Preservatives are biocidal chemicals added to cosmetics, topical medicaments, consumer goods, foods, and industrial products to protect them against microbial spoilage and to protect the consumer against infection. The ideal preservative, both effective and devoid of irritant or sensitizing potential, is still to be discovered. The present paper reviews the most important classes of preservatives, namely parabens, formaldehyde-releasers, and isothiazolinones. The author also discusses newer agents such as Euxyl K 400 and isopropynyl butylcarbamate. Each preservative is described in terms of chemical and physical characteristics, antimicrobial efficacy, exposure, cutaneous adverse reactions, patch testing concentrations, patterns of cross-reactions, and reported rates of sensitization. The history of preservatives goes back to the 1930s, and ironically, the parabens, which the industry has sought to replace with "safer" alternatives, are still the most frequently used biocides in cosmetics and appear to be far less sensitizing than most of the newer agents.