What is a preservative?

Preservatives are ingredients that help to slow or prevent the growth of potentially harmful microbes, including bacteria, yeasts, and molds. They are added to household products to protect the product’s integrity by preventing contamination and prolonging shelf life.

Preservatives are antimicrobial ingredients, which serve a different purpose from sanitizers and disinfectants. Preservatives prevent microbial growth inside a product during its shelf life. In contrast, sanitizers and disinfectants are designed to kill specific microbes, including bacteria, fungi, and viruses on surfaces, such as a countertop.  

Preservatives are critically important to prevent spoilage and ensure the safety, effectiveness, and sustainability of the products that we use to keep our families and homes healthy.

How do preservatives work? Why do products need preservatives?

Household products ― such as hard surface cleaners, dish soap, laundry products, paints, building materials, and air fresheners ― can spoil as a result of microbes. Microbes can contaminate products, making them un-useable, ineffective, or even harmful.

Some people may not realize that it is possible for common products used around the house to become contaminated with microbes. Because water is a main ingredient in these products, and microbes grow readily in water, this provides a desirable environment for bacteria, yeasts, and mold to grow.

Microbial contamination in consumer products can lead to a number of problems, including reduced performance and an off odor and/or appearance. In addition, microbial contamination in products may introduce unwanted bacteria and fungi to other areas of the home. Preservatives help to prevent this microbial growth, protecting the product’s integrity by ensuring it remains safe, useable, and effective.

In addition to preventing contamination and spoilage, preservatives help to extend the shelf life of products. Like food going moldy in your refrigerator, consumer products without preservatives may not last as long – maybe even just a few days or weeks. Preservatives help to ensure that a product is available and effective when you need it.

Having a longer shelf life also helps to reduce waste. When a product lasts longer, you are able to use it until it is finished rather than throwing it away.

Are preservatives safe? How are preservatives regulated?

Preservatives require registration by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). As part of this process, preservatives are tested to ensure they don’t have any unintended consequences for humans or the environment. The EPA also routinely re-reviews the science behind  preservative chemistries as part of its comprehensive Registration Review schedule.

Every substance has some level of risk and has the potential to be harmful. For example, drinking too much water in one sitting can cause water poisoning, and eating too much table salt can increase your blood pressure and cause strain on your heart, arteries, kidneys, and brain. This is why continued review of ingredients is so important to ensuring consumer product safety.

The same is true for preservatives, which is why the amount and way they’re used are so important. The EPA sets regulations which mandate a minimum level to ensure effectiveness in preserving products, as well as a maximum level to ensure consumer safety. Companies responsibly formulate products to provide effective preservation, as well as comply with these federal regulations, which are in place to protect consumers and the environment.

Even though preservatives represent a small percentage of a product’s formulation, they play a crucial role in preventing spoilage and ensuring the product works as it’s designed for as long as possible (instead of sending it to a landfill).

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