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What is it: Sodium Benzoate

October 18, 2013 Reviewed by Marta 6 Comments
I had fully expected to like Ole Henriksen's potion, Express The Truth (it's a good name after all). It was not to be. The first 14 ingredients - mundane fillers that have a mild conditioning effect, some silicone and stabilizers -  left me cold. But what really got me shivering in my shoes, was the discovery that it contains sodium benzoate.

At first blush sodium benzoate looks fairly benign. It occurs naturally in some plants, such as cranberries. It is used as a preservative in food and cosmetic products and has a very low level of toxicity. Various tests have shown that it is not carcinogenic. But when sodium benzoate encounters vitamin C, it is transformed from friend to foe.

If you mix sodium benzoate with vitamin C (and it happens that there are two types of C in Express The Truth - calcium ascorbate and sodium ascorbyl phosphate), benzene can form. And benzene is carcinogenic. In the UK, a Food Standards Agency survey of benzene in soft drinks found high levels of it in four brands, which were removed from sale.

Even without getting mixed up with vitamin C, sodium benzoate might not be as friendly as it looks. A study conducted by Peter Piper, a professor at Sheffield University in the UK and an expert in molecular biology and biotechnology, found that sodium benzoate damages cells.

He tested benzoate on yeast cells and found the preservative spurred an increase in production of oxygen radicals, or free radicals. Benzoate appeared to attack cells' mitochondria, damaging their ability to prevent oxygen leaks that create free radicals. Yeast cells were used because of their similarity to human ones, but no research on humans has been done.

Piper was quoted in the British newspaper, Independent on Sunday, as saying: "These chemicals have the ability to cause severe damage to DNA in the mitochondria to the point that they totally inactivate it: they knock it out altogether.

"The mitochondria consumes the oxygen to give you energy and if you damage it - as happens in a number of diseased states - then the cell starts to malfunction very seriously. And there is a whole array of diseases that are now being tied to damage to this DNA - Parkinson's and quite a lot of neuro-degenerative diseases, but above all the whole process of aging."

Sodium benzoate is readily absorbed by the skin and so its presence in an anti-aging cream may, ironically, actually age you faster by, as Prof Piper, puts it "knocking out" your DNA.

Ingredients in Ole Henriksen's Express The Truth

Water, Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride, Glycerin, Triisostearyl Citrate, Ethyl Macadamiate, Stearic Acid, Stearyl Alcohol, Dimethicone, Cetearyl Alcohol, Polysorbate-60, Ceteareth-20, Sorbitol, Glycerine, Calcium Ascorbate, Aspalathus Linearis Leaf Extract, Polylysine, Sodium Hyaluronate, Zinc Gluconate, Copper Gluconate, Manganese Gluconate, Tocopheryl Acetate, Sodium Ascorbyl Phosphate, Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice, Chamomilla Recutita (Matricaria) Flower Extract, Simmondsia Chinensis (Jojoba) Seed Oil, Prunus Amygdalus Dulcis (Sweet Almond) Oil, Sodium PCA, Allantoin, Curcuma Longa (Tumeric) Root Extract, Limonene, Potassium Cetyl Phosphate, Carbomer, Glyceryl Laurate, Linalool, Sorbitan Stearate, Potassium Hydroxide, Benzyl Alcohol, Sodium Benzoate, Potassium Sorbate, Citral, Fragrance, Flavor.

  • February 26, 2011

    by Dene Godfrey

    Since the discovery of the benzene issue in drinks, I have always made a point of recommending that they are not used in combination in cosmetics (sodium benzoate is one of the many preservatives that I sell into cosmetics) precisely to avoid this sort of issue. However, the reality is that (specifically in creams) the potential for benzene formation is greatly reduced, compared with the potential in liquids (any liquid, not just drinks), simply because the molecules are far less free to move around and are (literally) less likely to bump into each other. The two substances HAVE to come into contact, otherwise there is no reaction. Whilst any risk is unlikely from mixing the two in cosmetics, I will continue to advise against it, if only to avoid any arguments like this one! There are plenty of alternatives to sodium benzoate. There are plenty of other antioxidants.
    However, the claim for DNA damage is a very different issue. It is hardly surprising that Prof. Piper found that sodium benzoate damaged yeast cells - it is used as a fungicide! It would be totally useless if it didn't kill yeast cells! If you replace sodium benzoate with a different preservative, it will need to be able to kill yeast cells - so Prof. Piper can test the alternative and come up with the same result. I cannot comment in great detail on the aspect of DNA damage beyond making it clear that it is a considerable leap of faith to draw too many conclusions between the effects on yeast cells and the effects on human cells. The only real similarity between these two types if cells is that they have a nucleus within the cell. Bacterial cells have no nucleus. Let's not panic too much - if there is a potential problem, this is not sufficient evidence on which to turn hysterical and throw out all your products containing sodium benzoate. More work may be required, but this current study proves nothing in terms of human safety.

  • October 13, 2010

    by Botanist

    Actually the levels of benzene that are formed are minimal, if any. Like any chemical reaction, this reaction requires certain conditions or it will not happen. This particular reaction is very sensitive. In order for this reaction to move at a noticeable rate, it needs heat and oxygen, in the absence of sugars and many common cosmetic ingredients (disodium EDTA inhibits benzene production, for example). Cosmetic products just don't provide the proper condition for benzene formation (especially with all of the antioxidants out there, lol). Not to mention there are minimal amounts of sodium benzoate in this product, certainly not enough to make a push towards forming a measurable amount of benzene. So every condition is against this benzene formation (but don't just go by my word, check with your local chemistry teacher, or check online from a someone that you are sure is a chemist). There are many products out there with these two ingredients and they are safe.

    Even if you use products with a little benzene (which would be a rare occurrence because all of these products go through stringent FDA testing) your body is made to deal with some amount of these contaminants. You will find much more benzene in one whiff of car exhaust then you will from all your consumer products that you will consume over the course of your life. If you are still afraid, do a little research on the FDA website. You will be surprised how much safety testing they put every product through.

    And by the way, the first ingredients aren't "mundane fillers." They have mild conditioning effects because they are penetrating types of carrying agents (vehicle) that literally carry the active ingredients into the skin. There are also some surfactants that help hold the product together. Without the correct mixture of these, you cream would easily separate, would not penetrate the skin, and consequentially would be completely ineffective. From this ingredient list, the only filler seems to be the carbomer.

    I would avoid this product because it does not have enough of its active ingredients to successfully fight wrinkles and because I'm not partial to fragrances and flavors being added to my product unless I know what they are, not because of any benzene. Please do not push the safe preservatives out of you life, because I have seen the horrors of under-preservation.

  • May 2, 2009

    by marta

    Sezen, I so wish I knew the answer to this. I feel I should err on the side of caution: if vit C and SB don't mix well in a drink, why would they behave better in a cream? But I've really tried to research this and haven't come across anything either way.

    However, if Prof Piper is right that SB zaps DNA it is probably to be avoided altogether regardless of whether there is vit C present as well.

  • May 2, 2009

    by Sezen

    I've been happily using Reviva Labs' "Organic Antioxidant & Texturizing Day Cream", which also includes Vitamin C (though it does not specify the form) and sodium benzoate. Should we avoid anything that includes Vitamin C and sodium benzoate altogether, do you think? Because this combo seems to be popular among antioxidant creams?

  • October 19, 2008

    by Marta

    <p>Agreed. It has the antioxidants without the sodium benzoate.</p>

  • October 18, 2008

    by Stan

    <p>Do you think the Truth Serum fares better in the ingredients? I seems like it contains plenty of antioxidants pretty much duplicating the function of Express the Truth one could say?</p>

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