Fresh fruits and vegetables against a white background.

What Are Preservatives and Should I Be Avoiding Them?

Preservatives are substances, both natural and artificial, that are added to a variety of goods in order to prevent premature decomposition and to prolong their shelf life. It is common to find preservatives in a large variety of foods and cosmetics. But what some may not know is that preservatives are also added to non-conventional items such as pharmaceuticals and wood.

Types of Preservatives

There are two types of preservatives: natural and artificial/chemical. Both aim to preserve the life of an item, though they can differ in many ways. However, both use the same preservation methods:


  • Antimicrobial: Prevents the growth of microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi.
  • Antioxidants: Slows down or entirely stops the oxidation process.
  • Enzymes: Halts the expiration of cosmetics and like products.

Natural preservatives are primarily used in foods and beverages to help reduce rotting and preserve the item’s color and flavor. However, they are also found in cosmetics and other hygiene products. Common examples of natural preservatives include:

  • Aloe vera;
  • Citric acid;
  • Lemon juice;
  • Rosemary extract;
  • Sodium;
  • Sorbic acid;
  • Sugar.

Artificial/chemical preservatives are man-made substances that are added to numerous products to extend their shelf life. While they too are created to prevent foods from spoiling and help them retain their shape and color, they are oftentimes filled with chemicals. Common examples of chemical preservatives include:

  • Antimicrobial agents;
  • Antioxidants;
  • Benzoates;
  • Chelating agents;
  • Nitrates;
  • Propionates;
  • Sorbates;
  • Sulfites.

Uses of Preservatives

While artificial and natural preservatives serve a similar purpose — to extend the shelf life of products — the way in which they’re used varies depending on the product the preservative is added to. For instance, preservatives added to makeup products serve a different purpose than those that are added to food.

Preservatives in Food

Food has a natural expiration process that is the result of bacteria, fungus, and molds taking over the food. By adding preservatives, whether they be natural, artificial, or a combination of both — it prevents these foods from expiring as fast. Preservatives are also used to help keep the food color, shape, smell, and size — which can make the food item more appealing to the consumer.

This is a practice frequently found in fast food chains and grocery stores. Most consumers may be aware of the numerous preservatives that are added to food, however, this doesn’t seem to affect fast-food consumption in the United States. In fact, fast-food consumption continues to rise, despite the public’s awareness of potentially harmful ingredients.

Intaking too many artificial preservatives, no matter where they come from can lead to numerous health complications such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). This is why it is important to limit or avoid these foods entirely when trying to mitigate reflux or control symptoms.

Preservatives in Medicine and Pharmaceuticals

Preservatives are used in medicine and pharmaceuticals to help prevent microbial contamination. This is most commonly found in over-the-counter medicines such as acetaminophen and cough syrup.

Examples of antimicrobial preservatives that can be found in pharmaceuticals are:

  • Acids (benzoic, sodium benzoate, sorbic acid);
  • Alcohols;
  • Parabens;
  • Phenols.

Examples of antioxidant preservatives that can be found in pharmaceuticals are:


  • Phenolic antioxidants;
  • True-antioxidants.

Preservatives in Cosmetics

In makeup and other personal and hygiene products (i.e. shampoo, conditioner, cleansers, etc.), preservatives are used to prevent and slow down bacteria growth and product breakdown. Most of the preservatives in cosmetics are artificial/chemical-based. However, this doesn’t go to say that there aren’t natural preservatives in cosmetics. In fact, there are brands that are dedicated to creating all-natural products that are free of chemicals and artificial preservatives. Examples of preservatives that can be found in cosmetics include:

  • Formaldehyde;
  • Isothiazolinones;
  • Organic acids (benzoic acid, sorbic acid);
  • Parabens;
  • Phenoxyethanol.

Preservatives in Wood

Although it may sound strange, preservatives are often added to wood, and for a good purpose. Doing so prevents the wood from splintering, rotting, and breaking — which is especially important in wooden structures like powerline/telephone poles, fences, and patios.

Preservatives that can be found in wood are:

  • Acid Copper Chromate (ACC)
  • ACQ
  • Borates
  • Copper azole
  • Copper naphthenate
  • Polymeric betaine.
  • Propiconazole
  • Triadimefon

Side Effects of Preservatives

While some preservatives are necessary, others can have harmful side effects. Examples of positive side effects of preservatives (natural preservatives) include the slowing of oxidation in foods. They also allow for a variety of foods to be available year-round, improve nutritional value, and can enhance the flavor of the food. Unfortunately, when it comes to preservatives, the negative side effects outweigh the good. Common negative effects of food additives and preservatives (caused by artificial preservatives) include, but certainly aren’t limited to:

  • Induced breathing problems like asthma;
  • Hyperactive behavior in children;
  • Weakened heart tissue;
  • Contain cancer-causing food additives such as BHA and BHT;
  • Increase the chances of obesity;
  • Loss of important nutritional value.
  • Headaches;
  • Decreased energy levels;
  • Alterations in mental concentration;
  • Cancer;
  • Cardiovascular disease;
  • Other degenerative conditions.

It is also possible that the overconsumption of artificial preservatives could contribute to some of the signs and symptoms of GERD, including:

  • Heartburn;
  • Difficulty swallowing;
  • Regurgitation;
  • Gas and bloating;
  • Pain or discomfort in the chest;
  • Intolerance of certain foods and liquids.

If you do find yourself with these symptoms, consult with your doctor for an official diagnosis. While there are plenty of GERD treatment options that require only dietary or other lifestyle changes, chronic or acute symptoms may call for medical therapy or even surgical intervention.

The Final Verdict on Preservatives

Depending on the type of preservative and how they’re used, they can, in fact, be extremely beneficial. But when used incorrectly or too frequently, preservatives are extremely harmful. To prevent any confusion, it is better to avoid any and all unnatural preservatives entirely. You can start by eating healthy, reviewing ingredients in your cosmetics, and researching questionable additives that you may not be aware of.