Earth Mama's Take on Preservatives, Detergents and Reformulations! Oh My!

What is a preservative? When do personal care products need one and how do you decide which preservative to use? Oh and why does Earth Mama® make organic castile soap instead of detergent shampoos and washes? We love a good flurry of questions, so we’ll just get right down to the answers.

Why do personal care products need a preservative anyway?

Lotions and creams are a blend of oil and water, just like mayonnaise. But unlike refrigerated mayonnaise, personal care products that are going to have a shelf life longer than a week need to be preserved. It’s just as simple as that. Without a preservative, your lovely blend of rich organic oils and water would turn into a toxic soup that is a perfect culture medium for bacteria, mold and yeast – not a good thing to be putting on your baby.

The reason you don’t see a preservative on the label of oil-based balms and salves is because they are made without water and they don’t need one. Bacteria need oxygen to grow and flourish, so salves or balms like Organic Nipple Butter or Organic Diaper Balm that aren’t made with water don’t need a preservative. No water=no bacteria. If you’re looking for a moisturizer for your or your baby’s skin and want a product with no preservatives, balms or oils are your best bet.

What preservative does Earth Mama use?

Earth Mama’s lotions are preserved using a certified organic alcohol extract of herbs. In essence they are organic herbal tinctures, extracting the beneficial qualities of the herbs and using the organic alcohol base to preserve the lotions. We make our own extracts so we know no other preservative is added to the extracts – only certified organic alcohol infused with certified organic Calendula and Rooibos. This process is certified to the NSF standard so we know it meets both our stringent requirements and the NSF’s quality control standards. I chose to use this organic herbal extract because in my opinion, it is the best and safest preservative system of any option I’ve seen to date.

What About Earth Mama soaps and shampoos? Are there preservatives in those?

Earth Mama chooses to make true castile soaps instead of detergent shampoos and body washes. The reason is that pure castile soap doesn’t need any added preservatives, emulsifiers or synthetic foaming agents. Saponified soap is naturally sudsy, and because the pH is high enough, it naturally preserves itself. We have done both in vitro (test tube or culture dish) and in vivo (human) testing on our body washes and shampoo to ensure they are safe, mild and naturally preserved.

We’re not saying all detergent washes or shampoos are bad. We’re saying that the purest way we know to cleanse a little body is to wash it with a pure castile soap. Read more about the difference between soap and detergents here.

Why do companies reformulate?

As more and more consumers educate themselves about safe products for their families, companies look for safer and safer ways to make their products. That’s a good thing! And in my experience companies usually reformulate for one of three reasons, efficacy, safety and cost:

  1. The new formula works better. As more trusted, accessible research becomes available, companies have new information about how to improve the safety or the effectiveness of their product. Is there new research that documents one herb is more effective than another? Is there updated safety information about a particular raw material? Is there feedback from customers about the way a product works? These are all valid reasons to consider reformulating a product. With very few exceptions, the products Earth Mama now manufactures are not exactly the same as the original formulas. Our goal is to make each version an improvement on the previous one.
  2. It’s safer. The second reason to reformulate is because a company finds new evidence of an even safer raw material than what’s currently being used. Companies choose the best ingredients they can until they are presented with better options. Ideally the main motivation for change/reformulating is to improve quality AND cost, for the company and the consumer. Safety is one of the best reasons to rely on products that are certified to a high standard (like to the USDA/NOP or NSF standard). Every raw material in those certified products is being evaluated, approved and monitored by an independent certifier to assure quality. Nothing keeps a company as honest about safety and transparency better than consumer education and an independent assessor
  3. It’s cheaper. Finding less expensive raw materials isn’t always a bad thing. But let’s face it – buying certified organic raw materials is just plain more expensive than manufacturing products with cheaper, synthetic ones. If a company can reformulate their products using equally safe and equally effective raw materials that cost less, the savings can be passed on to the consumer. As with every business, it’s a continual goal to balance cost control and increase profitability along with product improvement for either safety or efficacy. Not all companies consider purity among their main goals, but Earth Mama does.

Why can’t a company tell consumers immediately when products have been reformulated?

As a manufacturer, I find it very difficult to know when to make a product change announcement. The product you buy off of a store shelf can be anywhere from 2 days to a year or more since it left the production facility. Right now Earth Mama has changes that have been in process for months and months. Two years ago we made changes to our Sweet Orange Baby Lotion and upgraded the emulsifier so that it became the very first lotion certified to the NSF organic standard. Not only did we improve the emulsifier, but the process we used to make our own preservative and lotion is now certified organic. We announced the change as soon as we had the finished product labeled with the new labels, and sitting in our shipping department ready to be shipped. But we already had thousands of bottles of the previous formula on store shelves and in the distribution pipeline. It would take weeks for stores to get the new version that we were able to sell on our website.

We have an example currently in the works. We have once again changed our lotion emulsifier to one that is gluten-free, something many mamas have requested. It’s currently available in one size bottle, but not the other size bottle. Do we talk about it now? Or do we wait? It’s tricky. Not deceitful, but tricky. You don’t want to confuse your customer about what exists, when two different things can exist at the same time. We don’t want the gluten-free mamas assuming a lotion is gluten-free while we are still selling the previous version that is formulated with wheat protein instead of oat protein. So there sometimes CAN be an honest lapse, and making sure consumers have the best information can be a challenge.

That said, it should always be expected that what’s in the container is absolutely, 100% the same thing that is on the label, no matter what. Since companies expect the consumer to accept responsibility for knowing if they have an allergy or sensitivity, the consumer should be able to count on the label accurately representing the contents.

Navigating the waters of product formulation isn’t easy, organic or not. That’s one of the many reasons we love social media. It’s immediate. If people have questions, we can answer them in real time. Challenging? Yes. But we think it’s worth the effort. I sincerely hope we’ve given you some useful answers. And if you have more, please ask, whether by Facebook, Twitter, phone or email, we want you to know what you need to know.

Spreading Peace, Love and Nipple Butter for All,



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