A beginners guide to self-preserving

Self-preserving means that products 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 are self-preserving cosmetics?

Once upon a time, cosmetics would be treated like food: made at home using ingredients from the cupboard or blended fresh to order at your local apothecary. Clearly the days of popping down to your local physician for a bespoke cold cream have passed but at Lush we don’t see why customers should have to settle for less than fresh. That’s why we have built our entire business infrastructure around making small batches of fresh and predominantly self-preserving products that do not require added synthetic preservatives a majority of the time. 

“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.”

What does self-preserving mean to Lush?

Formalities first. Lush applies the term ‘self-preserving’ to our products that are formulated to stay fresh and effective without added synthetic preservatives listed under Annex V of the EU Cosmetic Regulations (EC) No 1223/2009.

That means through clever formulation, quick dispatch from our factories, and shorter shelf lives, we’re able to deliver products to our customers that stay durable and fresh without the help of added synthetic preservatives: antimicrobial ingredients that are added to limit spoilage and contamination. Many conventional cosmetics typically require these because they are stored in warehouses for months. But not ours.

Self-preserving isn’t quite the same as ‘preservative-free’, although they share some characteristics. Self-preserving products may contain ingredients that have naturally antimicrobial properties, such as essential oils, salts or honey. Some ingredients reduce the water content of a product, which in turn adds to its self-preserving properties (microbes love water). Another consideration is that some fragrance materials listed under Annex III of the EU Cosmetic Regulations such as benzyl alcohol are also listed as preservatives under Annex V. We accept these materials in self-preserving formulas if their preservative effect is likely to be insignificant, due to the very small concentrations present in a product.

Benzyl alcohol, for example, is a sweet-smelling constituent of essential oils like ylang ylang and jasmine, that is naturally occurring but we also sometimes add to the perfume of a product to enhance the experience for a customer. We always indicate on our quantitative ingredients list whether compounds like this are added by us (printed in black) or naturally occurring (printed in green) so you can feel fully informed.

That’s the formal bit. Now for the lovely stuff. 

Self-preserving products: what’s (not) in it for you?

Generally speaking, we like to tell you what’s in your products rather than tell you what’s not but just sometimes talking about the lack of something is necessary. There’s no denying that preservatives are sometimes essential to keep a product stable, hygienic and effective throughout use. This is why you’ll see that some of our products, like our lotion and cream-based sunscreens which may be subjected to increased temperatures or products intended for use around the eyes, are preserved. Where we use a preservative, we do so in minimal concentrations, which is why our preserved products still tend to have short shelf lives compared to what you might be used to.

What is the shelf life of self-preserving products?

It is our belief that a huge number of preserved products on the market benefit the manufacturer, not the consumer. Preservatives enable a manufacturer to make bulk batches of product more cheaply and store them for longer before they sell it. As a number of manufacturers do not own their own factories and outsource this work instead, it is clearly beneficial for them to add preservatives to maximise shelf life.

We have an entirely different business model because we invent and make our own products by hand in small batches, right down to the fragrance, as well as owning our own factories. This gives us total control over the process.

The compromise for the customer is products with shorter shelf lives, though choice is available. A self-preserving fresh face mask stored between 2°C and 8°C in the fridge has a shelf life of 28 days, a self-preserving face and body mask like bestselling Mask Of Magnaminty up to four months. A self-preserving facial moisturiser like Peace will last you nine months, a solid self-preserving facial serum like Full Of Grace 14 months. 

We believe these shorter shelf lives are worth it for the quality and freshness of the ingredients and because they reduce our manufacturing staff and customers’ exposure to preservatives, which are materials we would all rather do without. There are several reasons we prefer to limit our use of these ingredients.

Caring for your microbiome and your health

Your microbiome is a complex ecosystem of bacteria, viruses, fungi and yeasts that live on your skin, with around a million microorganisms making their home on each square centimetre of adult skin. These invisible lifeforms protect you from pathogens and form an important part of your skin barrier. With this in mind, we have long been concerned that preservatives put in cosmetics to target microbes can also affect this delicate ecosystem. Research shows us that common preservatives can and do act against the species that make up your microbiome as well as pathogens, although more clinical research is needed in this area. Still, if you consider the number of preserved products you may use on your skin every day, (with one study suggesting that 85% of American women tended to apply at least 16 products before leaving home) that’s a lot of potential upset caused to your microbiome.

Small amounts of preservatives are also absorbed systemically through the skin. These tiny amounts add up over time, which is why we believe it makes sense to only use a preservative where absolutely necessary. Lush Co-Founder and Product Inventor Helen Ambrosen explains, “Our in-house toxicologist recommends that preservatives are not harmless and it is better if we can avoid them. 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.”

Leaving the world Lusher than we found it

Because cosmetic products are not generally designed to be absorbed (unlike medicines) the amounts that are not absorbed through our skin can instead be washed down the drain during washing and showering. These then enter our water system and become part of a cycle that is essential to life on earth. Aquatic plants and animals exposed to chemicals inside like preservatives then pass them on to other animals (like humans) higher in the food chain. This process is known as bioaccumulation.

Water treatment facilities are in place to remove harmful materials but they cannot eradicate every trace of these materials, which can be detected in bodies of water, commonly rivers. Preservatives can adhere to sewage sludge, undergo fast biodegradation or form chlorinated byproducts that can harm marine life and ultimately also risk human health. So, all in all, we think it is better to avoid their use where we can.

Value for money

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! For example, our self-preserving Mask Of Magnaminty Power Mask contains over 25 percent honey (which has humectant, hydrating properties), compared to the preserved version, which contains over 5 percent honey. A less diluted product can also go further (take our shampoo bars, for example, which last double the time of a 250g liquid shampoo).*

With all these reasons to go self-preserving, Lush is firm in the belief that it is beneficial for customers, staff and the environment, and committed to challenging the status quo of the cosmetics industry.  “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.”

* Based on a survey from 136 Lush employees.

References

Barton, S et al, 2021. Discovering Cosmetic Science, Royal Society of Chemistry.

Qian Wang MS, 2019. ‘Effect of cosmetic chemical preservatives on resident flora isolated from healthy facial skin’, Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, Volume 18, Issue 2.

Pinto, D et al, 2021. ‘Effect of commonly used cosmetic preservatives on skin resident microflora dynamics, Scientific Reports, volume 11, Article number: 8695.

Jin-Ju Jeong et al, 2015. ‘Effects of Cosmetics and Their Preservatives on the Growth and Composition of Human Skin Microbiota’, Journal of Society of Cosmetic Scientists of Korea, Volume 41, Issue 2.

Mafra AL et al 2022. ‘The contrasting effects of body image and self-esteem in the makeup usage’, PLoS One, Volume 17, Issue 3.

Juliano, C et al 2017. ‘Cosmetic Ingredients as Emerging Pollutants of Environmental and Health Concern. A Mini-Review’, Cosmetics, Volume 4, Issue 11.

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