Japanese Honeysuckle Extract: parabens in 'paraben free' shampoo and conditioners?

This question comes courtesy of facebook reader Ayo, she says:

' I just found out that Japanese honeysuckle that Shea Moisture uses in their products as a preservative is actually a paraben. Yet the label stresses No parabens and extra all-natural jargon. No bueno for me!'

Ok so I did some digging up, thanks to some of the links that Ayo gave me and here is my final conclusion.

1. Is Japanese Honeysuckle Extract a paraben?

From a consumer standpoint, I would say that if you want to avoid parabens, you need to avoid Japanese Honeysuckle Extract. It most certainly looks like and behaves like a paraben. To make this clear, I would like to show you the structural similarities between a lab created paraben and parahydroxybenzoic acid found in Japanese Honeysuckle Extract.

Japanese Honeysuckle Extract (Natural) Methyl Paraben
Basic Chemistry
Full name: Parahydroxybenzoic acid Full name: 
Methyl Parahydroxybenzoate

Full name: Parahydroxybenzoate
(where R can be any group) 

Now, technically the word paraben refers only to the lab created version, therefore manufacturers are technically not deceptive to say that Japanese Honeysuckle Extract is not a paraben. A similar comparison would be perhaps where someone adds raw honey to a drink and labels it as no artificial sugar added. In reality, honey contains sugar but it is technically not artificial in origin.

2. Does Japanese Honeysuckle Extract behave like a paraben in the human body?

 Yes, studies on parahydroxybenzoic acid (PHBA - the active ingredient in Japanese Honeysuckle) do show that it behaves in pretty much the same way as a paraben does i.e it can be taken up easily through skin and it can bind to cells sensitive to hormones. Methylparaben is regarded as more potent than PHBA but both are regarded as hormone disruptors ( J Appl Toxicol, pp 301-9, 2005).

3. Should companies that state products are paraben free include Japanese Honeysuckle Extract in their products?

No, they should not but they are not breaking any law by doing so. Until scientists define PHBA as a paraben, a manufacturer can add it in to any product and say it is paraben free.

4. What are your thoughts on parabens and cancer?
I personally do not avoid parabens. The truth is that parabens are very weak hormone disruptors and PHBA occurs naturally in plenty of food that we regard as healthy (olive oil, carrots, strawberries, blue berries etc). Women who are the main users of cosmetics, are exposed to much more potent hormone disruptors in the form of contraceptives, upto 100,000 times more likely to bind to tissue than parabens. Parabens are actually not known and never have been proven to cause cancer, this is a myth that even the author of the paper which was used to present this opinion disputed.

I do however think that consumers who choose to avoid parabens for whatever reason do have the right to know what is in their products and that companies should not use a pretty name like Japanese Honeysuckle Extract to disguise what is in effect a near identical ingredient to a paraben.

5. Is there a real paraben free line?

I do think that consumers should really educate themselves more. The truth is that scientifically parabens and formaldehyde releasers are the two known effective preservatives. I know that people often talk about grapefruit extract and vitamin e oil but as of right now, there is no compelling evidence of their efficacy (grapefruit extract efficacy actually disputed due to contamination with parabens).

For a product to be able to sit on a shelf for several months, it needs an effective preservative. Paraben free lines tend to use things like alcohols, urea and formaldehyde releasers or as we now know PHBA.


  1. Some of this labelling is driven by the desire to appeal to a certain segment of the market. There's definitely a bit of trickery with the use of names to disguise ingredients considered to be "bad". The interesting thing is that most of these products cost more.Consumers may find that in some cases, the extra expense does not offer any advantage.

    I do think that further research is warranted because the term endocrine/hormone disruptor is used to describe a large group of chemicals. Some are used in shampoos, lotions and other personal care products and others are environmental pollutants. We should also realise that although the concentration of one compound might be really low, it may act in conjuction with other compounds and produce undesirable effects i.e. there is a synergistic effect.


    1. I agree with you Sue. I definitely think people are paying more for natural products with the expectation that the ingredients should be better and therefore costlier although in reality this is not necessarily the case. I also agree that I would like to see some real studies on non-cancerous tissue which is the big missing question with Darbre's studies (i.e can parabens actually disrupt function of normal healthy tissues). I do commend her work on starting the talk about hormone disruptors though (hence why I have cited her work).

    2. I work with natural brands and write about beauty for magazines and my website. It is a fallacy that natural brands cost more. The brands I work with cost considerably less than department store brands. They are just as good in performance, and sometimes better, than what's available on store shelves. And they are preserved with very gentle preservatives that do not include parabens or formaldehyde releasers.

      Many of these products are not meant to sit on shelves for six months to a year - they are made fresh to order from farm fresh ingredients and shipped directly to the consumer without a middle man. You are right - They do appeal to a certain consumer. Just as I don't eat McDonald's or frozen foods from the supermarket (the equivalent of mass produced, drug store makeup, in my opinion)I don't buy "shelf cosmetics". It's my hope that consumers who really want a natural product will do their research to find the ones that are made by small brands with the ethics to back up why they are making what they are making. They aren't trying to cash in on a green movement and sell "tricky", well marketed products with shady claims. That's where the problems arise, in my opinion.

    3. Lovely to see you chip in Todra. I agree that if you are willing to buy a product and use it immediately then low preservation is fine, combined with storage in the fridge. I know that people have complained to me about products from Oyin and Lush specifically going off after a short time (For Oyin it is a reported change in scent and consistency and for Lush some have seen mould). It is often the case that these products are meant to be used within 3-6 months (some of that time spent on the shelf waiting to be sold).

      I agree with your last statement, consumers really need to distinguish between 'real' natural companies and those that slap the label on. I also think you touched on an important point - many natural brands which are genuine will tend to be small businesses simply because retaining control on the quality of the product is important.

  2. Dear Jc - this is why you ROCK! I love the science in this post - thank you for educating us! I hope all is well :)

    1. Hey Mo! Great to 'see' you here, I miss your blog :)

  3. I have to say, on this one I don't think the companies should be bashed. If the definition of a paraben is a synthetic material, then they shouldn't have to mention the similarity of Japanese Honeysuckle extract. There I think the responsibility falls on the consumer to educate themselves on the ingredients.(Anyone else feel they need to go back to school for a chemistry degree?)
    I think we also have unrealistic expectations for manufactured "natural products." Would you expect your fresh fruits and vegetables to last for months and months? Then if you want natural hair products containing these yummy natural ingredients you shouldn't expect them to behave any differently. If you want to be sure what's in your products and that they are truly natural, might I suggest creating a kitchen salon?
    Shameless plug alert: thekitchensalon.blogspot.com

    1. lol @shameless plug alert

      I think the problem is exactly that - you should not need a chemistry degree. If a company put parahydroxybenzoic acid on a label, more than likely you would look it up. However Japanese honeysuckle extract really does sound like a pretty flower in a jar. Let us be transparent, use straightforward chemical labelling that anyone can look up if they want to.

      I agree with you though, consumers are deceiving themselves if they think a fully natural water based product can stay bug free for months without a proper preservative.

    2. +2!!!

      I think if we were to take a poll for naturals who want QUALITY ingredients, they would also vote "I'd be okay if the product had a shelf life of less than 3 months." Shoot, I'm okay with the mixtress stuff I do (via kitchen) not lasting a month! So if they make smaller bottles (at smaller prices!) in addition to the already existing larger bottles, I'd be okay with that! (And I can "subscribe" via Amazon for those smaller bottles! lol) Yay to small businesses who "keep it REAL!" :-)

  4. You rock..thanks again

    I try to avoid products with paraben, so no more shea moisture for me:)

  5. Thanks so much for the info and keeping it up! I like to be an informed consumer and I know that I can get the straight facts right here.

  6. Thank you to all of you who have left comments here in reference to Shea Moisture's comments on facebook. I have not posted them up though because honestly the facebook thing is going to get sorted out by me personally, I will not let it lie.

  7. Thanks Jc! I'm so glad for your input. I contacted you about this prior to this post and am so grateful for your feedback. Consujers most certainly need to be aware about the ingredients they use despite the pretty names in disguise!

  8. Honeysucke extract is one of the most healing natural ingredients that I have ever found in all of my research, so to confuse it with synthetic parabens would be a serious error, and would prevent individuals and botanical research initiatives from discovering the powerful healing potential of Honeysuckle extract and the essential oil. It is most effective because it removes ammonia, which subsequently purifies and increases the oxygen levels in the blood and promotes a very powerful, significant healing effect.

  9. I'm no scientist, but I took a little chemistry lol. You noted that the same thing is found in fruits & veggies.

    The things with science & chemicals that I don't think many people realize is that harmful "chemicals" & things are not always something that are made in a lab & can occur naturally in the world. I think people are fooling themselves thinking that they can avoid EVERY harmful chemical that occurs (naturally or not).

    Also I wonder then who defines what as natural? Technically honey suckle extract is natural (correct?), & that's what people are asking for.

    It seems as if the term "natural/organic" is really meaning avoidance of anything that can potentially cause harm, which is again not possible in my opinion.

  10. "Miseducation" is the key word when it comes to Parabens. As a Scientist who has worked in the hair care industry for over 20 years I will say, "don't believe the hype!" Parabens have been used for years quite safely and effectively for many years and they DO NOT cause breast cancer as the misleading British study contends.

    1. I would not say it does not cause breast cancer, I would rather say, it has not been proven to cause breast cancer. I have another post elsewhere on the blog discussing the original Darby paraben paper including my critique of the data interpretation - just place parabens in the search bar :)

  11. sepideh yaghmaei3 February 2016 at 23:03

    Japanese Honey Suckle Extract is a type of benzoic acid where as paraben is an ester not an acid. The presence of the methyl group changes the chemistry of the molecule. Yes they do almost occupy the same space size wise but the chemistry of their functional group is very different.

    1. Agreed sepideh, but do not omit the fact that they would both be hormone disruptors, just one is less potent than the other because of the chemistry.


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