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Honeysuckle Extract & Parabens: What the Industry Doesn't Want you to Know

I recently received an angry phone call from the owner of a certain cosmetics company.  I had listed them in my last article about brands that use Japanese Honeysuckle extract.  They demanded I take their name out of the article, threatening that their lawyers would be giving us a "cease and desist" order if we didn't oblige.  Apparently they've received numerous angry e-mails from customers who found out their products contained parahydroxy benzoic acid, a chemical that, as I've written, looks and acts like parabens.  Yet they claim that their product is "paraben-free" and continue to stick behind their products.  So, I thought I'd respond to their claims today.

One of our readers wrote to the company, asking if their products contain parabens.  The company wrote back to her: 

The Japanese Honeysuckle Extract DOES NOT have parabens in it what so ever.  It has the same chemical structure as parabens.  But it does not have parabens.

So, the company does admit, in writing, that their honeysuckle extract does contain a compound with the same chemical structure as parabens.  In other words, it contains parahydroxy benzoic acid, the compound that I've been talking about. 

Parahydroxy benzoic acid is the compound that inspired chemists to create parabens.  In fact, the name parabens comes from parahydroxy benzoic acid.  Methylparaben means parahydroxy benzoic acid with a methyl group.  Propylparaben means parahydroxy benzoic acid with a propyl group.  So, how can the company say that their product is paraben-free if it contains the original para-ben

The consensus in the cosmetics industry is that the term "parabens" only applies to synthetically-produced parabens.  When synthetic parabens were first created, they were the golden child of the cosmetics industry. Everyone was using them.  They're easy to formulate with, non-irritating on skin, "non-toxic," and cheap.  That was until consumers started learning of their estrogen-mimicking properties and possible link to breast cancer.  The word has spread, and now there's a huge market for paraben-free products.  So, cosmetic supply companies started coming out with paraben alternatives.  One of those companies is Campo Research: makers of Plantservative (Japanese Honeysuckle Extract). 

When a chemical company invents a new ingredient, they decide on a standardized name for it and submit it to the INCI database.  The INCI name for Plantservative products (there are three different grades) is "Japanese Honeysuckle Extract."  Campo Research decided on the name so they'd have a highly-marketable product: a preservative that has a natural-looking name on the label.  One that could hide among other natural ingredients, making the product look so very pure.  And, technically speaking, be "paraben-free."  And while the extract is indeed "natural," (for the most part--one grade of Plantservative uses phenoxyethanol as the extraction solvent)  that doesn't mean that it's harmless. Parahydroxy benzoic acid was studied in 2005 for its estrogenic properties.  The study says: 

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.

In other words, it doesn't matter if the paraben has a methyl, propyl, or butyl group, it's the parahydroxy benzoic acid itself that acts estrogenically.  But, because you technically (by the etiquette of the cosmetics industry) can't call parahydroxy benzoic acid a "paraben," these companies get away with saying that their products are "paraben-free." 

You know the old saying...if it looks like a duck, it quacks like a duck...then it's a duck.  But, even though parahydroxy benzoic acid looks like a paraben, and acts like a paraben, is the namesake of the word paraben, the cosmetics industry won't let us call it a paraben.  So that companies can continue to sell watered-down soaps and lotions at high profit margins and call them natural and "paraben-free."  

When I was on the phone with the owner of the other company, I told her that if her honeysuckle extract didn't contain parahydroxy benzoic acid, I'd be happy to write a new article and clear their name.  She continued to demand that I remove their name from the article.  I told her that parahydroxy benzoic acid acts estrogenically, just like parabens do.  She said "that's debateable."  I told her, okay, get me the information that proves otherwise.  I have data to back up what I'm saying.  If there's proof to the contrary, share it with me and I'll post a correction or even a complete retraction.  I'll even help promote their company (as I do in another article, recommending other products of theirs that don't contain honeysuckle extract.)  But she could only reply by telling me to remove their name from the list...or else. 

I haven't taken their name off the list, and I will not until they remove the ingredient from their products.  But these companies are unlikely to change their formulas. Mainly because they have found a way to basically sell cosmetic waters at a premium. Their water-based products make a higher profit margin than companies like ours that don't water down our products.  When you buy a shower gel of ours, it's all soap.  When you buy a body butter--it's all butter.  If we can't make something without water, then we don't make it. They can attempt to hide the fact that their products contains an ingredient with (their words) "the same chemical structure as parabens," and try to bully me in to submission. But I will continue my research and production of our USDA Certified Organic products, especially with the immense amount of support that Bubble & Bee Organic gets from our customers who have come to trust us and depend on us for the truth.


Reader Comments (12)

Thank you for the information. I'm not sure what causes all my health problems, Ive been miserable since 2007, losing my hair to totally bald twice and even areas on my body. I'm in the process ( albeit much slower) of going bald again. Even my tap water makes me itch and burn now ( municipal source is the freakin nasty Ohio River, and the water almost smells of straight bleach at times). Ive been so careful choosing bath and body products and now I'm just disgusted. I'm about to just start making my own stuff so I know exactly what's in it!

Fri, April 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFlora

Even though I'm thousands of miles from your place I will always continue to support your products. Your labelling is the truth and even more important you have brought awareness to the preservatives in the water-based products.
This is something I would never have known.

Please do continue to keep on the straight and narrow road Stephanie.

We consumers can sense who is honest and sincere about their products!

Fri, April 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterElham Ahmad

Hi there. I came across your site and wondered this after reading the above article. How does your company produce USDA certified organic products if govt. agencies don't regulate the cosmetic/personal care industry? How does that work if the industry regulates themselves? Can't anyone claim "natural" or "organic" and get away with it?


Fri, April 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda

If you're bearing the USDA symbol you have to follow the same regulations that foods do. By all laws, any product bearing the symbol have to follow the same rules, no matter what they are. The problem nowadays is that many companies have organic claims (without using the symbol) which is illegal, but the USDA is so overwhelmed, it's tough to regulate. That's why the Organic Consumers Association is working so hard on the matter. See this for more info.

Sat, April 17, 2010 | Registered Commenter[Stephanie Greenwood]

Aw, thanks Elham!

Sat, April 17, 2010 | Registered Commenter[Stephanie Greenwood]

please i need help , i have a similar situation with other product DMDM Hydantoin (dimethylol dimethyl hydantoin) in a cosmetic proffessional hair product ,they said is formaldelhyde free in the bottle and showed me a lab test document where as a result is formaldelhyde free. wich is odd cause this Releases formaldehyde slowly.
am i crazy? i believe just because the epa regulates it allow to listed as formaldelhyde free under 0.05 i think
please investigate and contact me

Sun, May 16, 2010 | Unregistered Commenteribanka

Dear Flora,you have Alopecia,i have had it for 7 years.Yes,try to use natural products.But mostly i find(and my hair is growing back) that if i cut my stress levels significantly,i keep the new growth,when i have times of great stress it falls out again.I try to only use natural products and wash my "hair'or lack of it rarely,so as not to stress it more.
Massage of the scalp,not moving fingers over the scalp but moving the scalp with your fingers,stimulates the blood flow and i have found very lightly scratching(not too hard)helps dislodge dead skin and encourage new growth.
I have also been taking a Chinese herbal supplement called Womans balance (helps balance the hormones and i find on it i do not have pre menstrual mood swings)by Fusion and also their Multi vitamin and Mineral advanced.

You really should have your Thyroid tested too because that can also be a reason for hair loss.I hope this helps...If you want to contact me i have supplied my email and i am on Facebook.

Wed, April 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterShery

I don't want to sound conroversial but honeysuckle extract has been used in japan for years. And cancer in japan is much lower than other places.

Another thing I would like to note is that I think it does make a huge difference whether the "paraben" like substace is synthetic or natural. Synthetics in general are known to cause many illnesses so claiming all parabens harmful regardless or whether it is synthetic or not isn't exactly insighful since the only parabens that they study causing harm are synthetic parabens.

So even though I support the information that you provide on this website ( i check it quite a bit ). I personally do not beleive that honeysuckle extract causes harm. You would have to have a separate study on natural parabens to come to that conclusion.....which there isn't.

Just my Point of View

Sat, May 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnon

Hello Anonymous--Thanks for offering your insight!

First, I want to make a distinction. Japanese Honeysuckle Extract as used is cosmetics is completely different from an extract, essential oil, tea, or anything that one would make in their kitchen of this fragrant flower. This extract is created in a completely different fashion that you can read about in my latest article on the subject here.

Second--in regards to natural vs. synthetic. It would be incorrect to say that all synthetic ingredients are dangerous and all natural substances are safe. Obviously many natural ingredients are very harmful. Lead and mercury are "natural." Some natural essential oils like wintergreen, wormwood, mustard, and basil are toxic or possibly carcinogenic. And likewise, some synthetic substances are safe when used appropriately. (Like some detergents and emulsifiers). However, I do agree, generally, that natural substances tend to be safer than synthetic ones. And Japanese Honeysuckle Extract is indeed, not natural.

Parabens have been found to occur naturally in certain foods like mangoes and blueberries. However, isolated and extracted from their natural state, in the same concentration as a synthetic, they would have the same effect as a synthetic paraben. Why? Because they would have the exact same chemical structure.

The thing that makes naturally-occurring parabens acceptable to ingest in a food is that they are surrounded by other compounds, antioxidants, vitamins, fibers, that either counteract or negate any possible negative effect. It is when we start isolating these compounds, take them out of nature's context, that they can become harmful.

Fri, May 20, 2011 | Registered Commenter[Stephanie Greenwood]

I keep seeing people call japanese honeysuckle a paraben. Does anyone have any proof of this? I mean can someone point me into the direction with abstracts and clinical studies or is this all coming out of nowhere?

I know grapefruit seed extract has evidence against it as using synthetic ingredients which are responsible for preserving food and cosmetics. (

But what about honeysuckle? Nowhere do I find evidence in any abstracts against it.

Tue, June 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTonny

@Tonny--Here's my follow-up article with information directly from the manufacturer:

Tue, June 10, 2014 | Registered Commenter[Stephanie Greenwood]

Thank you for pulling back the curtain somewhere where so few people really care. This is a rare and wonderful thing you have done and a great service to us all by investigating and reporting this information. Kudos for you and for us now being educated.

Sun, June 29, 2014 | Unregistered Commentereve

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