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I’m an active member in a number of Facebook groups where DIY’ing is the happening thing to do. Along the way, I’ve been able to observe what sort of FAQ are out there. As a result, I’ve have had the opportunity to teach others a little basic information about product safety and efficacy. Many DIY enthusiasts are discovering that formulating cosmetics goes beyond what the mommy blog or beauty blogger with DIY “recipes” would like them to believe. As people learn that it’s not as cut and dried or as easy as the bloggers and fellow DIY enthusiasts make it sound, they are asking questions. Some of which are fairly simple and straightforward while some are more complicated and beyond what can be taught on social media or even a long blog post. 

Instead of spending hours trying to answer all the questions in the many group threads that are popping up, I decided to start answering some of the frequently asked questions I see here on my blog.  Today, I’m going to share a few of the FAQ and facts about DIY foaming soaps, which seems to be a hot DIY topic and project at the moment. Other water-based products are closely related so you may see mention of those in this article as well. So let’s get started with the first Ask The Formulator feature article, shall we? 


Ask The Formulator-FAQ & Facts


QUESTION: If I add water to my liquid soap to use it in a foamer dispenser, do I need a preservative?

ANSWER:  YES! Although soap is generally self preserving due to it’s high pH, anytime you add water, witch hazel, aloe vera gel or juice, vinegar, hydrosols/hydrolats or other similar additives to “thin down” the liquid soap so it will work in the foamer pump, you are changing the pH of the mix and providing a breeding ground for microorganisms to thrive in. You may not see them or smell them, but they are there, lurking, partying with their friends, reproducing and attaching to your skin, sink, drying towels, etc. It’s sorta like an unsupervised and out of control rave party……for yuckies. 

QUESTION:  But I add essential oils to my diluted/foaming liquid soap. Doesn’t that kill any bacteria, mold or fungi and preserve it?

ANSWER:  NO! While many essential oils do have anti-microbial properties, the dilution rate you would have to use for the essential oils to provide even a little preservative activity would be well above what is considered safe for dermal contact. In addition, essential oils will not usually offer broad spectrum protection for the hundreds to thousands of different bacterium, mold and fungi that can set up house in your product.

QUESTION:  But it’s soap! Doesn’t soap wash away bacteria and filth? 

ANSWER:  Yes, soap does wash away bacteria and filth. But on surfaces, skin, from fabrics, etc. We’re talking about bacteria and other microbes IN the soap itself and the fact that you are altering a finished product that has been formulated to be safe for consumer use which is making something different than it started out as. When you alter a product, you compromise the formula and the safety of the product, be it a liquid soap, lotion, cream, a gelled product, mascara, liquid foundation, or other. 

QUESTION: I’ve been adding water to my liquid soap for years and never had a problem with it. Now you’re telling me it’s likely unsafe and growing nasty little yuckies like bacteria? 

ANSWER:  Yes, that’s what I’m telling you. You say you’ve never had a problem with it. How do you know? Have you sent it to a qualified lab to have the efficacy tested…several times…over the course of several months or even years? Truth is, micro-organisms are so incredibly tiny that it takes hundreds of thousands into the millions colonizing before you will see one speck about the size of a single coffee ground. I could take one drop of water, put 100,000 bacteria cells into it and you would see nothing but clear water and smell absolutely nothing off-putting. 100,000 microbes is enough to cause a skin issue, a respiratory issue or infections. So going by visual appearance or aroma is unreliable. Even going by the feel of it is not a reliable standard of efficacy. Micro-organisms will begin to grow, multiply and colonize within 24 – 48 hours. If there’s water or water equivalents in the mix, there will be microbial growth. Even under the most sterile of conditions, which isn’t likely in a home kitchen, from the very start, there is likely already microorganisms in the product from the containers, the ingredients, the tools and utensils, the air and you yourself. Microorganisms are everywhere and in everything, with millions being on our skin alone. Some are harmless and even beneficial but some are not. Without a chemical substance to eradicate and inhibit them, they will grow….and grow….and grow. 

QUESTION:  But aren’t preservatives toxic? They’re chemicals and chemicals are toxic. 

ANSWER:  Yes, they are chemicals, just like the fixed oils in your liquid soap, the water you want to put in your liquid soap and the essential oils you want to add for fragrance. Everything is chemical by definition so to say chemicals in general are toxic is an uninformed blanket statement. Toxic chemicals are toxic. Not all chemicals are toxic. Used properly and with knowledge, the broad spectrum preservatives available for cosmetics and home care products are safe with no danger of toxic buildup or effects. Contrary to what many say, very few substances used on the skin can pass the skin barrier to be absorbed into the internal body. The molecular structures of preservatives are just too large to get through the little built-in force field the good Lord gave us as protection. But then again, He’s really smart that way.

QUESTION: What preservative should I use for my diluted or foaming liquid soap? 

ANSWER:  While we (professional cosmetic formulators) would love to be able to say, “Use this preservative for all your water-based products and emulsions.” or “Use this at this amount in this product to insure efficacy.”, we just can’t. So many factors must be considered for which preservative system is right for each different finished product. Among them:  What’s the pH of the finished product? Does that pH change over time? Is it an oil in water or a water in oil emulsion? Is it mostly water or all water like in a spray or oil-free gel? How much water availability is present? What temps will be involved in the production and subsequent storage of said product? Does it contain an ingredient which will render the preservative system ineffective? What is the ionic activity? Does it contain any cationic ingredients? What about anionic ingredients? Any nonionic ingredients? Or amphoteric ingredients? Are any of the ingredients deionized? Is the whole of the formula positive or negative charged? Does it contain botanicals or food stuffs? Or maybe it contains clay? Does it contain any humectants? What is the water-holding capacity of the humectants used?  Does the chosen packaging effect the stability and efficacy? And the list goes on and on. What works very well for one product may not work as well or at all for another. There’s not a one size fits all and you don’t know if your choice works for that particular formula unless you have it tested for efficacy by a qualified lab. Not an inexpensive thing, I might add. We are dealing with chemistry here and it’s not the same as making a tasty dish of food. You can alter a recipe for a casserole which will only effect the flavor or texture. Altering even one ingredient in a cosmetic formulation can mean the formula no longer works and is safe. Even the way measuring is done is different if you want precision and duplicable results.

There are some really good, reliable, safe and easy to work with broad-spectrum preservatives and preservative assists out there that give good results within reason and well-planned formulating for the most part. Of course, everything has limits and defined capabilities. Preservative systems for cosmetics and home care products are no exception. Yes, I said systems because we’re dealing with chemistry and combined ingredients here, not just one ingredient. Every ingredient in the mix impacts the safety, stability and efficacy of the finished product.  All the questions I mentioned above need to be addressed and evaluated. Even then, without efficacy and challenge testing, no one can say for sure any preservative and preservative assists are adequate for the formula they’re used in. The best even professional formulators can do is make an educated guess based on what we do know and our experience.  

That said,  Optiphen Plus and Germall Plus are broad-spectrum preservatives that are proven safe and effective for a wide range of formulations when all the criteria and requirements for their functionality and efficiency are met. But again, neither of these will be sufficient for all product formulations and all the variables involved. I cannot say any of these will work with your particular DIY “recipe” or that they will work effectively on everything you try to make. I make no guarantees and would appreciate it if you don’t go off advising others on this matter as if you know what you are saying and doing. In the end, you just look foolish and could end up causing someone harm with what you advise without the knowledge and experience to back it up. I know you want to be helpful but acknowledge and accept your limitations and abilities, please. There more honor in saying “I don’t know.” than there is in pretending you do know and are capable of assisting others.  And please don’t go about saying “Ginger said……”  then begin quoting me or repeating what you think I’ve said.  I’ve had this happen many times and more often then not, I’m misquoted and the info I gave is misunderstood.  

As someone pointed out on a thread in a Facebook group on this very topic, when you are dealing with micro-organisms and their activity, it’s microbiology. Microbiology is chemistry.  Formulating cosmetic products that are effective AND safe involves chemistry and requires a lot of research, development and a whole lot of time, effort, trial and error. Not to mention money. Simply put, the formulating and production of personal and home care products is a fairly precise science. It’s not rocket science but it is a science all the same. So we have to look at it as more than making a batch of cookies with a dash of this, a smidgeon of that and a substitute for the other. And we have to realize that sometimes, it’s best to leave it to the professionals who have the knowledge of the science and chemistry behind it. Even though I am a professional formulator with more than 25 years to my credit, I still leave some things to others with the education, experience, abilities and equipment I don’t have. Sunscreens for instance.  

Listen, reality check here. The large majority of the “recipes” you find online are not worth the time it took to put them on the screen or click on the link to get to them. They are put together by DIY’ers like yourself and amateurs who don’t know what they are doing. They are very bad formulations overall and more often than not, more unsafe than you can imagine.  Professional formulators are not in the habit of sharing their hard earned formulations publicly or for free. After all, it’s their livelihood. Their knowledge and experience came at a cost to them. So what you find online is likely backed only by a desire, other online “recipes” they found somewhere from an equally inexperience and uneducated person and a little kitchen crafting. Nothing more.  

Best case scenario for the home crafter? Forget the DIY’ing of foaming soap products or any product with water content. You are not saving money or doing what’s best for you or your family if you’re concocting a petri dish of nasties and yuck in a jar or bottle or making and using unsafe products.  If you are gifting them or selling them, you better know what you’re doing and why and be following all the regulation and laws involved. That can be a costly mistake and a huge legal issue for you.  It’s very simple really. If you do no have the education and experience to answer those questions mentioned above relatively easily, or if you are a “recipe” follower and one who needs specific amounts of each ingredient and instructions laid out for you, then I strongly advice you don’t try DIY’ing cosmetics/personal care products or home care products that require emulsion or preservative systems, surfactants and the like.  If you don’t know the what, when, why, how, or who of product formulating, then just don’t do it. As enticing or easy as it may seem, it’s really not that simple and it’s most assuredly not something to play around with. What you don’t know can hurt you.

PS: While I’m on the subject……please, please, PLEASE! Don’t listen to EWG, Skin Deep or Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. They are not reliable resources for accurate info based on real science. They are well known across multiple industries for their pseudo-science, twisted facts and fear-mongering among the masses to facilitate chemophobia and fit their overall agenda. Pssstt! That agenda is not to help you, the consumer. It’s really not.

P.S.S:  Whether you ever become a customer of Neos Skin Care, above all, I want you to be an informed consumer, not an influenced consumer who is led by fear and misinformation. 

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