Understanding Preservatives

When making handcrafted soaps and cosmetics to sell, you of course hope that they will quickly fly off the shelves and be used up by your ravenous, amazing-product-loving customers! Sometimes, though, this is not the case; your products may need a little bit of a bump in their shelf life and anti-microbial defenses.

When we hear the word “preservative”, there are often negative associations. These days, products are favored for being organic, natural, and devoid of GMO’s; preservative seems to be among those dirty words. In truth, the preservatives that truly work and are both affordable and accessible to the every day handcrafter are not natural, but this doesn’t mean they aren’t a great addition to your products.

Anti-Microbial vs. Anti-Oxidant 

Channel your inner scientist with us for a moment and let’s start with a fundamental overview of the difference between an anti-microbial and an anti-oxidant.

Anti-microbial: a substance that destroys or stops the growth of unwanted microorganisms such as harmful bacteria and mold. 

Anti-oxidant: reduces the rate of oxidation in materials that oxidize quickly; in soap and cosmetics, this usually means oils. 

The biggest and most obvious different between these two products is the defense that an anti-microbial offers against bacteria, mold and even fungi. This is especially important for products that contain water or may be exposed to it.

For example: say you make a scrub. It’s a fantastic scrub, and it contains no water. You may think, an anti-oxidant is probably enough to stop the oxidation of the oils I’ve used. This is a bit of a gray area, because technically you’re right. However, many people use their scrubs in their showers and most likely in their bathroom in general, which means there is a very high likelihood that water will at some point enter the container. Even though you didn’t originally formulate your product with water as an ingredient, it’s a good idea to add a preservative to it to avoid any future microorganism growth as a result of it’s usage.

Types of Preservatives 

There are many affordable preservatives available to soap and cosmetic handcrafters, and also a few misconceptions about what is and is not a preservative.

For example, although commonly marketed as a preservative, Vitamin E oil does not qualify as one. It is an effective anti-oxidant, but does not contain the anti-microbial properties that at true preservative must possess in order to be considered the sole preservative.

Synthetic preservatives are available for any and all types of products. Optiphen, for example, is a formaldehyde and paraben-free preservative that works great in oil based products like lotions and shampoos. Phenonip is another great option for oil based products that can be used at higher temperatures (under 200 degrees), and prevents a full range of microorganism growth. These preservatives are readily accessible from suppliers and when used correctly, can help to protect the hard work you put into your products.

When Do I Need a Preservative? 

Consider adding a preservative if you can answer “yes” to either of the following questions:

Does your product contain water?

Is there a chance that my product will be exposed to water that may stay in the container? 

When making cold process, hot process, and/or melt and pour soap, you do not need to adding a preservative is not usually necessary, as the water content “disappears” during the saponification process. The same is true for liquid soap, but many handcrafters add a small amount of preservative, just to be safe. It is strongly encouraged to use a preservative in lotions, creams or body butters too.

Final Thoughts 

There are many differing opinions about preservatives, but the most important takeaway from anything you may read about them is that although the bulk of readily available preservatives may not be natural, they can protect your product and your business from unnecessary fallout if your product molds soon after you sell it to your customer. It is also important to educate your customers about the importance of proper care for products like scrubs; encourage them to store their product outside of their shower with a tightly closed lid to avoid bacterial growth. Sometimes, a bit of product education goes a long way!

How-To: Lip Balm

Lip balms are a quick and easy to make beauty product that can be the perfect stocking stuffer or addition to your product line.  Besides knowing you made this simple yet silky masterpiece, the best part is how completely inexpensive it actually is to make lip balm.

The first two things you will need to do are: choose your ingredients and choose your containers.

Let’s start with choosing your container.  Depending on what you plan to do with the finished product, you can really use almost anything to hold your lip balm.  If you plan to add lip balm to your product line or give as a gift to friends family or potential customers, you will want to purchase tubes (they come in white, clear or a variety of colors) or tins or glass/plastic jars.  Most of these containers can be found at your favorite handcrafted supplier or by doing a simple Internet search.  If you are a self proclaimed lip balm addict (like myself) and you will be keeping your goods, you can easily use small containers purchased at local craft stores, kitchen goods stores or even the nearest dollar store.  Whatever you decide on, you’ll want to be sure it securely seals closed and is not too big to grab on the go and stash in your pocket.

Moving on to choosing the ingredients.  Like any handcrafted beauty/body product, making lip balm is a creative work of art that you can make with as few as two or three ingredients, or you can get very creative and add several ingredients to increase conditioning or to add flavor or color to your masterpiece.  Let’s take a look at some of the potential ingredients you could choose from and what they would add to the perfect lip balm.

Tried and true, coconut oil is a perfect base oil to use for your lip balm.  Coconut oil has many great qualities, first being its firmness. In addition, coconut oil naturally contains Vitamin E, and has a superior moisture retaining capacity, which adds to coconut oil’s ability to prevent cracking of the skin.

Next, let’s try some beeswax.  Much like coconut oil, beeswax is naturally a protectant. Bee’s produce wax naturally to line their honeycombs to protect where baby bees grow and honey is stored.  When used in lip balm, beeswax protects the lips from environmental damages (such as drying and cracking) and helps hold in moisture all while not clogging pores. Beeswax also contains Vitamin A and is also a humectant – or is a water attractor aiding with keeping your lips hydrated.  Most importantly; you will want to use beeswax for its hardening quality to pull it all together.

You will definitely want to use at least one of the above ingredients to help your lip balm solidify.  In addition, the following ingredients are also popular choices:

Body Butter:  Not a necessity, but if you have some on hand, you can’t go wrong adding a dash of cocoa butter, mango butter or shea butter. Any of the three will provide ultra moisture to your lip balm.

Various oils: Using Jojoba oil or Sweet Almond oil, which are are two very popular oils to use in lip balm because they are super nourishing.

Vitamin E:  A couple drops of Vitamin E added to your lip balm can go a long way. Vitamin E is an antioxidant and also a nutrient for your skin that can potential limit the environmental damage to your skin.  You can purchase Vitamin E in capsule form at the pharmacy and simply puncture a couple capsules to use in your recipe.

Essential oils: These are completely optional, but adding essential oils in your lip balm will add a pleasant smell and give you the opportunity to personalize your product.

Now that we have hit upon some of the more crowd-pleasing ingredients, let’s get on to the mixing!

For this simple homemade lip balm you will need the following…

2 TBSP Beeswax

2 TBSP Coconut oil

3 capsules of Vitamin E

Essential oil

A double boiler OR

Glass measuring cup and microwave

Because of the hardness, you will want to melt the beeswax on its own to start. You can do this by double boiler on the stove, which will provide an even, consistent heat, or by using the microwave in small timed intervals, checking and mixing both frequently.

Once the beeswax is mostly melted, add the coconut oil to melt and blend with the beeswax.

If you are using butters or additional nourishing oils, you can now add them, including adding the contents of 3 vitamin e capsules (discard the empty casing), and finally add your essential oil (optional).

After all the oils are melted and mixed together, you will need to work quickly to pour the mixture into your prepared tubes or jars.  The lip balm will set up relatively quickly and be ready for use in a few hours.

See – wasn’t that easy?  Once you have the process down and are comfortable with it, you can experiment with different oils and completely customize a recipe of your own.  Be creative; be inspired!

Common Scents: Peppermint

Welcome back to our series, Common Scents! Common Scents is a collection of articles exploring the history of commonly used essential oils, and how they became so popular in modern day soap and cosmetic crafting. This week, we’ll talk about peppermint!

Peppermint is one of the most recognizable scents in existence. Its strong, refreshing scent elicits thoughts of winter, chilly weather, or peppermint candies. This pungent oil is very versatile, and much like the other scents we have covered, it has a rich and exciting history behind its use in modern day products.


Peppermint is a perennial aromatic herb, and grows in the summertime, although it can be cultivated indoors through the winter. It requires a moist growing environment, and is common in Europe and North America. Peppermint oil contains menthol, which gives it its signature cooling sensation and refreshing scent.

What’s in a Name? 

Peppermint, also known as Mentha piperita, is a naturally occurring hybrid of Mentha spicata (spearmint) and Mentha aquatic (watermint). The word mentha is believed to come from a scandalous love triangle involving two Greek deities and a nymph. As the story goes, Hades (Greek god of the underworld) and Persephone (daughter of Zeus, and the queen of the underworld) were husband and wife. Hades developed feelings for a water nymph named Minthe (also referred to as Menthe). Persephone caught them, and turned Minthe into a small, unassuming plant that would be easily trampled upon, but Hades took pity on Minthe; he was believed to have given her a minty fragrance, the same one that the plant emits today so that those who smelled the scent would be reminded of her beauty and vigor.

The Fragrant History of Peppermint 

Aside from a mythical Greek soap opera, peppermint itself has quite a long history both in medicinal and cosmetic use. Let’s start with Pliny the Elder, a Roman naturalist who documented the culinary use of peppermint in flavoring wine and sauces as early as 23-79 CE. Pliny also wrote that Romans would use peppermint as accessories with their outfits and as decorations on their tables during banquets. The Romans also used peppermint to aid in digestion, and were said to use it as a ground cover so that the paths they walked would emit a pleasant smell.

The Egyptians also held peppermint in high regard, so much so that dried peppermint leaves have been discovered in the pyramids. It is mentioned in the ancient Egyptian medical text, Ebers Papyrus as being used to calm stomach pains, a common use for the plant.

Peppermint is mentioned in the 13th century Icelandic Pharmacopoeias, but was not used widely for medicinal purposes until its first recorded cultivation in the mid-1700s in London. Listed in the London Pharmacopoeia, peppermint was distinguished as a remedy for everything from sores to headaches. Its rising popularity meant that cultivating land went from just a few small acres to several hundred in a very short period of time.

Native Americans have been using different kinds of mint for centuries as medicinal herbs. When European settlers arrived in America, they introduced peppermint to the Native Americans, which encouraged the cultivation of the herb in North America.

Popular Uses in Medicine 

Peppermint is and has been used for many different ailments. Some of these uses include:

Bad breath







Skin irritations



Menstrual cramps


Please keep in mind that these claims have not been approved by the FDA, and, as with all of our Common Scents articles, the HSCG does not encourage nor advocate the use of peppermint to treat these conditions. Always consult a medical professional before starting a preventative or curative treatment.

Peppermint Today 

Today, we use peppermint for a wide variety of common household items. Things that you use daily likely contain peppermint, like toothpaste, mouthwash, cough syrup, chewing gum, shampoo, and of course, soap! Peppermint is also widely used in the tobacco industry for flavoring, and also because of its menthol content. The menthol in peppermint oil lends the cooling sensation desired in cigars and cigarettes, as well as chewing tobacco. Candy canes and other popular holiday candies typically contain peppermint as well.


Final Thoughts 

Peppermint’s historical use as a medicinal herb may have faded in the modern medicine practices of the 21st century, but it remains just as popular as ever.  Its refreshing and cheerful scent are still associated with cleanliness and festivity; something that has not changed since our ancestors used it to adorn themselves at their feasts and banquets. So, the next time you pop a piece of peppermint chewing gum into your mouth or craft a particularly lovely peppermint scented soap or lotion, take a moment to remember that you are continuing a legacy thousands of years in the making; the love for peppermint!

We hope you’ve enjoyed this edition of Common Scents! Leave us a comment below if you use peppermint in your soaps and cosmetics; we’d love to hear what you blend it with, and what products you love to make with it!