Do I Need Preservatives In My Homemade Cleaning Products?

I’ve been reading a lot about the need for preservatives in homemade products, especially those made with water. I always use either distilled or boiled water and most of what I make is made in batches of 32oz or less. The main exception to that is my laundry detergent and fabric softener which I make in gallon batches. I want to make sure that the products I’m making are safe and are not spreading any germs, bacteria, etc.

My all purpose cleaner is:

  • Lemon vinegar
  • Borax
  • Dish soap
  • Water
My liquid laundry detergent is:

  • Borax
  • Washing soda
  • Water
  • Essential oils
  • Xanthan gum

Thank you so much for your help!
DIYin’ it in Dillon
Heather says

This is a fascinating question. Let’s define what a preservative is before we get caught up in the :spooky hand wave: idea of “chemicals”.*

*Yes, I used scare quotes intentionally

Preservatives play an important role in our lives and have been helpful in our evolution from lives that rely on hunting and gathering, to subsistence agriculture, into ones where food production is delegated to others. Food and other products are grown or produced and shipped to markets where we can buy them and consume at our leisure. 

What are preservatives?

The term preservative just means a substance used to prevent the decay of foodstuffs and other materials. Did you know that anything that inhibits the growth of the bacteria that break down organic matter is a preservative? This includes things like table salt and sugar. Bacteria usually have a thin enough cell wall for water to pass. In solutions with high concentrations of sugar or salt, the bacteria can’t keep enough water in the cell to grow or multiply. Molds are a little tougher than bacteria and can grow and multiply in less optimal conditions. And if you think about it, penicillin is a mold and an antibacterial agent.

But what about cleaning products?

I know you asked about cleaning products specifically, not food. My point is more that preservatives aren’t necessarily dangerous chemicals and too much of anything that we consider benign can be harmful. Drink enough water in one sitting and you can die of water poisoning. Cut up enough lemons or pineapples without gloves and your hands will be raw the next day. 

I am so much fun at parties.

Using distilled or boiled water to make your cleaning products absolutely reduces your need to add a preservative to your cleaning products, if the containers they are stored in have also been sterilized.

 That said, you don’t live in a sterile environment, and bacteria will show up eventually. 

The borax in your recipes is a preservative and emulsifier—it helps keep everything in solution. The commercial dish soap likely already has preservatives in it, too.

When you buy commercially made organic products that disclose having preservatives in their ingredients the purpose is to extend the shelf life to the expected two years. The liquid soap you buy today was not manufactured yesterday and has likely had a long trip from the point of origin to a warehouse, to the store. If turnover isn’t high, it could have been sitting there for a long time.

If you aren’t using organic dish soap, you likely have preservatives like methylisothiazolinone in your solution.

Do you need additional preservatives in your cleaners?

Perhaps, if you use the product slowly. If you live in a busy household with a lot of turnover, you’re likely fine. If you notice your product breaking down, discard it and make a fresh batch. 

Additionally please use extra care around the food contact surfaces in your home. Salmonella is no one’s friend. 

For more on household chemicals check out:

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