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A beginners guide to self-preserving

84 percent of Lush products are self-preserving, which means that they are formulated to stay fresh, effective and safe to use without preservatives (as defined under Annex V of the E.U Cosmetics Regulations). But when it comes to keeping products effective, it's not just about what we take out but also what we add in.

What does self-preserving actually mean?

It means making a product that is both effective and safe for our customers without synthetic preservatives. We can’t just strip away synthetic preservatives and put a product with fresh fruits and vegetables back on the shelf for months, because it would spoil faster than most of us could use it. Luckily, our entire business infrastructure has been built around making fresh products and - crucially - getting them into our customers’ hands as soon as possible. We invent our own formulas (right down to fine perfumery) and own our own factories and kitchens across the world. This means our business is uniquely structured to deliver small batches of product regularly with no (or minimal) preservative, rather than to produce large batches and store them for years in a warehouse like our competitors. 

We expertly balance our formulas to remain stable by reducing their water content and even making them solid. They have shorter shelf lives than you may be used to but we believe that’s a price worth paying for fewer preservatives and more of the beautiful natural ingredients your skin will love. 

“The work started from a lifelong aim to make products without cosmetic preservatives,” explains Lush Co-Founder and Product Inventor Helen Ambrosen, “as we knew the potential for irritation from using these chemicals, and we were concerned about their impact on your microbiome and the environment. Inventing face masks using honey, clay and glycerine with masses of fresh fruit and vegetables, exploring the levels of free water to create lotions and creams, and inventing solid forms of products that would normally be liquids requiring preservative and packaging, has led to amazing innovations.”

Why do self-preserving products contain less water?

Water is an important skincare ingredient, helping to keep your skin fresh and hydrated, but microorganisms also love to grow in it. So, our many self-preserving formulas can contain no water (such as bath bombs, shampoo bars, body butters, bubble bars) or contain less water and higher quantities of oils, and butters, clays and other ingredients that offer other benefits to your skin. For example, the self-preserving version of Mask Of Magnaminty Power Mask contains over 25 percent% honey (which has humectant, hydrating properties), compared to the synthetically- preserved version, which contains over 5 percent honey.

So what’s wrong with synthetic preservatives?

Unfortunately, synthetic preservatives don’t just target the ‘bad’ bacteria in your products. They can kill good bacteria too. “Highly preserved products are capable of harming the microflora that protects our skin,” explains Lush Co-Founder and Product Inventor Helen Ambrosen, “and we want our products to be better than that.”

Your microbiome is composed of a community of bacteria, viruses and yeast that live on your skin, with around a million microorganisms making their home on each square centimetre. They protect you from pathogens and form an important part of your skin barrier. If you consider the number of preserved products you may use on your skin every day, from skincare to makeup, that’s a lot of potential upset caused to this delicate ecosystem. Synthetic preservatives can also be washed down the drain and accumulate in our water systems where they can harm marine life. Over-exposure to preservatives, which are in so many of our personal care products and our food and drink, may also have repercussions for human health which is why we prefer to avoid them where we can. 

“Our in-house toxicologist recommends that preservatives are not harmless and it is better if we can avoid them,” continues Helen. “But we also need to remember that a product which does not have an effective preservative system can also be hazardous. So our work continues to create this delicate balance between the microorganisms we live happily with and the control of those that would do us harm.”

What are the benefits of self-preserving products?

The more canny amongst our customers may notice that by replacing some of the water in their product, they are getting more expensive oils, butters, and clays for their money! A less diluted product can also go further (take our shampoo bars, for example). So self-preserving products are great value for money, as well as being filled with more of those beautiful ingredients for your skin and hair. Removing the preservatives also means fewer of these materials are being rinsed off our skin and down the drain. Through careful reformulation of customer favourites Ocean Salt, Mask Of Magnaminty and Dream Cream to self-preserving formulas since 2014, we have managed to prevent over 5 tonnes of preservatives from entering into production,* some of which would enter our water systems, harming aquatic life. 

Lifestyle swaps can also add up for human health too. "Preserved Mask Of Magnaminty contains a very small percentage of methylparaben (0.2%): a concentration which is considered to be low risk when considering systemic absorption, genotoxicity and endocrine disruption end points,” says Lush Toxicologist Dr Chloé Raffalli. “However, by choosing the self-preserving version of Mask Of Magnaminty, a customer avoids exposure to around 23.725 mg of preservative a year (based on average use of three times a week), which is the quantity considered to be absorbed into the bloodstream annually."

Do you still use preservatives in some products?

It’s true that around 10 percent of our range still contains food-grade synthetic preservatives. These offer our customers a choice if they’re concerned about the lack of synthetic preservatives or are used in some products (such as mascaras) that do still require a synthetic preservative for our customers’ safety. This is all carefully assessed and monitored as part of the formulation process. When we do use preservatives, we consciously do so in minimal amounts, under the maximum levels legislation allows. That’s why many of our preserved formulas have a shelf life of around 14 months - still relatively short compared to other products you’ll find on the market.  However, with so many of our products self-preserving, we are able to offer routines with no or minimal preservatives, helping our customers to reduce their exposure to materials we would all rather do without. 

How different are self-preserved formulas from the originals?

With less water content and more emollient ingredients, some of our self-preserving products will feel a little more indulgent than the original. If you prefer a lighter texture to your moisturiser, you can apply it to damp skin, which will reintroduce some of the water content (just be careful not to get water in your pot!) These products typically have a shorter shelf life, but we’ve worked hard to ensure that our self-preserving moisturisers, for instance, will last on your shelf for up to nine months, which should be plenty with regular use. 

While our preserved moisturisers will still be available in shops on request and online, we hope that customers will choose the option that we believe is kinder to the skin and the planet.  “The work leading towards making self-preserving products has been a long and fascinating experience,” says Helen. “Getting to know and living with microorganisms and their life within products has led us to look far into this universe of opportunistic, clever beings. We hope this work makes for real change in the cosmetic industry.”

Shop the full range of self-preserving skincare on our website or the Lush app. Prefer to see our smiling faces? You can also head into your local Lush and speak with a member of staff at your local Lush for more.  

*Calculated in-house, based on sales of self-preserving Mask Of Magnaminty, self-preserving Ocean Salt and self-preserving Dream Cream sales between 2014 and 2022, and self-preserving Ultrabland sales since January 2022 and December 2022. 

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