started making my own hand soap and face wash, and knew to add preservatives due to your informational article. Thank you!

  41. I’ve been waiting for a blog like this! Thank you so much for answering my preservative questions! Now I can make some DIY hand soap more confidently.

  42. Excellent info! Thank you for the post. I was having a hard time understanding preservatives. I have a better understanding now

  43. Oh my this just seems to make things more confusing. It needs more examples of what things use which preservative. And how much per drops of EO added.

  44. Thank you for compiling the information and giving descriptions of the preservatives so that we can make an informed decision for ourselves and out families. I know that I want to use the best possible ingredients without using the bad stuff, especially with my oils.

  45. Thank you for this post! And thanks a lot for a list of resources, I followed a couple of links and can say that the entire preservatives topic is slightly less confusing for me now. Still, would not even dream of creating something as elaborate as a W/O formulation by myself. I hope to learn a lot more from PT before I feel confident that I can do it.

  46. In a video you created on a foaming hand soap on YouTube using germ destroyer it said to use optiphen plus and in the above blog you stated it should not be used in foaming hand soap. It is the preservative I have been using in my foaming hand soap per your YouTube video, so if it’s not correct then which one and how much would I use following the recipe you have on YouTube

  47. Thanks for this! Do you still need a preservative if you have other carrier oils in a product along with water and/or aloe Vera?

    1. Carrier oils and Aloe Gel do not act as preservatives, so if the ingredients have water, you could refer to this blog to see the recommended % for the preservative that would work best for you

  48. Thank you for this post! Preservatives are so important for health and safety, but are incredibly confusing for at home DIY-ers like myself.

  49. Yikes! I had no idea there was so many factors to consider when buying a preservative. Thanks so much for this information. I will consult this blog next time I purchase!

  50. I have a question about this. I have read Tisserand’s article concerning this and am still confused to some degree and want clarification. You state to use 120 proof alcohol which would be 60% alcohol and to use it at 20-30% of the product. But then is says a basic formula is 75% water and 25% alcohol. So two questions: 1. In the basic formula is the 25% alcohol pure alcohol? 2. If the basic formula is 25% pure alcohol, I don’t see how the 120 proof alcohol would be 25% pure alcohol of the overall formula. Shouldn’t the 120 proof alcohol be closer to 50% of the formula?

    1. The alcohol comes in different proofs, and you need it to be a proof of at least 120(60% alcohol) and then you use that at 20-30% of the product to preserve. 25% is just a good, easy percentage to work with that falls in between 20-30%, does that make sense?
      So, in other words, the alcohol has a percentage all of it’s own. You just need to make sure that an alcohol of at least 120 proof makes up 20-30% of the overall formula.

  51. This post is so helpful! I just started working with preservatives and it can be very confusing. I made a batch of homemade baby wipes with Optiphen Plus and a sugar scrub with Phenonip.

  52. Wow this is confusing yet good information. When I make a water based product, i.e. foaming hand soap, I have no idea what the pH is so I would not know what to use. Or where to buy this stuff.

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