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Ask The Formulator-FAQ & Facts

Where your questions are answered about DIY’ing cosmetics and more. I get real and I get to the nitty gritty. Hopefully with some humor, easy to understand info and Southern charm.

We’re back with another session of “Ask the Formulator”.  And here I go talking about preservatives again.

Hey y’all! I’m Ginger, founder and owner of Neos Skin Care. If you’ve hung out with me here at the blog or on social media, you may get tired of me harping on this but I will shout it from the rooftops and hope and pray eventually at least a few will get it.  In case you didn’t already know from the title of this post or the intro above, today’s topic is preservatives in cosmetics/personal care products and home care products.

Did you know the very nature of the ingredients used in natural and mostly natural products you love to make yourself or buy for your skin or home often makes then lovely food for microorganisms?  Or that this means those same products MUST have a good preservative system?  Yes….A system! What this means is that it’s not a simple process where you just add one microbial inhibiting ingredient or one of the broad-spectrum preservatives available to home crafters. It also means because of the different variables involved, what will effectively and safely inhibit the growth of multiple types of bacteria, mold, fungi and yeast will vary from product to product. As much as we may want there to be a simple one-size-fits-all solution to the obvious safety issues at hand, there just is not one. As much as we see people in the DIY communities giving black and white advice saying, “This ingredient or this preservative is what you need and want to use. It can and will protect every product that you may purchase or make for yourself at home.”, this simply is not the case. Oh sure, sometimes the homecrafter and hobbyist will get lucky, but this is an anomaly at best.  The simple truth is no qualified professional cosmetic formulator or chemist with the knowledge, experience and skill that qualifies them as a pro, would ever dream of giving this type of all-encompassing advice. If they do say this or similar, they are ill-informed and not the best person to be listening to.

It’s not the easy-peasy, no-brainer the interwebs and self-proclaimed experts would have you believe. Formulating safe, effective and stable products requires a good solid working knowledge of multiple sciences , including chemistry and physiology, the proper formulating methodologies and protocols and the ingredients being considered or used. The preservation of said products is just one of the key parts that must be looked at and appropriately planned as well as skillfully executed in the formulation process.

Preserving cosmetics is multi-faceted and part of an entire systematic formulating approach that starts with the very first initial formulation process beginning with the conception of the product. Read that again. It’s not an after-thought. It’s a huge part of the process from the very first inkling of the finished product. The entire formula must be taken into account and designed for optimum safety and preservation. It’s not one step…it’s many steps. It’s not one ingredient, it’s many ingredients. It’s not a single rule, it’s many rules. It’s a process and each individual formula as a whole, not “Oh, just add X and it will be safe and preserved properly”. It’s hugely complicated and detailed with so many factors to consider and plan for.

A good and safe product doesn’t happen overnight. It doesn’t even happen in a week. It is conceived, evaluated, R&D’d for months and sometimes years and needs to be tested extensively. It’s a very involved systematic process. Every variable and nuance must be considered and tested accordingly. Every possible scenario must be played out and accounted for. Every potential outcome must be looked at. One change in ingredients, be it the ingredient itself or how much of it is used, can effect the final product and its stability. One seemingly insignificant condition or adjustment can change the course and what is required.  

Many want to make their own products at home. I get it. I really do. But here’s the thing. The homecrafter and hobbyist is going to be limited in what they can or can’t do at home because of lack of knowledge and lack of access to some raw materials. That’s just a simple, unbridled fact. One I’m sure many do not want to hear. But true nonetheless. And contrary to what the bloggers and well-meaning folks will tell you, it is NOT as inexpensive as you may think or have been led to believe.

Likewise, as much as many want others like me to just tell them an easy way or what to use specifically, that’s not doable. It’s not something that can be taught or shared by a cheat sheet, visual graphic/meme or in a blog post. Nor in a short sound-byte, a quick post or article, or on a thread in a Facebook group. It’s an entire area of education because it is an entire area of expertise. In fact, it’s one of the largest science-based industries in the world.  Let me make something very clear here. Expertise comes from an investment of time and expense to get the education needed, do the work and study, research and yes, you guessed it….the experience necessary to make the learned book knowledge solid and experiential instead of just facts on paper.  And it takes a lot of each.  It also often takes a good bit of sacrifice….and in my case, brain cells. 

While I’m at it, NO….you will not learn everything you need to know about formulating personal or home care products or even the one targeted area of product preservation from a single class, webinar or seminar, whether it’s geared toward that topic of focus or not. This includes aromatherapy and essential oil focused classes, courses, webinars or seminars. Ever wonder why the aromatherapy courses don’t teach about product preservation?  Because it requires a lot of time (and money) to not only learn it but try to teach it. It actually needs to be an extensive course and curriculum of its own with many cumulative hours of focused attention.

Quite truthfully and regardless of what many believe or teach today, aromatherapeutic formulating such as therapeutic essential oils blends is not cosmetic formulating. The two are exclusive from one another and very distinct and separate areas of knowledge, skill and expertise. Aromatherapy and cosmetics are two separate and different industries, each requiring separate educations with their own distinct study. Most qualified aromatherapists and aromatherapy teachers are very knowledgeable in their industry, aromatherapy. But they usually are not knowledgeable or experienced in proper formulation methods and safety protocols in regards to cosmetics or home care products. It’s not their area of study. It’s not their industry. Many don’t even know preservative systems are needed and that essential oils will not preserve sufficiently. To put it bluntly, you can’t teach what you don’t know and you sure can’t implement or practice what you don’t know. There needs to be a cognitive effort to intentionally disentangle the two from one another and stop trying to make them one and the same. Because they are not. They do however, sometimes cross paths and hold hands, working in tandem together, so to speak. 

I’m really sorry to disappoint anyone here and it’s not my intention to discourage you. But this is reality. If you want safe products free from contaminants, you are going to have to have preservatives in those that require them. Not just “a preservative”. A WHOLE PRESERVATIVE SYSTEM. It’s also important to recognize one’s limitations and knowledge base. As much as anyone wants it to be simple with an easy answer, no one, including me, can give you a cut and dried, easy answer on preserving products because to do so would be irresponsible. And at risk of sounding defensive or offending anyone, I must say it’s also really discrediting to formulators and rather demeaning to them and their knowledge and expertise by diminishing it to a single universal answer that wouldn’t be correct anyways. Or to assume or accuse them of having ulterior motives behind their responses and the info they share…..for FREE I might add.

If you want to DIY extensively or exclusively, there are no two ways around it. You are going to have to learn about formulating from qualified individuals and experts in the field with material that should include preserving personal care products among a vast array of other scientific topics within the subject. You are going to have to invest in what it will take to learn the advanced topic of formulating, including preserving properly. You’re going to have to research, study, get into the science and investigate all it entails from all angles with all its nuances and variables. And you are going to have to recognize and admit this is not going to happen in social media groups, via blogs or forums and through free access content. Otherwise, leave it to the professionals who have. Over-estimating your own level of knowledge or experience does no one any favors, least of all yourself.

Yes, that includes me. I am a professional. But let me tell you. I’m around 30 years in and have thousands of hours in research and study invested. I’ve even learned from some of the best in the industry. But guess what? I’m not an expert. I’m still not one-half as knowledgeable or experiences as I would like to be and need to be to go further and do all I want to do.  I still have much to learn. And it’s because of the investment I’ve made that I won’t share all I know and have learned freely. Just so you know. I’m not being selfish, nor am I being rude or greedy. I dare so no one, not even you, will just give away what you’ve worked hard for and earned. 

So when you ask me, “What preservative should I use?”, please don’t get offended when I tell you, I can’t answer that. It’s not as simple as one asking should they use 2 eggs or 3 in a cake recipe, should they use butter or coconut oil in a cookie recipe or would roasted garlic be a good addition to a casserole recipe. Although they can have some similarities, product formulation is far more in-depth, intricate and precise than most cooking or baking. It just is. If anyone tries to tell you it’s not, run the other way. They may get you in big trouble. And yes, because it’s my livelihood, I will not share as freely or with abandon like some have flat out told me I should or owe to the public at large. If you can’t understand that, then perhaps I’m not the person for you to follow or look to. 

With all that said, and hopefully you’ve hung with me through this long writing, don’t just take my word for it regarding preservatives and the need for them. Or the complexities involved. Take a look at what Belinda Carli, director of the Institute of Personal Care Science, has to say on the subject in this video. I also came across this video that has some good points. Watch these and read the comments. Really listen to the experts presenting in them because unlike me, they are  not small fish in the field of cosmetics and cosmetic formulation.  They both have more education and knowledge than I will probably ever have. 

That’s it for this session of Ask the Formulator.  I hope this one doesn’t keep you from reading in the future or asking me questions to talk about in this series.  Send in those questions and if I can answer them, I will.

I’ll see y’all next time.  

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