Web Note: There is a rebuttal to this article posted below by Angelina Amalie.
I'm an active member of OCA, and an eager reader of the Organic Consumers Association's weekly Organic Bytes e-newsletter. On May 7, OCA published an article called "More on Parabens: Greenwashing With Honeysuckle Extract (read full article here)" by Eliza Moriarty
(editor's note: neither Shannon Schroter nor Eliza Moriarty are representatives of the Organic Consumers Association. The perspectives of both of these author's and their respective articles are their own).
The author asserts that companies using Japanese Honeysuckle extract as a preservative are doing so as a way to hide parabens in their products. She describes a particular honeysuckle preservative as "a highly processed and concentrated paraben extraction that may or may not be contaminated with synthetic parabens." As it happened, I had test results showing that the exact product she maligns actually does not contain any parabens. When I sent those test results to OCA, I was invited to submit a response to Moriarty's article.
Having lost two sisters to cancer, my mission at GratefulBody for the past 10 years has been to make the safest, purest skin care I possibly could. Because of this, I know that the intent of Moriarty's article is honorable. For she is right - things are not always as innocent as they seem, and anyone sincere about making or buying safe products has to be careful. But regarding this important issue, crucial clarifications need to be made. Here are the questions that I believe need to be addressed for the consumer to be able to make informed decisions about the ingredient Japanese Honeysuckle extract.
1. Is Japanese Honeysuckle extract spiked with synthetic parabens?
2. Does Japanese Honeysuckle in general, contain parabens, natural or synthetic?
3. Is Japanese Honeysuckle extract dangerous?
4. How can consumers protect themselves from concealed parabens?
1. Is Japanese Honeysuckle extract spiked with synthetic parabens? No, it is not. At least not the CO2 extract of the Japanese Honeysuckle flower (Lonicera japonica) which Moriarty wrote about. When we first explored the possibility of using Japanese Honeysuckle extract as one part of our multi-faceted botanical preservative system, we had this ingredient tested by a third-party, independent lab. The results were negative. Absolutely no detectable traces of any of the parabens, which include methyparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben.
2. Does Japanese Honeysuckle in general, contain parabens, natural or synthetic? To answer this, we must establish a protocol of word usage. The word paraben was coined by laboratory scientists who had succeeded in developing a synthetic preservative based on a common substance found in nature: para-hydroxy benzoic acid. But let's go deeper into this. Para-hydroxy benzoic acid is found everywhere in nature, it is present in most plants, in many animals and insects. Nature seems to use this substance to help the organism protect itself against bacterial and microbial intrusion. This very biological activity is probably what gave laboratory scientists the idea to look at para-hydroxy benzoic acid as a model for developing preservative ingredients. Interestingly, the phytochemical para-hydroxy benzoic acid found in plants is not strong enough by itself to be considered a powerful, effective, multi-purpose preservative for industrial purposes. For this to happen, the original substance had to be altered in the laboratory - boosted if you will. If you look at the molecular structure of the para-hydroxy benzoic acid found in Japanese Honeysuckle, one sees a classic carbon ring bond - elegant and simple. But if you look at the molecular structure of methyparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben or butylparaben, one is immediately struck by the additional CH3 tail, sometimes called a methyl free-radical, that makes these substances completely different from the original phytochemical. It is this difference that makes the Moriarty's statement: "Japanese Honeysuckle is a natural source of parabens chemically identical to the synthetic variety" entirely untrue. And it is this difference that compels us to say that the word paraben refers ONLY to the chemically-altered, man-made substance. Therefore, we contend that there is no such thing as a natural paraben. In the conventional idiom, paraben has always referred to the synthetic substance. The word paraben was never originally used by any botanist, biologist, ethnobotanist or herbalist. The importance of this point cannot be stressed enough. It is the essential spirit and soul of a holistic viewpoint and for some reason, the current science paradigm does not understand it. You CANNOT take one or two active constituents out of the whole context of the dynamic and complex plant chemistry, copy it, synthesize it and then regard it as the same as the original plant. Japanese Honeysuckle extract is a complex blend of hundreds of related, connected and cooperating phytochemicals. Parabens are a synthetic copy of one particular phytochemical that happens to be found in countless manifestations in great nature. That is why we assert that there are no 'natural' parabens and therefore Japanese Honeysuckle extract has no parabens.
A couple more points . . .
- the Japanese Honeysuckle in question is a CO2 extract* of the honeysuckle flower. From a botanical purist point of view, this extraction method is sustainable, beneficial and preferable. The CO2 extract keeps the molecular integrity of the original phytochemical intact. It does not create synthetic isolates. Remember, all parabens are synthetic isolates. In sum, Japanese Honeysuckle does NOT contain parabens. Japanese Honeysuckle does contain para-hydroxy benzoic acid, a natural, beneficial phytochemical readily found in nature.
*CO2 extraction of plant matter is an innovative method of producing the purest plant extracts without the use of chemical solvents or high heat. During this process, pressurized carbon dioxide is pumped into a chamber that contains plant material, such as honeysuckle flowers, where it becomes a supercritical liquid that pulls the essence from the plant to create an unadulterated liquid extract.
- the author suggests that companies would choose Japanese Honeysuckle because it is cheap and a way to avoid more expensive and supposedly safer alternatives. I must say here that Japanese Honeysuckle CO2 extract is very expensive, in fact one of the most costly ingredients in our formulations. Because of this, I doubt any company wishing to cut corners and use cheaper ingredients would choose this ingredient.
3. Is Japanese Honeysuckle extract dangerous? No, it is not. At least, no more dangerous than other plant medicine extracts such as dandelion, calendula or yarrow. The plant Japanese Honeysuckle contains many hundreds of active, dynamic phytochemicals. It also contains high concentrations of the phytochemical para-hydroxy benzoic acid. But so do carrots and olive oil. Herbalists know that the reason certain plants have specific useful properties is because they have dense concentrations of certain natural phytochemicals. For example, yellowdock has a genetic predisposition for elemental iron - so the roots happily roam around in the soil looking for iron to uptake. Since yellowdock root therefore has this extravagant iron concentration, it tends to be used by practitioners for anemia and various blood and skin issues where bio-available iron would be helpful. To support our formulations, GratefulBody looks to nature to supply every function needed in any skin care product. We only use whole, plant preservatives; not only to protect our formulations but when dermally applied, to infuse this very same botanical virtue into our own bodies. Along with honeysuckle, nature supplies many wonderful solutions for this objective, turmeric, marigold, olive leaf, rosemary, thyme and acerola berries come to mind. GratefulBody has a formulating principle that guides us in all product development: follow the intelligence of nature, not the intellect of the laboratory.
4. How can consumers protect themselves from concealed parabens? This is a bit tricky since the industry is unregulated but there are a few suggestions that can help in choosing safe skin care products. First, judge an ingredient by the company it keeps. Examine ALL the ingredients. Is every ingredient a botanical? Does it truly reads like a garden recipe top to bottom that you'd be willing to eat? Or do you get the impression that the product is created from the 'better living through chemistry' paradigm? Does the product follow a common strategy of basically being a chemical soup but with a few token, trendy botanicals added to the mix? Second, do you find ingredients followed by the word 'from' or 'derived from'? For example: allantoin (from comfrey), ceteareth-20 (from coconuts), sodium laureth sulfate (from palm), silicone (from silica), parabens (from strawberries). This is a sure-fire clue that there is a labeling propensity to tie actual synthetics to a natural source - greenwashing via name dropping. Third, is the product found in discounter stores, national chains or supermarkets? Corporate operations put very intense margin pressure on vendors which often results in ingredient shortcuts or label shenanigans. Another clue is the company itself. Does it have a history of chemical skin care but now has a new business strategy to exploit the new and profitable green demographic? These are just suggestions but may indicate entrenched corporate standards that would rationalize deceptive practices. However, as Moriarty's article does demonstrate, if you really want completely pure and safe skin care products, one must educate themselves.
As one of the few companies committed to making genuinely pure skin care using only whole plant ingredients, Grateful Body has gone to great lengths to ensure that all ingredients that we use in our handcrafted skin care are healthy for the body and the planet. We don't market our products as merely paraben-free, we go so far as to say they are altogether chemical-free because we believe in only using whole, biologically appropriate ingredients. We would like to heartily thank OCA for giving us this forum to bring clarity to the issue.
Rebuttal by Angelina Amalie
As a small manufacturer of USDA certified organic body care, I am relieved that OCA is providing a forum for a discussion of hidden parabens. I have reviewed the data and, as a formulator, am convinced that the Plantservative honeysuckle preservative in question cannot possibly be a simple CO2 extract of honeysuckle as claimed by Grateful Body. The MSDS and documentation for Plantservative is available online, and a review of those materials clearly states that it is a broad-spectrum anti-microbial and behaves as any synthetic paraben. No known whole plant extracts or materials provide anything resembling the industrial strength preservation claimed in the Plantservative documentation. Additionally,if CO2 honeysuckle extract were as effective as Plantservative, every personal care manufacturer interested in producing USDA certified organic products would be willing to pay a very high price for a USDA OG CO2 honeysuckle extract. It would be the end of all of our formulation challenges!
In regard to the May 14, 2009 issue of Organic Bytes, there is one very important error. I do request that OCA send a correction immediately, or in the very least, specifically correct the error in a visible location the next issue of Organic Bytes.
Under Headlines and Issues of the Week, OCA states:
1) Coming Clean News of the Week: Grateful Body Refutes Claims That All Honeysuckle Extracts Contains Parabens
In last week's issue of Organic Bytes, we linked to an article where organic supplier Eliza Moriarty made the claim that products using honeysuckle extract as a 'natural' preservative are simply hiding parabens in their products. This week, USDA organic personal care product leader, Grateful Body, says those are false claims and shows documentation that its products have been tested free of parabens, despite the use of honeysuckle extract. Let the debate begin!
I am surprised by the mistakes. It does illustrate the fact that even some OCA staff members have difficulty distinguishing between USDA certified organic and inauthenticated organic claims in the personal care marketplace. Grateful Body has NO third party certification and does not produce USDA certified organic body care.
While Grateful Body modifies most ingredient names with the word "organic", it does not specify the certifying body, so we don't know if they refer to USDA, Eco-cert or any other program. Grateful Body claims some ingredients are "organic" when the ingredient doesn't exist as an organic ingredient. Grateful Body also claims to use no synthetics. (They claim "organic xanthan" for example, which cannot be organic. It is an allowed synthetic.) In the absence of a third- party certifier, organic claims by body products manufacturers have no meaning. Any company that wishes to prove its organic and clean ingredient status may do so at any time by cleaning up their ingredient decks and earning the USDA seal of approval. Any company that is not eligible for the USDA seal is certainly not a leader in USDA organic body care!
Unfortunately, when you describe Grateful Body as "USDA organic personal care product leader," you offer meaningful credibility to a company that has not earned it, mislead consumers into believing that their products are USDA organic, and undermine OCA's own Coming Clean Campaign in regard to hidden ingredients! As a manufacturer of USDA certified organic products, it also undermines my company's position in the marketplace when I must compete with companies that aren't meeting the USDA organic standards, but are credited by OCA as such.
Additionally, the description of Eliza Moriarty as an "organic supplier" is inaccurate. I am on an organic industry listserve with Eliza and am familiar with her work. She is an experienced phytochemist, researcher and professional organic body care formulator, and is also a certified Organic Processing Inspector. She's an organics advocate with a sharp eye for "greenwashing." From our mutual positions as natural products formulators, the documentation speaks for itself, as does the action of the preservative in question.
As Mr. Dweck (international expert on parabens and former Associate Editor of the International Journal of Cosmetic Science) states, Plantservative is clearly a natural paraben. I see that the quote taken from "An Update On Natural Preservatives," Personal Care Magazine; September 2005, (Anthony C. Dweck BSc CSci CChem FRSC FLS FRSH - Technical Editor) has been removed from Eliza's OCA article. I have a copy, as follows:
Japanese Honeysuckle extracts A plant preservative that is based on the Japanese Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) is available that is described as being a complex mixture of esters of lonicerin and natural p-hydroxy benzoic acid (Fig. 10). The commercial material from Campo is called Plantservative WSr, WMr (INCI: Lonicera Caprifolium Extract). Clearly this is a naturally occurring paraben, and we would expect this material to have antimicrobial properties.
If Grateful Body tested Plantservative and found no synthetic parabens, it merely tells us that it has not been spiked with synthetics. It does NOT tell us that it is not a natural paraben, and it certainly does not indicate that it is a whole plant extract. The "industrial strength" preservation action of Plantservative very strongly indicates that it is a highly processed and concentrated natural paraben.
I hope OCA will correct the misstatement in the May 14 issue of Organic Bytes, lest Organic Consumers believe that Grateful Body is USDA certified organic and give undue credence to their products and their claims.