The Myth of Chemical-Free Products.
I’m sorry if this offends the people who put lots of hard work into creating beautiful natural cosmetic products, but this needs to be said.
Chemical-free beauty products do not exist.
Some people will argue that no products actually claim to be chemical-free, and to avoid that discussion, let's have a quick search of Google and see what pops up:
Miranda Kerr's brand KORA posits an organic, chemical-free line. Their website states "Did you know that the average woman applies more than 200 chemicals to her skin by using her skin care products in one day?" I would wager that we apply a whole lot more than that, Ms. Kerr.
Annmarie Gianni products also claim to be chemical-free.
Juice Beauty also claims to have chemical-free products.
Sodashi is another brand that touts the chemical-free benefits of their products.
(And these are just some of the large brands! For smaller brands and sellers, see here for over 500 products/sellers that tout chemical-free beauty).
Some other companies make similar claims, although they side-step this technicality by saying that they don't contain any "harmful" chemicals. Other times they don't state it on their website, but will use the phrase in marketing photos to grab the reader's attention.
While the misuse of the term chemical-free doesn't necessarily mean that these companies' products don't work, it just means one of three things:
1. These products defy the laws of chemistry. Somehow. Marie Curie would be turning over in her grave, I'm sure.
2. The marketing teams for these companies do not understand basic science. I guess this is hard to believe, as we have to assume that to make these product formulations there had to be some kind of knowledge of chemistry involved.
or, more plausibly,
3. These companies are happy to make egregious claims that make absolutely no sense to the scientifically-literate in order to appeal to a certain group of people and sell their product.
I'm not sure which of these possibilities is worse, but since profit is important I am going to assume that the third possibility is most often true. After all, this basic chemistry is something we learn in high school. However, I do believe that there are people out there selling these types of products who truly do believe that their products are chemical-free.
So, why am I so sure that there's no such thing as a chemical-free beauty product?
Well, because I know there's no such thing as a chemical-free anything.
Everything is made of chemicals. A chemical is merely a substance, a form of matter that has constant chemical composition and characteristic properties. It can be solid, liquid, gas, or plasma. Anything made of atoms can be called a chemical, and although things like a rainbow or our thoughts are not chemicals - they can only exist because of chemicals and chemical reactions. Thus, most everything is a chemical.
Let me here quote one of my absolute favourite people - astronomer, cosmologist, astrophysicist, and astrobiologist - Carl Sagan:
“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies ...” (From the TV series COSMOS)
As you can see, we are literally made of chemicals, and so are our apple pies. Did you know that your apple pie isn't chemical-free? Did you know that you aren't chemical free?
And that's OK! Actually, it's more than just OK - it's normal, expected, necessary.
Chemicals are a good thing! Not only are they a good thing, we literally couldn't live without them! Two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom - the sine qua non of life.
(I'm sure I will be misquoted here and deliberately taken out of context by the "natural" movement community trying to prove I am a shill for Big Chemical). Let me be clear, some chemicals we consider to be "good" (like water), but when you're submerged in it, it's bad. Other chemicals that are good (like air), are harmless when submerged in it. Nobody dies from breathing air (unless that air has certain harmful chemicals in it, like carbon monoxide).
So! Whenever you buy any skin care product that advertises itself as chemical-free, it's exercising its company's gross misunderstanding of basic chemisry or dishonesty in selling products. Basically anything you can taste, smell or hold is made up of chemicals. This means that all of your personal care products and cosmetics ARE made out of chemicals, and thus, cannot be chemical-free. Anything that would be chemical-free wouldn't be made out of matter (and everything is matter ... or anti-matter), so ... it wouldn't exist. Do you see now why the term is silly?
And since everything is made of chemicals, I really really really (really) wish that people would stop misusing the term, when what they really mean is "chemicals-they-don't-like-free". Of course, though, I am not naive enough to believe that marketers truly all believe their products are "chemical-free". I understand what marketers are trying to say. They think that by saying that their cosmetics don’t contain any chemicals, people will understand that they mean “no synthetic chemicals”, or maybe just "no bad chemicals" (whatever that means). And herein lies the issue.
I think it's important that you know that "chemical" isn't a dirty word. Even synthetic chemical is not a dirty word.
Natural chemicals (or the "good" chemicals according to natural and organic advocates) are produced by nature without any human intervention. Synthetic chemicals are made by humans using methods different than those nature uses, and these chemical structures may or may not be found in nature. This definition means a synthetic chemical can be made from a natural product (i.e. naturally derived).
Unfortunately today the term "chemical" is misrepresented as only meaning synthetic, and it is considered an offensive word. There are websites and news stories dedicated to sharing the following message: “man-made is bad and natural is good”. The growing popularity of this belief shows that this subject is in dire need of clarification.
I can't count how many times I've gotten into a discussion (argument, I should say) with someone over their comments on synthetic and natural chemicals.
Let me give you an example.
Prominent public figure: "... they're gross due to being nothing but chemicals."
Me: "You're nothing but chemicals ... water is nothing but chemicals ... an apple is nothing but chemicals."
Prominent public figure: "Man made chemicals is what I was referring to. You know the kind that aren't good for you."
Me: "Man-made does not equal bad. Arsenic is natural but it is not good for you. Poison ivy is natural but it is not good for you. It's the dose that makes the poison. Even too much water can kill you (hyponatremia). Don't be afraid of synthetic chemicals just because it's synthetic. Be afraid of something, but with good reason and evidence."
Prominent public figure: "Man made does equal bad. Laboratory made stuff. We are discussing this why? Never mind I'm just going to opt out of this conversation now. Not enough time to do this."
Um, let me ask you this .. if a synthetic chemical were to be developed that could cure cancer - purely hypothetical - would you still be against it? Following this line of logic, this person would be - which only serves to undermine this line of thinking, as they don't even seem to care whether this synthetic chemical has been tested for safety. A logical person would ask for clinical studies proving its safety first before determining if they would support it. Charlatans would rather say "nope - chemkillz bad" with a complete lack of concern for whether or not there are even any studies.
(If you haven't read my post on pseudoscience, I suggest you do, as this tactic of shutting down via the presentation of an opposing opinion is common in pseudoscience).
So you can see I was completely brushed off because of personal biases, and unwillingness to learn and keep an open mind, and a preconceived idea that what is man made is automatically bad.
But man-made chemicals give you cancer, and are at the source of all illness!
Well, sure, they can be.
But some of the most toxic chemicals on Earth are "natural" chemicals.
Hmm. Betcha didn't know that, didja? Didja?
The two most toxic chemicals for humans that we know of are botulinum toxin and tetanospasmin. Botulism is caused by botulinum toxin, which is a protein and neurotoxin produced by bacteria spores. Tetanospasmin is a neurotoxin produced by bacteria that causes Tetanus. These are natural! NATURAL! The most toxic chemicals known to humans! The botulinum toxin is over a million times more toxic than all of the synthetic chemicals, except dioxin!
This point is summed up well by researchers in California who studied natural and synthetic chemicals in the human diet in 2001 and wrote, “Among the agents identified as human carcinogens by the International Agency for Research in Cancer 62% occur naturally: 16 are natural chemicals, 11 are mixtures of natural chemicals, and 10 are infectious agents. Thus, the idea that a chemical is “safe” because it is natural, is not correct” (Gold, Slone & Ames, 2001).
The idea that nature can harm us is not new, so why are we acting like it is? Have you never heard of malaria, botulism, HIV, tuberculosis or tetanus? Why are so many people convinced that all things natural are healthier for us, and anything synthetic is automatically dangerous?
It's true that modern chemistry has brought us toxic chemicals, like DDT and dioxins (nobody is denying this - in the quest for helpful things we sometimes go the wrong way), but do you really think that nature's chemicals are any less harmful to you?
However, some synthetic chemicals are actually safer for your health, and the environment, than "natural" chemicals. For example, synthetic melatonin supplements are considered safer, since naturally-derived melatonin, which comes from the pineal glands of animals, may contain viral material. Synthetic melatonin is molecularly exactly the same, and is much safer to take.
Not only that, but there is much evidence that natural pesticides allowed in organic farming are just as toxic as synthetic pesticides. Organic farming can still use naturally-derived pesticides - in fact, they can even use some synthetic pesticides too! If you don’t believe me feel free to peruse the USDA’s list of “Materials for Organic Crop Production”.
Not to mention, the chemical structure of a synthesized compound is also exactly the same as the natural compound it is supposed to supplement. Take the example of ascorbic acid, which is the primary form of Vitamin C. It will function the same in your body. This is true for most cases, however sometimes there are additional and unintended products. For example, naturally-derived Vitamin E is called d-α-tocopherol and synthetic Vitamin E is called dl-α -tocopherol. The difference between the two is that the “dl” refers to a mixture of both d- and l-α-tocopherol. There is no evidence that the “l” version is harmful to the human body at all, but it is about 1.4 times less effective than naturally-derived Vitamin E (Chopra & Bhagavan, 1999). Since this is a debated topic, it’s understandable that consumers may want to stick to natural sources of Vitamin E, but it does not mean that synthetic Vitamin E is toxic. Nor does it mean that synthetic forms of anything are automatically bad. That would require testing to determine.
With all of this being said, it's still important to actually know your chemicals (not just get scared off by long names you can't pronounce, or by ingredients shared between two (or many) very different things). Or at least be willing to research chemicals before passing opinion. We are still developing new synthetic chemicals and introducing them into our food and beauty products, and we don't always know what these chemicals do over a long period of time. Or, there are still chemicals in our products that we would prefer to leave out, for various reasons. It is of course true, then, that not all chemicals are good for us - even our sine qua non of life, water, H2O, dihydrogen monoxide, can kill us if we are exposed to too much, or in the wrong way.
This is the basis of the use of the word "chemicals" to mean only toxic and harmful, which comes from a good place, but is then used and abused by the misinformed public.
The bottom line is that each and every chemical, or class of chemicals, must be considered on a case by case basis. This means we need to be educated and informed, and willing to dig into the scientific literature on an individual basis. Unfortunately, the number of useful and accessible resources for consumers is limited, and the majority of the “information” on the internet and in the news is unreferenced (why people don't have a problem with uncited information is beyond me).
The biological activity of a chemical is a function of its structure rather than its origin. The biological properties, especially safety, of a chemical depend on its structure and the way in which the chemical is used (i.e. exposure), and perceived risks are not always consistent with actual risks (Coats, 1994).
So that means that there are certain things we should still avoid in our skin care products, the so-called harmful, or at least undesirable, chemicals.
If you're looking for a reason why we should avoid certain ingredients, as well as a list of ingredients that you may want to avoid in building your beauty routine, check out my blog post on Skin Care Ingredients to Avoid.
On the other hand, there are some scary-sounding chemicals you might come across in your skin care proucts that aren't actually scary.
What do these sound like to you?
1. Citronellol, phenyl ethanol, nerol and geraniol, farnesol, stearpoten, and traces of nonanal, nonanol, linalool, phenylacetaldehyde, carvone, citral, and citrene.
Chemical cocktail, or ... rose essential oil? But wait, isn't rose essential oil natural?
2. Dipotassium Glycyrrhizate
The word is long, it's hard to pronounce, and it certainly looks intimidating. Yet, this is a chemical that is isolated from licorice plants commonly used as a skin conditioning and soothing agent in sensitive skin products. Licorice!
What in the Sam Hill is this? Try and say this once normally, nevermind three times. And if you can, I want audio evidence. Tetrahydrodiferuloylmethane is a big scary chemical that is actually just a derivative of turmeric used as a skin-whitening ingredient, and sometimes seen as an antioxidant, in cosmetics and personal care products, especially in anti-aging formulas. Turmeric is fudging awesome - I wrote about it in my book. And it's not scary at all. Unless you're scared of Indian food, I guess.
4. Caprylyl Capryl Glucoside (and/or Lauryl Glucoside)
Wow, do these names just keep getting longer, or what? If I had to base a chemical's danger on how hard it was to pronounce, this would be at the top of the list of carcinogens. And yet, it isn't. In fact, it has a “zero” hazard rating on the Skin Deep Database. This chemical is actually a safer alternative to regular harsh sulfates, which are typically used in cleansers to make the formula foam up. This chemical is formed in the lab by blending alcohols with some simple sugars. The raw materials come from vegetables or coconut. Are you scared of coconuts? I know I'm not.
Well, that wasn't so bad and scary, was it?
Now that we've established not all long-named chemicals are bad chemicals (and not all chemicals are bad chemicals, either), why do people get scared off by long chemical names?
It's called processing fluency. We trust things that sound and look familiar, words that we can easily pronounce. Many chemical terms come from the Greek, with a lot of harsh-sounding vowels and consonants mixed that sound scary. But something like “rose oil” or "licorice" sounds safe — because you know what these things are. But you see how when I use chemicals, you no longer are familiar with them? If many modern chemicals were known by a common phrase, we wouldn't cower from them, would we? Water is a common phrase, but dihydrogen monoxide is not. Water sounds safe and friendly, dihydrogen monoxide does not. That’s processing fluency.
In psychology, a heuristic is an easy-to-compute procedure or "rule of thumb" that people use when forming beliefs, judgments or decisions. Humans have a broad tendency to favor the familiar over the unfamiliar.
Not to mention the general public knows so little about chemistry, and so they are even more prone to this processing fluency.
Remember - we need chemicals to live, synthetic chemicals are not the devil, and most chemicals are actually pretty amazing. Take a brief moment to look around and appreciate the fact that everything around you is made of chemicals, from your reusable water bottle to your wood table, to the socks on your feet. All of these objects you are able to see are due to these chemicals absorbing light; the things you can smell (the dog at your feet, dinner in the oven) are the result of chemicals binding to your olfactory receptors. It is the chemical signals in your body that allows you to sense these things.
Chemicals deserve appreciation, or at least the respect of learning about them (after all, you wouldn't exist without them, so the least you could do is be informed). Both natural and synthetic chemicals need to be considered on a case by case basis for our personal health, whether it’s in our cosmetics, in a drug, a food additive, or in the pesticides being used on our crops. Whether or not you want to admit it, chemicals are our friends.
And remember, just because you can't pronounce something, something is synthetic, or you don't know what a chemical is, doesn't mean it's bad.
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