What Is Sodium Benzoate?
Sodium benzoate is used as a preservative to prevent food from molding. It's added to a wide variety of foods, including mayonnaise, margarine, carbonated drinks, jams and jellies, sauces, and tomato paste.
It helps keep products shelf-stable for at least 2 years from the date of purchase and is used in concentrations of less than 0.5% by volume.
It's used in other household products, too, including mouthwash, lotion, and as a preservative in some medicines.
According to the FDA, you'd need exposure to about 180 times the amount of sodium benzoate an average person gets before you'd have health problems.
What Is Benzene?
Sodium benzoate is considered safe, but scientists have shown that negative side effects happen when it's mixed with ascorbic acid (vitamin C).
Their studies show that it turns into benzene, a chemical that may cause cancer. Benzene occurs naturally and also results from human activities. Forest fires and volcanoes produce benzene. It's in gasoline and cigarette smoke.
You can be exposed to benzene from car exhaust, and emissions from gas stations and factories. At home, benzene might come from detergents, paint, glue, or furniture wax.
In the 1990s, the FDA learned that benzene was present in some soft drinks. Some drink makers used sodium benzoate and ascorbic acid in their formulas. Starting in 2005, the FDA tested more than 200 soft drinks for benzene. Benzene above what's considered a safe level was found in 10 products. The government has worked with manufacturers to tweak their formulas where needed. The new formulas were tested, and all met the standards.
Sodium Benzoate Uses
All kinds of products contain sodium benzoate.
Sodium benzoate in food
In the food industry, sodium benzoate is used to prevent spoilage from harmful bacteria, yeast, and mold. It also helps maintain freshness in food by helping to slow or prevent changes in color, flavor, pH, and texture.
Some foods that commonly include sodium benzoate include:
- Salad dressings
- Fruit juices
- Snack foods
Sodium benzoate in drinks
Sodium benzoate is used as a preservative in soft drinks to increase the acidity flavor and as a preservative to extend shelf life. In Coca-Cola, sodium benzoate, potassium benzoate, and potassium sorbate are the three common preservatives. Sodium benzoate is used to protect the taste, and it's used to fight microbes. You also may find sodium benzoate in the ingredient lists of Fanta and Sprite, and it is used to preserve freshness in Pepsi carbonated soft drinks. But it’s used less in PepsiCo’s popular sodas, Diet Pepsi and Pepsi, which use potassium benzoate as the main preservative.
Sodium benzoate in cosmetics
Like food and drink products, cosmetics also need preservatives to prevent the growth of bacteria. Preservative-free, natural products cannot be stored for a long time.
Sodium benzoate in skin care
It's used as an anti-corrosive and preservative in skin care products such as moisturizers, serums, and sunscreens.
Sodium benzoate in shampoo
Shampoos and soaps also can contain sodium benzoate.
Other personal care products
Sodium benzoate's anti-corrosive and preservative properties lead to its use in mouthwash and baby wipes. To inhibit the growth of microbes in toothpaste, producers usually add a certain amount of preservatives. Sodium benzoate is often the best choice, compared with other commonly used preservatives in toothpaste because of its antimicrobial effect, safety, and price.
Sodium benzoate can also be used in pharmaceutical products for its antimicrobial properties, such as in tablets, capsules, and cough syrup.
Sodium Benzoate Side Effects
Sodium benzoate has been linked in the past to specific health concerns.
Sodium benzoate and cancer
When sodium benzoate is combined with vitamin C and exposed to high temperatures or light, the cancer-causing chemical benzene may form.
The FDA has not published more recent product analyses but has said that the low levels of benzene in beverages don’t pose a health risk. Long-term studies assessing the relationship between regularly consuming low levels of benzene and cancer risk are still lacking.
Sodium benzoate and pregnancy
It’s generally considered safe during pregnancy, but it's best to consult with your doctor before using products with sodium benzoate.
A small percentage of people may be hypersensitive to preservatives like sodium benzoate and may have the following allergic symptoms:
- Epidemiologically relevant (itching and swelling)
- Perioral contact urticaria (skin irritation like rosacea)
- Pruritus (an uncomfortable urge to scratch)
People who drank beverages containing high levels of sodium benzoate – like soda – reported an increase in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms.
A 2022 study found that preservatives such as sodium benzoate in foods and drinks can lead to inflammation in the body. This type of low-grade inflammation can be chronic in people with obesity.
Is Sodium Benzoate Safe?
Sodium benzoate is generally recognized as safe and can be used as an antimicrobial agent and flavoring agent in food; the maximum allowed amount is 0.1%. It’s also generally recognized as safe (GRAS) when used as a preservative in animal feed. If a product contains sodium benzoate, it must be included in the ingredient list.
The FDA considers the maximum allowable level for sodium benzoate in drinking water as 5 parts per billion.
The World Health Organization sets the allowable level for sodium benzoate in products at 0-5 milligrams per kilogram of your body weight per day.
Sodium Benzoate Alternatives
According to the FDA, if you're concerned about benzene exposure, avoid buying soft drinks that list both sodium benzoate and ascorbic acid or its chemical cousin, erythorbic acid.
You can limit your exposure to sodium benzoate by sticking with:
- Fresh fruit
- Vegetables (nothing pickled)
- Pressed fruit juice
Your body doesn’t accumulate sodium benzoate. Rather, you metabolize it, and it leaves your body in urine within 24 hours. That contributes to its safety.
Still, some people may be more sensitive to this additive. Consult a doctor if you suspect you have an allergy to sodium benzoate.
Sodium Benzoate FAQs
Is sodium benzoate harmful to humans?
Sodium benzoate is generally considered safe. The FDA has set guidelines for how much is allowed in various products.
Is sodium benzoate safe to swallow?
Unless you have a specific sensitivity to it, you're safe consuming sodium benzoate within the FDA guidelines.
Is sodium benzoate safe for skin?
In things like cosmetics and lotions, sodium benzoate keeps mold and other organisms from growing. It has antimicrobial properties and is considered safe.