In May of 2009 the Organic Consumers Association published an article on their website about Japanese Honesuckle Extract. Written by Elizabeth Moriarty, a phytochemist and organic inspector, the article states that parabens, naturally-occurring and synthetic, can be hidden in Japanese Honeysuckle Extract. (Read the original article here) Moriarty states that:
It is a highly processed and concentrated paraben extraction that may or may not be contaminated with synthetic parabens where it is manufactured in Singapore. I am particularly distressed by the fact that so many companies are evidently using the latter version of "Japanese Honeysuckle Extract" and simultaneously claiming "NO PARABENS" on their labels.
Shannon Shroter, owner of Grateful Body rebutted the claim, stating that not all japanese honeysuckle extracts contain parabens (read her original article here), and that she tested her extract in a lab and the results showed that "the exact product she maligns actually does not contain any parabens." Shroter also explains 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."
Then, following Shroter's rebuttal, another manufacturer, Angelina Amalie weighs in (found here, scroll down), stating:
If Grateful Body tested Plantservative [the trade name for the extract] 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.
So, who is right? Does Japanese Honeysuckle Extract contain parabens? Are there such thing as "natural parabens? And are they harmful?
There was one statement in Shroter's article that really caught my eye. She's talking about the main active compound in Japanese Honeysuckle Extract called para-hydroxy benzoic acid:
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.
So you can see what she's talking about, I've pasted the chemical structures below:
Technically speaking, Shroter is correct in that there is no such thing as a "natural paraben." Paraben is a term used to describe a synthetically-produced compound. However, para-hydroxy benzoic acid (I'll call it PHBA) was the naturally-ocurring compound that inspired chemists to create parabens. Other than the CH3 tail, it's chemically identical. The addition or subtraction of the methyl free radical doesn't change the structure much--PHBA still contains a benzene ring, which is the main problem with parabens in the first place.
Anything with a benzene ring has the potential to be an endocrine disruptor. Because our body's hormones are made up of complex structures of benzene rings, our hormonal receptors are made to "fit" these benzene rings.
Notice that in the diagram of the estradiol, the first benzene ring looks just like that of the parabens and PHBA--a benzene ring with an OH tail (hydroxyl group). Estrogen receptors are designed to fit this exact end of the molecule, so PHBA and parabens latch right in (regardless of any CH3 tail). These benzene rings enter the estrogen receptors in the body and can "clog" them up so they don't function properly or overstimulate them. Because receptors dictate how cells divide and express themselves, overstimluated estrogen receptors can lead to a host of problems, from endometriosis to breast cancer. Parabens have been studied extensively for their link to breast cancer, and have been found to accumulate in breast cancer tissue. Because PHBA is so similar, it acts in the same way.
This study at the University of Reading in the UK studied just this issue. In their study they compared para-hydroxy benzoic acid to all the types of parabens. They found that the para-hydroxy benzoic acid, while it wasn't as agressive in stimulating cells as synthetic parabens, it did indeed bind to estrogen receptors, and made this powerful statement:
It can be concluded that removal of the ester group from parabens does not abrogate its oestrogenic activity and that p-hydroxybenzoic acid can give oestrogenic responses in human breast cancer cells.
So, whether the Japanese Honeysuckle Extract is made in Singapore or distilled with CO2 in the USA, no matter how reputible the manufacturer, it is going to contain para hydroxy benzoic acid and have nearly the same health risks that parabens would when applied to the skin.