You may have seen the term “self-preserving” on beauty product labels, but what does it actually mean? According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, self-preservation is defined as “preservation of oneself from destruction or harm.” If you’re wondering how that applies to beauty, Jessica Morelli, founder of natural skin care brand Palermo Body, says it indicates the presence of certain ingredients that help extend the shelf life of the product naturally, without using synthetic preservatives or chemicals. And it does so without having to keep the product in the fridge.
Most beauty products need special additives to ensure stability and prevent the formulas from changing over time. Not only will an expired product be less effective, but it can also be harmful. “Due to the presence of water in most products, strong preservatives are [sometimes] used to stave off the growth of harmful bacteria and fungus,” Morelli says.
When it comes to preventing this bacterial growth using natural preservation, the key is to keep the oil and water separate from one another. “Once you combine them, the shelf life shrinks substantially because the presence of both water and oil is a breeding ground for microbial growth,” Morelli explains.
Leigh Casbourne, brand and product trainer at Lush, says that because of the impact water has on a product’s shelf life, a lot of self-preserving products are made with less water and a higher quantity of self-preserving ingredients. That’s why you will notice a lot of self-preserving products in solid form. For instance, Lush has self-preserving bubble bars instead of the traditional liquid bubble bath.
Some naturally self-preserving ingredients include cocoa butter, vegetable glycerin, salt, honey and clay. Morelli cites certain carrier oils like meadowfoam and antioxidants such as vitamin E and rosemary extract as common ingredients for extending the shelf life of oils, in particular. This is because they prevent oxidation that would otherwise make the oils spoil. And while you definitely don’t want some forms of bacteria in your beauty products, good bacterial strains like Lactobacillus, a type of bacteria found in fermented food like sauerkraut and kimchi, can actually help prolong the shelf life of water-based products such as facial toners.
If you’re wondering about the difference between self-preserving and preservative-free, Lush points out in its guide to self-preservation that the labeling can sometimes be confusing. “Preservative-free” implies that a product is completely free of preservatives. Many products that are labeled as such aren’t truly preservative-free because they often contain ingredients with self-preserving properties.
The benefit of self-preserving or preservative-free products is that they are often less likely to irritate sensitive skin than products that use synthetic or chemical preservatives. In addition, the natural antioxidants that help products stay fresh also help keep skin nourished and glowing. When it comes to products with good bacteria, Morelli points to recent research that shows the anti-inflammatory skin care benefits of probiotics.
One of the downsides of self-preserving products is that they will not have as long of a shelf life as ones with synthetic preservatives. To get the most out of your self-preserving products, you can help prolong their lifespan by keeping them out of direct sunlight and not storing them in warm, humid conditions. That means not leaving them on the vanity or in the shower.
Ready to give self-preserving products a try? Here are some of our favorite makeup, hair and skin care products that have naturally preserving formulas down pat.