Chemical Free Crazies

“Did you just hit yourself in the face with the newspaper?” my husband asked me.

We were sharing a quiet moment (teenage sons yet asleep) with coffee, a dozing labrador, and the Sunday New York Times.  Quiet, anyway, until the thwacking sound.

I was idly browsing a story about a trendy cosmetics company when – in the very first paragraph – I read this phrase: “a line of chemical-free mineral powders.” Whereupon, I smacked myself in the face with the Style section.

“Can you believe this?” I demanded. “How can anyone use chemical-free and mineral in the same sentence? Can you believe…”

I don’t know why it is but he suddenly felt the need to leave the room for another cup of coffee. Of course, everyone in my family has heard me out before (okay, maybe, many times) on the complete wrongness of the term chemical-free.

Why do I harangue my family, and just about anyone else who will listen, on this subject? Well – just in case you haven’t heard me say this before – I do understand that the phrase is just an advertising gimmick, implying a product’s freedom from mysterious but toxic industrial chemicals. I also understand that it’s basically ridiculous since everything, and I do mean everything including ourselves, is, in fact, composed of chemical compounds.

Photo credit: Carmen Drahl

From that perspective, consider also this picture of a sign in Princeton, N.J. kindly shared with me by Carmen Drahl, an associate editor at Chemical & Engineering News. One would think “chemical-free” bug spray couldn’t be written with a straight face, especially in a highly-educated community. But, this is after all a world, in which I get 44 million hits on Google when I type in the phrase, concerning everything from chemical-free mattresses to chemical free chicken. Not to mention the fact that one of our country’s leading newspapers just happily printed the rather hilarious phrase”chemical free minerals” in a straight-faced kind of manner.

But to finish answering my earlier question – why do I think this is an issue worth repeating to the point that my family flees the room. Because, unfortunately, our careless promotion of  “chemical-free” contributes to public misunderstanding of the chemical-everything nature of our world. It plays to overwrought fears, making “chemical” synonymous with “evil.” And by doing so, it cheats people of a real appreciation of the wonderfully complex, beautiful and fundamental chemical design by which our universe exists.

Just can’t say that often enough, actually. And so that, folks, is why I smacked myself in the face with a newspaper this morning.  And why I decided that exchanging the Style section for the comics would be a less painful way to finish off the day. In more ways than one.

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31 Responses to Chemical Free Crazies

  1. Mary says:

    Good thing you weren’t reading it online. Woulda hurt even more. Excellent rant though, and totally correct.

    But what can we do (besides reading comics instead)? Seriously? That effort by the Brits to challenge claims like that on signs in an organized way–Nightingale Collaboration–is very cool. It’s so constructive. Can we do something like this?

  2. Deborah Blum says:

    Had to laugh because I thought that too – so glad I didn’t smack myself with the laptop! But as to the more serious question, my own plan is to continue pushing back publicly and try to get publications like the NYT to quit spreading this gospel in news stories. Interestingly, Wikipedia has a very careful definition of chemical-free:

  3. Gaythia says:

    Personally, I very much appreciate having you fully engaged in this battle. I used you as a reference in comment #6 in Andrew Maynards 2020 Science post below:

    Now don’t thwack yourself, but the Friends of the Earth sunscreen guide referenced in the post below contained: ” a list of sunscreens that are “nano and chemical free”.

    Read more:

    Earlier in the comment thread, a FOE representative unhelpfully explained to my challenge of the chemical free claim: “I understand Gaythia’s comments above on the confusion possible from describing sunscreens as “chemical-free”, however it is common to use the language of “mineral/ physical UV blocker” compared to “chemical UV absorber” to distinguish between these different types of active ingredients in sunscreens. Our guide specifically lists the active chemical ingredients (and fragrances) that we asked companies about in relation to the “chemical-free” claims.”

    That’s when I decided they needed to read your previous post on this subject.

    Keep up the good work!

  4. Andrew says:

    I know this might be shocking to some, but words often have more than one definition and can be used in more than one way. Sciency use a definition like, “a substance (as an element or chemical compound.”

    While other people may use a definition more like: “any substance used in or resulting from a reaction involving changes to atoms or molecules, especially one derived artificially for practical use”

    The second definition indicates artificial as an attribute, as in created through technological techniques. Just because you learned a particular definition does not mean that everyone uses the same one. Effective communication relies on the ability to take in to account the in-preciseness of language, and the variety of usage.

  5. Hi.

    This argument between chemists and basically the rest of the world is starting to grow old. Someone (I unfortunately forgot who, but it might be the French philosopher Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent) pointed out that, even though it is really annoying for us chemists to hear “chemical-free”, fighting against its usage might actually be counter productive.

    The point is that, even if it is incorrect and misleading, it has the meanings of laboratory-made or factory-made products, to be opposed with mother-nature-made products.
    As chemists, we are fighting to correct this common misconception since WWII and the obvious results is that it does not work.
    Most of the world population (including developed-country citizen) are devoid of a basic scientific education, and such binary opposition seems relevant to them. Arguing that “all is chemical” directly goes against this common understanding of the meaning of the word “chemical” and thus is not convincing.
    What is behind is that these people are afraid of chemistry. They don’t see the benefits any more, only the occasional mass-poisoning caused by a chemical leakage of a suddenly-discovered secondary effects of a mainstream drug.

    We have to make them realize (or to remember) that “natural” compounds are often toxic too, that organic stuff can be harmful as well. It does not need a lot of education, just some old case citations (food poisoning by parasites (the Salem Witches story), water poisoning by rocks (arsenic poisoning from your really nice post of today), air poisoning (indoor by radon, by molds, outdoor by CO2 (lake Nyos) or by sulphur from volcanoes), etc.).
    I think it could be more efficient to fight against the root of the problem.

    But I agree, this is really annoying.

  6. Gaythia says:

    In my opinion, effective communication is about getting the correct message across. Therefore, being precise matters. The importance of highlighting the incorrectness of the term “chemical free” , as Deborah Blum does here, is that there is no real distinction between a chemical produced in nature or by “technological techniques”. They could be exactly the same thing. If it is meant that chemicals in a product are extracted from plant or animal sources rather than synthesized from petroleum based feedstock in a laboratory, some version of that is what should be said.

    Helping people understand that it is the actual ingredients that affect safety and not the source of the material, is an important educational message. Additionally, as in the sunscreen work I referenced above, the particle size of the ingredients could be important. Or how and where they the products are used. Should they be ingested? inhaled? near the eyes?

    Deborah, I suggest a future post on the history and hazards of minerals in cosmetics. This could obviously include such things as talcum powder or minerals containing lead, arsenic or mercury. (Actually, you pretty much have arsenic amply covered). People need to understand that just because minerals can occur in rocks and rocks are obviously natural, that doesn’t make indiscriminately grinding them up and smearing them on your face necessarily a great idea.

  7. Carmen says:

    Thanks for the shout out, Deborah. I agree with Vivien’s statement- it’s just as important to help folks understand that “natural” is not automatically safer or better than “synthetic”. Finally, folks who haven’t seen it yet should check out Mary Carmichael’s Tumblr, where she’s pooling pictures of products that erroneously claim “chemical free” status.

  8. I hear in my head my freshman science prof at university, who would growl (in a basso Rhode Island honk): “Artificial additives? There are no such things as artificial additives! Additives are chemicals! Chemicals come from nature! There are only NATURAL additives!!”

  9. Matt says:

    I appreciate the use of language and the difficulty in effective communication when it comes to scientific terms.

    … However – an understanding of what is and is not a chemical is such a fundamental and basic thing. Even if someone has no interest in chemistry or material science or any sort of biology, it is not unreasonable to expect people to know that: our bodies are made of cells and those cells are made of chemicals, or that rock outside is a big pile of chemicals, or this keyboard that I’m punching right now is just a collection of chemicals. I argue that this definition is so fundamental, that without its acceptance it is impossible to move forward to more advanced conversations such as – “risk associated with toxic chemicals”, “benefits and pitfalls of a new chemical process”, “carbon dioxide must not be harmful because it’s natural”. If we can’t accept this definition, we are going to be stuck pointlessly arguing over what does and does not constitute a chemical for years to come. The least we can expect is for journalists and their editors to hold themselves to several very-standard definitions when it comes to terms of science. The example that Deborah shared with us in her post is especially disappointing considering the high standards that the NYT places upon itself.

  10. I feel I should add my tuppence worth here as Gaythia kindly mentioned the Australian sunscreen blog above, and there may just have been a tad of confusion with some readers thinking the @Andrew above is me – it isn’t!

    First, I think @Matt makes an important point that, while many words are used in different ways – and there few legal restrictions on doing this – using words that have a very clear meaning is at best misleading, and at worst disingenuous. The use of “chemical free” is at times both. What it doesn’t do is engender effective communication.

    However, I have to agree with @Andrew that from the science community’s side, we need to look beyond getting irritated by a misuse of what we consider our language, and both be big enough to realize we don’t own the language, and more importantly deep enough to look beyond the words to the meaning/concerns that are behind them. It’s sometimes tempting to ridicule people who abuse certain terms and leave it at that. But the underlying issues are real ones, that do need to be addressed. And the science community are far from innocent when it comes to abusing terms – dare I mention “illiteracy”?

  11. Andrew B says:

    Nice to see more public corrections of the whole chemophobia commercialisation. Also nice to see someone else has the same family dynamics! As I say to anyone who will listen “Almost everything almost everyone believes about almost all chemicals is almost all wrong” I have been a regulatory toxicologist for 20 years and have never seen anyone made sick by pesticides in food when used legally but have seen hundreds hsopitalised and dozens killed by microbial contamination the latest in “organic” bean sprouts in Germany. I’ll take the risks of sanitsiers and preservatives over EHEC E.coli any day.

  12. I would like to address the view expressed that while all the points made are valid it has proven to be a waste of time since WWII to try and explain to the general public the correct attitude regarding chemicals. While I disagree with this perspective, no matter the circumstances, I would have to say that the conclusion was entirely correct….as of about ten years ago. The world has changed radically since then because of the internet.

    Prior to that time just about everyone got all of their information from the newspapers, news magazines and television news shows. Time (no pun intended) has shown that those were remarkably poor sources of information, unless one believes that biases, lies of omission and propaganda constitute valid information.

    As an exterminator I am up close and personal with chemicals and the people whose homes and businesses I service. I can tell you that the view about “chemical free” and “toxic” is changing, at least in the lands of normalcy known as the Midwest. This is the time to make every effort to educate the public. They are ready and willing to get the correct information on virtually everything. The climate is right because the old media has lost the confidence of much of the public and those who are abandoning them are growing daily. Except on the East and West coasts. Those are the fever swamps where drinking the (chemical free) Kool-Aid is a communal requirement.

  13. Speaking of the New York Times, ping!

    I had no idea you journalists were so lazy and undedicated.

  14. Mengfei Chen says:

    So true. You know what else bugs me: partial zero emission vehicles. How can people even say/write that with a straight face?

  15. Mengfei Chen says:

    *You know what else bugs me?

  16. Gaythia says:

    Julia Diebol has a post on the University of Michigan risk science blog, giving an analysis of human evaluation of risk and “when is a chemical not a chemical” that is very pertinent to this thread. This can be found here:

    I think that this ties also ties into the link given by Isis the scientist in her comment above in which she exposes the false tendency to view scientists and physicians as part of a “noble priesthood” .

    I think that it is important to acknowledge people’s unease with things that seem unnatural and new and seek ways that we all can have a conversation about our common interest in health, safety and genuine risk reduction.

    I believe that this can be done in a balanced way. We don’t have to be “drinking the (chemical free) Kool-Aid” as one commenter above described it. Nor should we assume that our legal regulatory system (and our understanding of the underlying science) is so efficient that we can generally safely rely on statements such as that given by another commenter that has “never seen anyone made sick by pesticides in food when used legally” .

    How do we get to the point where we can have a inclusive, knowledgable and sensible conversation about the benefits and risks of chemistry?

  17. @MarynMcKenna
    Hang on, there are artificial additives. Some additives you won’t be able to find by trawling through soil and crushing up insects. These don’t exist in nature. They are artificial. So your freshman science prof wasn’t correct.

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  19. chall says:

    Sounds like the old (?) advert slogan “It’s natural and therefore totally harmless” – hello cyanide, completely harmless… as all the spiders etc of course 😉

    It’s something in that word “chemical” and “natural” that makes an image of “evil” and “good”, when it really could be quite the opposite. I’m looking forward seeing if/when you write something in regards to this and maybe add some examples for easy understanding.

  20. Deborah Blum says:

    Ha, ha. That was written by a doctor. See my brilliant comment on your blog.

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  25. TZebo says:

    There seems to be a presumption that the users of this phrase, chemical free, actually understand what they are saying. So, my take-home message when you get 44 million Google hits is the synergy between the users of the phrase and the acceptance of the phrase by those consuming it. If there was a critical mass of consumers and writers who are sufficently offended by this oxymoron, it would fall out of use faster than you can say “cold fusion.”

    Writing advertising claims is not about making sense or, perish the thought, being accurate. It’s about selling. “Chemical free” sells, and, my friends, it’s not going away.

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