Oh you have food poisoning, an earache, and a bottle of homemade lotion to preserve? There’s an extract for that.
But why stop there? This cosmetic preservative is touted as a natural treatment for eczema, acne, cold sores, athlete’s foot, candida/thrush, sore throats, Group B Strep (GBS), stomach bugs, parasites, food poisoning, wart, gingivitis and atypical boogie woogie.
I’m talking about grapefruit seed extract, of course. Now, since this is a post about why I don’t use it you might expect me to say the claims made about grapefruit seed extract (GSE) are false. They’re not. Well, except for that last “disease” because I, er, made it up.
Truth is, many of these claims can be backed up with studies, such as this one which found that it performs as well as 30 antibiotics and 18 fungicides.
So why will you not find GSE in my ebook, DIY Organic Beauty Recipes, or any recipe on this site? Because according to the findings of some experts, calling it natural is like spiking mineral water with gasoline and serving it at a day spa.
According to GSE manufacturers, the main constituent of their miracle extract is diphenol hydroxybenzene. (Source. Note: This is an archived page from Mountain Rose Herbs. They no longer carry GSE) Now, just because a compound sounds scary doesn’t mean it is. I eat sodium chloride on my eggs almost every morning and I’m still here. (It’s sea salt)
Still, I wanted to know whether diphenol hydroxybenzene is considered a natural compound or synthetic chemical. The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database had never heard of it. Neither had ChemSpider, which is the official database of the Royal Society of Chemistry. By the time I checked OSHA I was starting to get suspicious. It’s almost like someone just made up this chemical and slapped it on a label!
According to Steve Humphries, PhD, “people with chemistry training will recognise that the description ‘diphenol hydroxybenzene’ is not the correct way to name a chemical compound. ‘Hydroxybenzene’ is a benzene ring with a hydroxy group attached, ‘phenol’ is also a benzene ring with a hydroxy group attached. So ‘diphenol hydroxybenzene’ just loosely says that we have some benzene rings with hydroxy groups stuck on them somewhere!” (source)
According to this article, it’s likely that diphenol hydroxybenzene is an abbreviated name for another, unspecified chemical.
So What’s Really In Grapefruit Seed Extract?
In a 2001 study supervised by chemist G. Takeoka, researchers found that the primary active ingredient in commercial preparations of grapefruit seed extract was benzethonium chloride or benzalkonium chloride, both synthetic compounds. Additional studies confirmed these results. (source) The Environmental Working Group lists benzalkonium chloride as a known immune system toxin and respiratory toxin. (source) It is commonly used in drain cleaner, disinfectants and other cleaning products.
GSE manufacturers responded to this finding by claiming that their mysterious diphenol hydroxybenzene – which I’d like to remind you is was not listed in any of the databases I searched – is just really easy to confuse for benzethonium chloride. All those machines and chemists just got it wrong.
Maybe that’s accurate. Then again, in the words of Dr. Humphries, “If you believe that multiple independent universities using a variety of sophisticated analyses can all be wrong, and all mistakenly identify exactly the same chemical, then I have a bridge in Brooklyn I can sell you :)” (source, emphasis mine)
Other synthetic chemicals/preservatives that have been found in grapefruit seed extract include:
- Triclosan – A known endocrine (hormone) disruptor that induces reproductive toxicity. It is also suspected to impair heart function and muscle function Known to be toxic at very low concentations (source)
- Methylparaben – Linked to cancer,hormone disruption, reproductive toxicity, immunotoxicity, neurotoxicity and skin irritation. (source)
How Is This Possible?
The answer may be pretty simple.
“Self-made pure GSE processed without solvents is prepared by grinding the grapefruit seed and juiceless pulp, then mixing with glycerin.
Chemists and manufacturers can argue all day long about exactly what chemical compounds are in GSE, but it seems pretty clear they’re synthetic. Multiple studies have concluded that it is not the grapefruit seed extract, but instead the added preservatives that demonstrate antimicrobial activity.
“Thus, it is concluded that the potent as well as nearly universal antimicrobial activity being attributed to grapefruit seed extract is merely due to the synthetic preservative agents contained within. Natural products with antimicrobial activity do not appear to be present.” (source, emphasis mine)
What About Organic Grapefruit Seed Extract?
Even “pure organic” grapefruit seed extract contains roughly 60% of our mystery chemical, diphenol hydroxybenzene. According to this post, that’s because “organic” GSE is approved by The Soil Association.
“The Soil Association is the European organic standard, and the requirements are much less strict than that of the USDA. They will allow and certify a synthetic chemical like GSE if it meets certain criteria for biodegradability, aquatic toxicity and bioaccumulation. So, since the grapefruits were organically grown, and it meets the requirements, they approve the extract as organic, even though it’s a synthetic chemical. The Soil Association also approves Phenoxyethanol as a preservative ingredient. The USDA will not certify GSE, or allow it in a certified organic product.” (source)
If supporting research is available I think it’s fine to call GSE a treatment for athlete’s foot, E. Coli and purple polka dotted ears. But with so little data on diphenol hydroxybenzene and the possibility of contamination with Triclosan and parabens, I don’t know that we should be calling it NATURAL.
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