Preservatives | Uses, Benefits, and Chemical Safety Facts

Preservatives

The term “preservatives” refers to the functional name for a wide variety of compounds that help slow or prevent bacterial growth in a wide range of products, including foods, medicines, and personal care products. These compounds can be natural or synthetic. Preservatives play important roles in many products people use every day – for example, by helping prevent the growth of harmful microorganisms and protect products from spoilage or contamination.

Uses & Benefits

Preservatives in Food

Preservatives are added to food to fight spoilage caused by bacteria, molds, fungus, and yeast. Preservatives can keep food fresher for longer periods of time, extending its shelf life. Food preservatives also are used to slow or prevent changes in color, flavor or texture and delay rancidity.

Preservatives in Medicine and Pharmaceuticals

Preservatives are used commonly in medicines such as acetaminophen, insulin and cough syrup to help prevent microbial contamination. Simply, preservatives help prevent the growth of microorganisms, particularly bacteria and fungi, which may cause disease or infection.

Preservatives in Cosmetics and Personal Care Products

Preservatives in cosmetics and personal care products help prevent contamination and the growth of harmful bacteria in products ranging from sunscreens, lotions and shampoos to cleansers, toothpaste and makeup.

Antimicrobial preservatives in cosmetics and personal care products help prevent the growth of molds, yeasts and bacteria, guarding against contamination that can cause irritation or infections. Antioxidant preservatives also can help keep personal care products from spoiling by suppressing reactions that can occur when certain ingredients in a cosmetic or personal care product combine with oxygen in the presence of light, heat and some metals.

Preservatives in Wood

Wood treated with preservatives can be used to build telephone poles, road signs and marine pilings as well as decks, play structures and raised garden beds.

Safety Information

Safety of Preservatives in Food

The use of preservatives in food products is strictly studied, regulated and monitored by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Federal regulations require evidence that food additives are safe for their intended use.

Preservatives in foods are subject to ongoing safety review by FDA as scientific understanding and methods of testing continue to improve.

Safety of Preservatives in Cosmetics and Personal Care Products

In contrast to foods, with the exception of color additives, cosmetic products and ingredients including preservatives do not need FDA premarket approval. FDA can take action against products on the market that are not in compliance with the law; for example, if the product contains any poisonous or harmful substance. FDA monitors companies that conduct product recalls and can request a product recall if the company does not issue a recall on its own.

Safety of Preservatives in Medicine and Pharmaceuticals

Preservatives in medicines and drugs are generally considered to be “inactive ingredients” by FDA. Inactive ingredients (such as dyes, preservatives, and flavoring agents) are parts of a drug or medicine that do not affect the therapeutic action of the active ingredients. FDA’s Inactive Ingredient Database provides information on inactive ingredients present in FDA-approved drug products.

FDA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other federal agencies regularly monitor and conduct research on vaccine safety.

Answering Questions

What are the uses of food preservatives and what do food preservatives do?

Preservatives are added to food to fight spoilage caused by bacteria, molds, fungus, and yeast. Preservatives also help keep food fresh for longer periods of time.

What are preservatives made of?

Preservatives can be made of “natural” chemicals such as salt or alcohol. They can also be man-made, or synthetic chemicals. “Natural” or “organic” chemicals are not necessarily healthier than synthetic or man-made chemicals. In fact, artificial preservatives such as sodium nitrate, sodium benzoate and propionate have long been used in food preparation because they are effective in small amounts.

How are additives and food preservatives approved for use in foods?

Today, food and color additives, including preservatives, are more strictly studied, regulated and monitored than at any other time in history, and FDA has the primary legal responsibility for determining their safe use. To add a new food preservative to the market, or before using a substance already approved for one use in another application, the manufacturer or other sponsor must obtain approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and provide scientific data demonstrating that the substance is safe for its intended use.

Why are preservatives added to foods?

Preservatives are added to foods to help prevent or slow spoilage due to bacteria, molds, fungi or yeast, as well as to slow or prevent changes in the food’s color, flavor or texture, delay rancidity, and maintain freshness.

Why are preservatives used in vaccines?

Preservatives kill, prevent, or slow the growth of microorganisms, particularly bacteria and fungi, which may cause disease or infection. Studies have found that there is no convincing scientific evidence that the low dose of thimerosal as a preservative in vaccines causes harm, except for possible minor reactions like redness and swelling at the injection site. The FDA offers information about the safety of thimerosal.

What is sodium benzoate?

In acidic drinks like sodas and fruit juices, sodium benzoate is an antimicrobial preservative and flavoring agent that can inhibit the growth of bacteria, mold and yeast. It is found naturally in cranberries, prunes, apples and some spices. Sodium benzoate can also be used to lubricate pills and tablets for medicines.

What are nitrites? Why are they used as preservatives?

Nitrites (such as sodium nitrite or sodium nitrate) are preservatives used to prevent bacteria in lunch meats and other cured meats. In a typical person’s diet, 80 percent of nitrites come from vegetables such as spinach, radishes and lettuce. Nitrites also deter botulism to some degree. FDA has stated that the food preservative sodium nitrate can be safely used in or on specified foods.

What are sulphites? Why are they used as preservatives?

Sulphites such as sulphur dioxide are types of salts widely used for their preservative and antioxidant properties. In food, these are found predominantly in dried fruits and vegetables, soft drinks and alcoholic beverages.

What are parabens? Why are they used as preservatives?

Parabens are preservatives that help to protect against the growth of bacteria, fungi and yeast. Parabens are derived from para-hydroxybenzoic acid (PHBA), which occurs naturally in many fruits and vegetables. According to FDA, there is “no reason for consumers to be concerned about the use of cosmetics containing parabens.”

What is formaldehyde? Why is it used as a preservative?

Formaldehyde is a simple chemical compound made of hydrogen, oxygen and carbon. All life forms – bacteria, plants, fish, animals and humans – naturally produce formaldehyde. As a preservative, formaldehyde is well known for its anti-bacterial properties, helping to prevent the growth of bacteria and other pathogens and extend shelf life when it is added as a product ingredient.