After having read a ton of different recipes, blog posts and other information on the internet regarding homemade skincare, I have to say, there is a shocking amount of misinformation out there. Most sources are not necessarily outright wrong or dangerous (although some are), but most of the time, I find that important information regarding safety in homemade skincare is simply lacking. This is why, I decided to take the time to write this post providing you with an overview of the most important safety measures and concerns in homemade skincare. Sorry that it got so long, but safety in homemade skincare is just something I didn’t want to cut the information short on.
Safety in Homemade Skincare – It’s up to you
Before we get into it, I just want to take the time to say: It’s completely up to you, what you want to do and what not. You need to decide what you deem necessary and what you feel comfortable with. My goal is simply to inform you about steps you can take to increase the safety in homemade skincare, not to judge you. I want to ensure that you are making decisions such as leaving out a preservative out of a place of information and knowledge and not because you just don’t know any better.
Also be aware that it makes a difference, whether you are producing something for yourself or for others. Be extra aware when you will be giving away homemade skincare. as others may have different standards of cleanliness or a different attitude towards risk than you. Always tell people you are giving it to if you chose to omit a preservative!
Finally, I just want to let you all know that I am neither a dermatologist nor any other type a certified doctor. I am not giving you any medical advice. This post is simply informational in nature based on the research I have done and gathered over time.
First of all, you should take a moment to consider your work environment. The cleaner you work, the better. Taking extra steps, such as wiping down your work surface with disinfectant or double checking your utensils for cleanliness makes a big difference. Just like in the kitchen, you should also always wash your hands, prior to making any skincare products yourself. In some cases, such as when making soap, you may even want to wear gloves.
When it comes to safety in homemade skincare, it is important to not only consider the safety of the product you are making, but also your own. When you are handling more concentrated ingredients or even chemicals (such as lye in soap making), protect yourself by wearing gloves and other safety equipment.
Whenever possible, I try to work sterile. This is especially important when working with water-based cosmetics. Simply cleaning your equipment and jars, only removes dirt, but does not remove any possible bacteria that may survive soap. To completely remove bacteria, first sterilize your work area. Then do the same with your jars or containers including lids as well as your working equipment after cleaning and prior to use.
You can do so using several different methods. When working with glass jars (which is what I do most of the time), you can process them in boiling water for 10 minutes, similar to the process of sterilizing a canning jar. To speed up the drying process move the boiled jars into a warm oven (not hot) using tongs.
To sterilize your equipment, you may also use 70%+ alcohol. I have mine in a spray bottle. Spritz the equipment and jars with the alcohol and let air dry face down on a clean, sterile surface.
Make sure that all equipment and jars are completely dry prior to use.
You should avoid touching the parts of the sterilized equipment that will come in contact with the skincare you are making with your bare hands (which would make the sterilizing pointless). Furthermore, you should use a separate utensil for removing each raw material. Don’t use the same spoon to first scoop out coconut oil and then shea butter. I know, it produces a lot more dirty dishes, but it keeps your quality raw materials pure and contamination free.
Choice of container
The container you use for your homemade skincare can greatly effect the shelf-life of the product and its likeliness of getting contaminated.
When making skincare with water, try to opt for containers that don’t require you to touch the product to use it. An example for this would be a pump or spray bottle. If you do end up using a container in which you need to touch the product, make sure you use clean, dry hands when using the product to avoid any unnecessary contamination.
Another factor to consider is the stability of the ingredients. Certain oils or vitamins degrade quicker with exposure to light. Hence, it may be preferable to use a dark bottle. Alternatively, you can also store the product in a dark place.
One of the most commonly seen misconceptions on the internet is that vitamin E is a preservative. It is not! Vitamin E, along with grapefruit seed extract and rosemary extract fall into the category of antioxidants. As such, they slow down the process of oxidation in oils. Oxidation is what causes oils to go rancid. However, antioxidants have no effect at all on mold, fungus and yeast growth and do not help preserve your product.
That being said, antioxidants are still highly useful in anhydrous products (without water). Depending on the type of oil, their shelf life can vary from between 9 to 15 months (see a list here). For oils with a shorter shelf life, adding just 0.5% of vitamin E can help combat early oxidation.
Preservatives have gotten quite the bad reputation in the natural community and this has led to many recipes out there, that actually need a preservative, not containing one. Unlike with food items (which we eat quickly and keep in the fridge), most of us don’t treat our cosmetics with the same care. I mean, why should we, the store bought stuff never goes bad anyway. But just like we need to take appropriate steps to preserve our homecooked goodies (like freezing or canning), we need to take steps to preserve our homemade skincare.
Anhydrous – Products without water
When talking about preservatives we need to distinguish between two types of products those with and those without water. The later are often called anhydrous products. Please be aware that in this context aloe vera juice, hydrosols or any other herbal liquid also counts as water!
Anhydrous products, such as body butters, lotion bars, lip balms or salves are self-preserving. In other words, they do not provide a suitable environment for bacteria, yeast and mold to grow in. As such, you do not need to use a preservative in those products. You should, nonetheless, include an antioxidant if you used any oils with a short shelf life.
Be aware that introducing any water to these products, will make them require a preservative. Hence, if you plan on using the body scrub in the shower with wet hands, you need to add a preservative. Getting these products wet can allow mold and bacteria to begin growing.
Products with water
One of the most important facts about safety in homemade skincare is that products that contain water or any other perishable ingredients (like food) should be treated similar to raw food (or rather meat). If you don’t want to put in a preservative, you need to use it immediately or store it in the fridge for 2-3 days. If you want to store it longer than that, you need to add a preservative.
There are many DIY recipes out there that neglect this. However, be aware that there may be millions of bacteria and yeasts in your lotion long before you can see it. If you are putting something that has stood on the counter for 3 weeks without a preservative on your skin, you could get sick. Obviously, many do it and say they have never had a problem, but as I said in the beginning, you need to decide the level of risk you want to expose yourself to. Just be aware that it can happen and it has happened. It is similar to eating raw eggs or using unsafe canning practices. It either goes well or you get salmonella (which you can’t see or smell either). Is that worth it?
Once again: Please use extra caution when giving the skincare away. You may be okay risking it, but someone else may not. Tell others, if you choose not to put in a preservative! That way they can make their own decision!
I realize you may be hesitant to add a preservative. It is true that certain preservatives can cause allergic or other adverse reactions. It is important to do your research and choose the preservative you use carefully. Ensuring safety in homemade skincare is a balancing act. On the one hand we want to keep everything as natural as possible, but on the other hand we need to ensure that these products are safe to use.
The biggest problem with natural skincare, in contrast to natural food, is that we don’t use it as fast as we would food. Thus, in order to achieve safety in homemade skincare, we need to make a decision, either we make a new batch of cream every couple of days or we need to compromise and add a preservative.
If you choose to use a preservative, be sure to choose one that is broad spectrum (covers all types of bacteria). Follow the manufacturers instructions closely in terms of when and how much to add. Be aware that some may also have interactions with certain ingredients. So for every recipe check your preservative and whether it is suitable for this particular product.
If you are interested in learning more about preservatives, makingskincare.com has a review of 27 preservatives that I personally found quite informative and helpful. But as with everything, do your research and inform yourself.
I may do a post in the future about different preservatives. If you are interested, let me know in the comments.
Did it turn bad?
The approach to safety in homemade skincare is in many ways similar to that towards food. I suggest you follow the motto ‘If in doubt, throw it out’.
On a little side note, you should always label your homemade skincare products. Believe me you WILL forget what they are and more specifically when you made them. I have made that mistake many times, so I am hoping to avoid you the trouble. Whenever you make a new product, label it with the name/ingredients as well as the date you made it. I also like to add a best by date to remind me by when I need to use it based on the oils or the preservative used.
Don’t use your homemade product past that date! It doesn’t matter if it is natural or chemical, it can and will still spoil. Actually, it is even more likely to spoil if it is natural since it doesn’t contain all those chemicals to keep it stable. Kind of like with natural food, which will go bad unlike something chemical like…. ketchup. Keep in mind, with all these tips, that there is no sure way of telling simply by inspecting a product with your senses whether it is in fact safe! If inadequately preserved, there may also be bacteria that are invisible to the bare eye.
Checking the product
Nonetheless, there are a couple of things you can do to inspect whether a homemade product has turned bad. First, look at it. Are there any signs of mold or growth of any kind? If that is the case, throw it out! This is one of the few things where I will tell you: Please do not attempt to scrape the mold off a lotion or cream! In products without water, you may also see oxidation which causes oils to turn rancid.
Secondly, smell the product. Does it smell rancid, foul or bad in any way? Oils that turned rancid or bad will not only change color but also develop a sour or bad odor. As mentioned before antioxidants such as vitamin E can prolong the shelf life of oils, but only for so long. When the oil turns rancid, you loose many of its beneficial properties and the structure begins to break down. I would recommend throwing it out.
Safety in homemade skincare is a process that needs to happen alongside of us making the skincare. I realize that many of these steps may sound cumbersome or over the top. However, after taking them a few times, they become a routine that you will barely notice. And as I said, in the end it is up to you. When you make skincare at home, nobody is going to look over your shoulder and scold you. You are responsible of your safety and the safety of anybody you give it to!
I really hope this information about safety in homemade skincare is helpful to you. If I left anything out, feel free to comment below 🙂
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