Recently, I reviewed Jane Iredale’s Glow Time BB Cream and noted that it uses a preservative made from honeysuckle extract. Like a growing number of beauty companies, Jane Iredale is searching for preservatives that are not chemicals, or parabens, and are as safe as possible. This is a huge step in the right direction, but it turns out that the preservative made from Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera Japonica) is not without controversy. When I reviewed Jane Iredale’s BB Cream I promised to do some research and come back to this ingredient and so I am.

Honeysuckle, so pretty and seemingly innocent, contain parahydroxy benzoic acid, which behaves in a very similar way to synthetic parabens. And so a heated debate has been going on about whether the honeysuckle preservative (marketed under the name of Plantservative) is, indeed, a paraben and, if so, whether this is potentially harmful.

The first question – is it a paraben – is fairly straight forward. Some excellent sleuthing by Chemical of the Day, established that parahydroxy benzoic acid (PHBA) present in all grades of Plantservative. The compound parahydroxy benzoic acid is found in lots of plants, not just Japanese honeysuckle. Its molecular structure is similar to parabens (methyparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben or butylparaben). It isn’t identical but it does have a “benzene ring.” According to Chemical of the Day:  “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. These benzene rings enter the estrogen receptors in the body and can “clog” them up so they don’t function properly or overstimulate them.”

At this point it is probably a good idea to reprise the paraben controversy. The fuss started when a study linked parabens in deodorant to breast cancer. Because parabens mimic human estrogen and it is known that estrogen stimulates cancer, the link seemed plausible. The study has since been discredited and the American Cancer Society has concluded that there is insufficient scientific evidence of parabens increasing breast cancer risk.

Nonetheless, parabens have been found to accumulate in breast cancer tissue.  Because PHBA is so similar, it acts in the same way. Methylparaben, for example, is regarded as more potent than PHBA but both are regarded as hormone disruptors, as one study concluded: “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 where does that leave us? Well, everyone should make up his or her own mind based on the information available. Personally, I am not a complete paraben-phobe since I don’t regard the evidence that they cause cancer to be convincing enough at this stage (more research is needed). However, the fact that they can accumulate in breast tissue prompts me to be cautious of exposing myself to parabens more than absolutely necessary. Since PHBA appears to behave in the same way, my personal conclusion is that a preservative based on it should be given the same rap. I’m not going to give up all products with the honeysuckle extract preservative, but I will now be aware that they contain a paraben-like substance and extend the same caution to them.