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Rethinking 'chemical-free' products & the need for science communication

Written by Holly Kershaw on July 17th, 2011.      0 comments

Chemical free food? Really? Please explain...

I get irritated when I go shopping. More and more scientific jargon appears to be making its way onto the labels of products, and in many cases it is misused and doesn’t make sense. I’m a scientist, I use jargon all the time and I don’t have any problem with it when it is used appropriately and is adequately explained. However, I do have a problem when it is misused and becomes misleading. Manufacturers of cosmetics are one of the worst offenders. Chemical-free mineral makeup? I’m certain that it is not possible. The labelling of anything as chemical-free is misleading. Let me explain why.

I define a chemical as something made up of elements found on the Periodic Table. It is actually easier to define what isn’t a chemical rather than what is – protons, neutrons and electrons, and not much else. Water is a chemical (dihydrogen oxide), caffeine is a chemical, the plastic that your computer is made from is a chemical. My point is that chemicals are everywhere, and they are unavoidable. The issue is that the word chemical has become synonymous with poison, and there is a perception that they are best avoided altogether. The promotion of products as chemical-free doesn’t help.

There are many substances that are dangerous in small quantities, and these are the chemicals that people should be wary of. I’m fairly sure that these are what is being referred to when products are labelled as “chemical-free.” There is a problem with this, because the products are not chemical free. They might be free of harmful chemicals. They might be free of smelly chemicals. They might be free of blue- coloured chemicals. But they are definitely not free of all chemicals.

I chose the case of mineral makeup to make this point because minerals themselves are most certainly chemicals. Minerals have the properties that they have because of their defined chemical structures. My understanding is that that mineral-based cosmetics are free of nanoparticles, preservatives, and scents which can be harmful and which can irritate sensitive skin. They are probably also free of synthetic chemicals – that is, chemicals that are created in a laboratory, rather than extracted from naturally occurring sources (having said this, synthetic chemicals are exactly the same as their natural counterparts – they’re just obtained from a different source).

The problem here is communication. Somewhere along the line, dangerous chemicals began to be referred to as just chemicals – tarnishing the reputation of chemicals everywhere. You can’t label something as “low-fat” or “low-GI” unless it meets very specific criteria, but you can label something that is obviously full of chemicals as “chemical-free.” Chemicals also have a tough time when it comes to “natural” products.

I read a blog post about sunscreen that said that most sunscreens, even those that claim to be natural, are full of chemicals. This is another case where scientific jargon is incorrectly used, and leads to misleading claims. The writer of the article obviously has their understanding of the chemical nature of matter confused. They say that anything that sounds like a chemical is best avoided – and then cite ethylhexyl palmitate as an example of a chemical that should not be in a “natural” sunscreen. The problem? Ethylhexyl palmitate is extracted from palm oil. Everything has a chemical name, because everything is a chemical- a name is no reason to avoid certain products.

This is a case of very bad scientific communication. When using scientific jargon to make a point, it is important to take into account all factors and adequately explain the reason for a claim. The author of the sunscreen article selectively uses names of products that, admittedly, do sound a bit scary – but neglects that the source of those ingredients is a very natural one. Additionally, chemical-free cosmetics would be better described as free of toxic/dangerous/harmful chemicals, rather than entirely free of chemicals.

The perception of all chemicals as dangerous is not a good thing. There needs to be better communication about the use of harmful chemicals and why we should be wary of them, rather than the development of a mindset where chemicals are best avoided all together, because this is impossible.

Bye for now!


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