As I mentioned in an earlier post on Homemade Diaper Rash Cream, Grapefruit Seed Extract, used commonly as a natural preservative, has encountered controversy of late.

ammonium in grapefruit seed extract
Image via Wikipedia

The G.S.E. Controversy: Scientific Studies

Here’s the skinny: some Japanese researchers tested commercial G.S.E. in 2001 and found benzethonium chloride, a known toxin.

As a follow up, German researchers tested both the contents and the anti-microbial properties of five G.S.E. products and one self-made extract:

The researchers found that five of the commercially available extracts had significant antimicrobial activities, all of which contained the preservative benzethonium chloride. Three of these same extracts were also found to contain the preservatives triclosan and methyl parabene. The researchers found that only one of the commercial GSEs tested had no preserving agent, but that this extract as well as the self-made extract had no antimicrobial activity. The researchers concluded that the antimicrobial activity being attributed to GSE is “… merely due to the synthetic preservative agents contained within.” — Todd Caldecott

Benzethonium chloride and triclosan are listed by government agencies as a “suspected endocrine toxicant” and “pesticide”, respectively:

Benzethonium chloride is commonly used as a disinfectant in cosmetic products. In Switzerland benzethonium chloride is classified as a “… disinfectant categorized as a class 2 poison because of its teratogenicity and caustic effects.” (3) The amount found in some GSE products is upwards of 8%, (4) considerably more than many cosmetic products. The Environmental Defense Fund describes benzethonium chloride as a “suspected endocrine toxicant” that “lacks … data required for safety assessment.” (5) According to the National Institute For Occupational Health and Safety, the internal ingestion of benzethonium chloride could cause “… diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting, collapse, convulsions (and) coma.” (6) Some sources suggest that benzethonium chloride is a by-product produced from grapefruit flavonoids by ammoniation, but researchers at the USDA regard this as highly unlikely. (4) Regardless of its origin, benzethonium chloride is clearly stated to be a harmful compound, and is not approved for internal use in the United States.

Triclosan is structurally related to a number of bis-phenyl polychlorinated and bis-phenyl chlorophenol compounds that have come under increasing scrutiny for their health-damaging effects. Triclosan is listed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a “pesticide.” It is widely used in the cosmetic industry, especially in antibiotic soaps, and has been fingered as a factor for the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. (8) Researchers are finding it in wastewater, in the tissues of fish, and even in human breast milk. (9) While triclosan is approved for use in topical and oral applications, it is not approved for internal use in the United States.

Behind the Toxins found in Grapefruit Seed Extract

It seems that the presence of these ingredients, the benzethonium chloride in particular, is due to the synthetic process used to create grapefruit seed extract. One might initially imagine that G.S.E. is simply “extracted” as the name suggests, similar to the way that olive oil is “extracted.” This is, however, not the case. Terressentials, weighing-in heavilyy in the G.S.E. debate, had this to say:

Chemical manufacturers take the leftover grapefruit pulp, a waste by-product from grapefruit juice production, and in an intensive, multi-step industrial chemical process, change the natural phenolic compounds into synthetic quaternary ammonium compounds. Typically, in chemical synthesis of this type, chemical reagents and catalysts are used under extreme high heat and pressure or vacuum. Synthetic ammonium chloride is one of the chemical catalysts used in this process.

The US Department of Agriculture´s (USDA) National Organic Program defines synthetic as “A substance that is formulated or manufactured by a chemical process or by a process that chemically changes a substance extracted from naturally occurring plant, animal, or mineral sources.” Grapefruit seed extract is a synthetic chemical compound, cannot be called “organic,” and is not permitted in organic food proucts.

Unfortunately, because there is no legal definition of the word “natural,” any company can put chemicals in body care products and tell you that they´re “natural.”

A manufacturer of G.S.E. confirmed this in an interview by the Natural Ingredient Resource Center. Clearly, the product is toxic:

We cannot give you our proprietary process. All I am willing to offer is that we start with grapefruit bioflavonoids and convert them into a quaternary ammonium compound similar to a known, but toxic, compound called benzethonium chloride. The difference is our product has an oxygen and carbon bond that is different than that of benzethonium. Our product also has an LD50 of over 5000 mg/kg of live body weight. That means that an average weight human would have to consume a quart of CITRICIDAL daily before there would be a 50% chance of death as a result. Our product is used by the drop.

So what did we expect from something that’s anti-microbial? Yet all this information certainly does beg the question, why use a natural preservative that’s not actually natural?


The Verdict on G.S.E.

One could make the argument that although G.S.E. is not technically all-natural, it is a “better ” choice in cases where a preservative is necessary, for example in store-bought products where freshness is important. In fact, this same argument is made for products such as parabens and sodium laureth sulfate, all of which are synthetically derived from ingredients that do occur in nature. And doctors who favor natural baby care practices have found G.S.E. to be effective in treating diaper rash. If you’re looking for an alternative to antibiotics, diluted grapefruit seed extract as an external may not look so bad.

Aubrey Organics, long a pioneer in natural and organic products, does use grapefruit seed extract in their products, and in fact claims to have been the first to develop grapefruit seed extract as an antioxidant preservative in 1974. This fact did gave me pause, as I have always noted Aubrey’s products to be the purest among store-bought choices. I have emailed the company for comment and I eagerly await their response. In the meantime, Aubrey’s general take on preservatives may be summed up by David Steinman’s article from Healthy Living, hosted on their site. It comes down hard on parabens and other preservatives, but lists G.S.E. among the “safe preservatives.” It appears that this article was written in 1999, previous to the above G.S.E. studies, however I’ve been unable to track it down as the only references to it are in Aubrey’s marketing materials!

As always, the bottom line for each of us comes down to considering alternatives. For sensitive, all-natural babies (and those who “baby” themselves and their family), sticking with simple castile soaps, vegetable-based oils, and natural diaper rash preventives (such as those in my post on homemade diaper rash cream) might be the most straightforward ticket to a toxin-free and natural personal care regimen.


Mama Hope

[Post to Twitter] Love this article? Give it a tweet! 

8 Responses to “Grapefruit Seed Extract Preservative — Safe for Homemade and Natural Products?”

  1. Thanks for this info. I was using gse on my breasts as my baby has thrush. We’ve tried gentian violet and two perscriptions, this now seems to be working but, after reading this I will do more research.

  2. Hi Tash,

    Thanks for your comment, and my apologies for not commenting earlier, I am taking a bit of a hiatus after several life transitions hit me at once. Briefly I thought I would say that it seems wise to do your research. Thrush is no fun, and if the GSE can clear it up quickly, perhaps it will be worth it to avoid any upset to your nursing.

    There is also a company that might be a great one to contact regarding GSE that is as clean as possible. They are mountainroseherbs.com.

    In my opinion, no matter what, GSE is still a synthetic created using some serious chemical reactions and something equivalent to ammonia, so clearly caution is something to exercise. But I myself understand that we all need to go for the greatest benefit to our family, minimizing risk, but realizing sometimes we can’t avoid it altogether.

    Good luck!

  3. hi, so if you shouldn’t use GSE what is another preservative that is OK

  4. Because it is considered a natural-antibiotic and no a natural preservative…

  5. The Great GSE Debate indeed.

    Grapefruit (Citrius paradisi) seed extract is derived from the pulp and seeds of grapefruit. GSE products are commonly used as naturopathic remedies, supplements, disinfectant and sanitizing agents as well as preservatives in the food and cosmetics
    industry. GSE is commercially available at many health food stores, with claims of having beneficial health properties including the treatment of yeast infections. Previous in vitro studies have demonstrated the antimicrobial properties of GSE against a range of
    gram-positive and gram-negative organisms (Heggers et al., 2002). Although there have been studies of GSE effectively inhibiting bacteria and fungi, studies have shown that the synthetic chemical preservatives added to commercially available GSE enhances
    antimicrobial and antifungal activity (Woedtke et al., 1999).
    The most recent study using natural ethanolic extract of grapefruit seeds and pulp found that the extract exhibited antimicrobial efficacy, including the inhibition of C. albicans (Cvetnic et al., 2004).

    The only natural remedy in this study to exhibit inhibitory activity against C. albicans along the same magnitude as miconazole nitrate salt was grapefruit seed extract.
    GSE exhibited inhibitory activity at concentrations of 100 - 120 μg mL-1, lowering the growth rate to below 0.02 hr-1. GSE is used in the food industry for its antioxidant and
    preservation qualities and is considered to have no toxicological significance (Bentivegna et al., 2002).


    Testing conducted by the U. of Georgia, in Athens, GA, to evaluate grapefruit seed extract in tests against E. Coli, Salmonella sps., and Staph aureus. Roger Wyatt, Ph.D., and Microbiologist for the University of Georgia, reported, “Our studies indicate excellent potential for these products (GSE). …The toxicological that I have reviewed indicated that this product and the active ingredient poses very low toxicity. As you know this is important because most disinfectants that are currently used in either animal or human environments have moderate to high toxicity and extreme care must be exercised when these products are used. The lack of any significant toxicological properties of (GSE) is also impressive when one views the efficacy data where extremely small concentrations of the product can be used with marked beneficial results.”
    Dr. Wyatt continued, “In view of the reports that we have discussed, the wide spectrum of activity that (GSE) offers (antiviral, antibacterial; Gram+ and Gram-, antimycotic, and antiprotozoan) will undoubtedly aid in its acceptability.”
    The controversy stems from some reports that claim GSE contains Triclosan, Benzelthonium Chloride, or Methyl Paraben. Perhaps the reason for the conclusion of those reports is that Citricidal® is very similar in molecular weight to both Benzelthonium Chloride and Triclosan, both of which are effective disinfectants, but are toxic to both human and animal life. Every batch of Citricidal® is certified for the absence of such residues, as well as the absence of Triclosan, a common germicide and preservative. Independent labs have confirmed these results. (see United States Testing Company Report No. 405993, dated 9/8/95). The results show no trace of triclosan, while displaying very strong antimicrobial activity. Every batch of Citricidal is tested and certified free from chemical and heavy metal contamination.

    The NutriTeam website has this to say about its grapefruit seed extract:
    According to the Association of Poison Control Centers, the AMA Physician Reporting System, and the Journal of Emergency Medicine, there have been no reports that Citricidal has ever harmed anyone. In fact, there are thousands of clinical and anecdotal reports that Citricidal has helped many, and enjoys a safety record going back more than 30 years.

    Over the years, numerous and differing analytical tests have been performed to determine the active components of Citricidal. The test results have quite often varied, for the following reasons:
    a.) varying test procedures,
    b.) different chemicals used in the test procedures producing false positives,
    c.) different interpretations of test procedures resulting in false positives, and
    d.) the different background of the chemists involved, organic chemistry vs. inorganic chemistry being an issue. The similarity in molecular weight between Citricidal and both Benzelkonium Chloride and Benzelthonium Chloride has wrongly influenced some (including drug and chemical manufacturers) to assert that Citricidal has been “spiked” with these poisons.
    (They are both powerful industrial disinfectants, and are even found in some consumer goods in the U.S.) But once again, independent lab tests, and a 30-year track record of safe use as a human therapeutic speak loudly against such slander.

    Consider this:
    Dr Louis Parish, M.D., as investigator for the Dept. of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, Food and Drug Administration, reported that (grapefruit seed extract) “…is as effective as any other amoebicide now available, perhaps more effective…” and, “It does not cause side effects.” Nearly 200 patients were treated for Entamoeba histolytica and Giardia lamblia by Dr Parish and his associates over a two month period. Dr. Parish went on to say, “…it (GSE) gives symptomatic relief more than any other treatment.”

    Or this:
    “As a specialist in environmental medicine and immunology I have a significant number of patients with chronic intestinal candidiasis, chronic bacterial dysbiosis and occult protozoan parasitosis. I have found that Citricidal has been a remarkable antifungal agent with excellent response in patients with chronic intestinal candidiasis. It also appears to be an excellent antiparasitic, and I have had some good results with Citricidal in certain intestinal protozoan Infections, notably Blastocystis hominis. It seems to have a very low potential for side effects and appears to be non-toxic. I will continue to use this product extensively.” Dr. Jeffrey Anderson, Mill Valley, CA, USA

    To further show the safety of Citricidal, an Acute Oral Toxicity Study was performed — Northview Pacific Labs Report No. X5E015G, dated 7/6/95. Results showed that Citricidal is considered non-toxic by oral ingestion with an LD50 of over 5000 mg/kg of live body weight. This is the equivalent of a 200 lb. person drinking close to 1 lb. of pure Citricidal daily for two weeks, before risking a 50% risk of fatal poisoning (There are close to 20,000 drops in one pound of Citricidal liquid. The recommended adult dose is 5-6 drops at a time.).

    At MammaMichal’s Freshly Made Body Care Products™ we use only the finest ingredients. That’s why the GSE we use with our body lotions is Citricidal®.

    MammaMichal’s Freshly Made Body Care Products™ do NOT contain any alcohol, detergents, artificial color, fragrances (synthetic Perfumes), artificial synthetic preservatives or petrochemicals. NONE of our products or the ingredients they’re made from has been tested on animals. Our products are genuinely all natural and animal cruelty free!

    [From the desk of Michal Circolone, Co-Owner of MammaMichal’s Freshly Made Body Care Products. http://www.mammamichal.com


  1. Make Your Own Diaper Rash Cream :: hippie dippie bébé
  2. A Guide to Natural Skin Care Preservatives, Part 1 :: hippie dippie bébé
  3. What’s Behind the Brand Names? (Natural Skin Care Preservatives, Part 2) :: hippie dippie bébé

Leave a Reply