There seem to be 3 preservatives that go hand in hand. I see them everywhere. You’ll be hard pressed to find a food or body care item that doesn’t contain 1, 2, or all 3 of these preservatives. Those 3 preservatives are phenoxyethanol, sodium benzoate, and potassium sorbate. I have discussed sodium benzoate before and why we should avoid it. Today I want to discuss potassium sorbate.
According to the EWG (Environmental Working Group), “Potassium sorbate is a potassium salt of sorbic acid, a naturally occurring antimicrobial compound; used as a preservative. The EWG gives this compound a rating of 3 (not terrible, but not fantastic either. If you aren’t familiar with the EWG rating scale the lower the rating the safer the ingredient. 0-2 is “low hazard.”). Now I know what you’re probably thinking. “A naturally occurring antimicrobial compound?”–how is that so terrible? Well, actually, according to Wikipedia, “While sorbic acid is naturally occurring in some berries, virtually all of the world’s production of sorbic acid, from which potassium sorbate is derived, is manufactured synthetically.” I’ll spare you the details of how it’s produced because it mainly involves big confusing words. The point is that it is completely manufactured. (Click here if you really do want to know how it’s made).
This preservative (also written as E202, PS, and KS) is used to inhibit mold and bacteria and to create a longer shelf life for products and/or food items. It’s in wine, ciders, dried fruits, dried meats, spices, vitamins and supplements, cheeses, yogurts, soaps, shampoos, lotions, make up, and many other items. Start reading your labels and you’ll probably notice it popping up everywhere.
**Random side note. Watch out for dried fruits and get the non-sorbate fruits if you can. Trader Joe’s has yummy non-sorbate pitted prunes that I LOVE.**
So, what harm can/does potassium sorbate cause? Potassium sorbate is a skin, eye and respiratory irritant. It can also cause contact dermatitis. So if you are super sensitive I would look for personal care products without this preservative. I would try to avoid it in food items as over time it can cause diarrhea, nausea, and nutrient loss in food. Now here is the thing. I have spent several hours researching potassium sorbate. Many sources say it’s one of the safest preservatives out there. However, other sources say it’s not as safe as it seems. My advice: LIMIT it where you can. Especially with food (*One easy way is to avoid buying foods that require long shelf lives. Or buy organic; It’s not allowed to be used in organic food).
While researching for this post I stumbled upon a study that was done in Turkey that showed that potassium sorbate is both genotoxic and mutagenic to human blood cells. These experiments were done in vitro. The study showed that “Potassium sorbate is found to be toxic to human DNA in peripheral blood lymphocytes, and hence found that it negatively affects immunity.” Yikes. So basically it tends to damage DNA molecules by forming mutagenic compounds. However, the FDA still gives it a GRAS (generally regarded as safe) rating.
Also after some digging I found that PS is made up of heavy metals including lead, aldehydes (as in formaldehyde), mercury, and even arsenic. However I couldn’t find much more info about it than that. Sorry if that wasn’t super helpful but wanted to let you know what I found under full disclosure.
Ok. So time for some honesty. There is so much conflicting information online. Many sites say PS is quite safe. Others say it alters DNA. How do I personally feel about it? Well, I’ll admit something. I do continue to buy a few things (pretty much ONLY non food items) that contain potassium sorbate. And here is why.
First off, I KNOW that I can make my own soap, body wash, scrubs, shampoos, lotions, etc. Obviously making your own would guarantee that your products are free of potassium sorbate (unless you are unusual and actually buy that stuff. Well, actually people that make their own wine might buy it…but anyways…). However, I’m not to the point in my life where I am up to making everything from scratch. So I look for the “better” products to buy.
Secondly, (store-bought) body care products do need SOME kind of preservative in them. You know you wouldn’t be happy to open your shampoo in the shower and squirt out a big handful of mold. Sometimes the mold/bacteria can be more dangerous than the preservative used to prevent it!! Plus, companies produce a large quantity of products and have to ship them and then they sit on store shelves. So they have to preserve it somehow or by the time it gets to you it would be spoiled. So I get that. Are there safer preservatives? Yes, probably. I know that Vitamin E Oil (aka Tocopherol) is often used as a more natural preservative (and it’s rated a 1 from the EWG. Yay!). But nonetheless, many companies still use PS.
Lastly, I still continue to use a few products with potassium sorbate as the preservative because it is used by many companies as an alternative to parabens. And let me tell you- I’ll pick potassium sorbate over parabens ANY day. We haven’t covered parabens yet but just know that they are terrible and should always always be avoided. Especially in baby items (stay away from Huggies wipes! They contain parabens!). Side note: there are many kinds of parabens: methylparaben, butylparaben, ethylparaben etc. Proplyparaben is probably the worst as it rates a 10 from the EWG. I hope to cover parabens soon because they are SO incredibly dangerous. Anyways, I appreciate companies that completely avoid parabens and although I’m not crazy about potassium sorbate at least it’s not as dangerous as parabens. So see– baby steps. Life is about growing and changing and making better choices. I’m excited about any step in the right direction. 🙂