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.
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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.