“Chemical Free” Is Not A Real Thing And Chemophobia Is Making People Stupid

“Chemical free” is a term made up by some marketing person to scare you.
Publish date:
April 24, 2013
makeup, science, chemicals, parabens

Guys, “chemical free” is not a thing. It is, in fact, physically impossible. I have seen it used to describe facials, bread, make-up, and house cleaners. I have seen it on beauty blogs. I have seen it on Facebook. I have seen it on Pinterest. I am tired of seeing it and I am tired of hearing it.

It is simply not possible for something to be free of chemicals. Water is a chemical. Air is made up of many chemicals. We ourselves are walking, breathing, pooping bags of chemicals. Cleaning your counters with vinegar is cleaning your counters with acid. Brushing your teeth with baking soda is brushing your teeth with sodium bicarbonate. You cannot escape chemicals. They are everywhere and you cannot exist without them. So.

Disclaimer: I wrote this before I saw this article written by Louise, who is awsome. I am not trying to throw shade on Louise. I have no problem with people using baking soda or vinegar to clean their abodes, I just have a problem with them calling it "chemical free," which Louise does not do.

I hope I’m not being a bossy condescending whatever. I’m really sorry if I am, but I find the demonizing of chemicals deeply disturbing. When all chemicals are lumped into the same category, the world becomes an unnecessarily scary place. I’m not saying that none of them are scary. I’ve inhaled thionyl chloride and I thought my lungs were going to crawl out of my burning nose. It was a yet another case of “You know better, asshole” but I only needed 10 mL, so I thought I could just pour it really quickly outside of the fume hood and everything would be fiiiiiine. Thionyl chloride is used in nerve gas so everything was not fine.


“Chemical free” is a term made up by some marketing person to scare you. Yes, there is a difference between chemicals that are naturally derived and chemicals that are synthesized in a lab, but this phrase is meaningless. Just because something is naturally derived, aka “all natural,” does not mean it won’t ruin you. You could derive enough arsenic from organic (or non-organic) almonds to kill someone if you wanted to.

My main problem with these misleading terms is that it creates a culture of chemophobia. This fear of chemicals promotes knee-jerk reactions that lead to people panicking before they gather the facts. Two Florida (of course it’s Florida) DJs recently faced felony charges for an April Fool’s joke in which they told their listeners that dihydrogen monoxide was spewing from their taps, causing wide-spread hysteria.

This is a little stupid, because dihydrogen monoxide is water. Do I expect everyone to know that? No. Do I expect people to use Google to substantiate their fears before losing their shit when listening to radio DJs on April Fool’s day? Yeah, I do.

I’m not quite sure what reaction these two were going for with their prank, but for Val St. John and Scott Fish to face felony charges for making a joke that high school chemistry teachers have been making since probably Linus Pauling is silly (these charges have been dropped). But, this is example is pretty telling of how our society reacts to chemicals as a whole. Because we are continuously inundated with information about “harmful chemicals” and “known carcinogens,” we have been conditioned into thinking that all chemicals (especially synthetic ones) are bad.

I’m not telling you to trust chemical or food companies. They’re not necessarily lying to you, but they are concerned first and foremost with selling products.

Are there chemicals in cosmetics and food that can give you cancer? Probably. Maybe. I don’t know. Do some research. Google the shit out of ingredients lists. BUT, don’t be blindly afraid of chemicals because they have really chemically sounding names or are synthetically created. Some synthetic things are awesome. Penicillin is a great example. It saves lives and calms your gonorrhea so YAY SCIENCE. Beer is synthetic (check and mate). When you are baking, you are performing synthetic chemistry, and it tastes goooood.

My main point is this: Do your own research. Understand what you are putting in and on your body. Or, if you give no fucks, don’t. But don’t get your information from fear-mongering blogs and misleading marketing campaigns.

Anything can be presented in a way that makes it scary. Make sure you are getting your information from a source that has documented scientific data to back it up. If a blog mentions a “study,” and then offers no link to the actual study, it’s probably not a very good study. The only way you can really know if something is going to harm you or not is by understanding the actual science related to it.

About those terrible chemicals in my cosmetics: There are some in there. I am probably not as concerned as I should be, because I’m a really dangerous person (see above nerve gas encounter) and because I’m really lazy. There are, however, a few that worry me. I will discuss them now.

DISCLAIMER: This is in no way a complete list of all potentially harmful chemicals used by the cosmetics industry. I am also not telling you what you should put in/on your body. Everyone do their own research and make their own informed decisions.

1. Parabens

“Paraben Free” is a beauty buzz phrase right now. I’m only slightly concerned about them. They are used to prevent bacteria and mold growth in products (this is very important to me) that contain water (AKA everything) and they look like this:

But there has been a lot of talk about parabens and breast cancer. A study done in 2004 found parabens (mostly methyl paraben) were present in the human breast tumors. A stronger link hasn’t been established, just because they’re there doesn’t mean they’re causing cancer (correlation does not imply causation), but they could be. Methyl paraben is also found in blueberries, so that’s interesting.

My favorite paraben-free product is THIS DEODERETTE.

It is so cute and small I can just throw it in my purse and it doesn’t LOOK like deodorant. I am trying to phase out my anti-perspirant, but it just started to get sweltering, so we’ll see how that goes. This little thing does keep me from stinking though. The only downside it that I keep sniffing my armpits like a freak.

2. Phthalates.

These jerks are in a lot of things, like PVC pipe. They look like this:

It would appear that these are being phased out (first in Europe, now in the US) as they are Not Good For You. They have been linked to cancer and birth defects. There are a lot of interesting journal articles out there covering phthalates, but I found this piece released by the European Commission to be fairly accessible. When I looked at the FDA’s website they were all “It’s fiiiiiiine, guys” so I gave them the side eye.

This is one I’m going to start checking for more thoroughly, since my face is not PVC pipe. I already use phthalate-free nail polish, so that’s one down! Other substances that are easily avoidable in nail polishes are toluene and formaldehyde.

A note on Wikipedia: You will notice that a few of the hyperlinks I use direct you to Wikipedia, though often maligned by the scientific community, I have found Wikipedia to be a much more reliable source since its inception. There are usually enough scholarly sources listed for me to feel comfortable referring to them.

3. Fragrances/perfume/purfum:

Perfumes are not necessarily bad for you, but they are “trade secrets” which means companies don’t have to tell you what they are composed of. This actually concerns me the most, as it means I can’t find out what I’m putting on my body. On ingredients lists, you will often see “perfume” or “frangrance” listed as an ingredient, but that can be composed of many other ingredients. It’s fucking tricky.

Does this mean that companies are hiding carcinogens in their fragrances? Not necessarily, they really could just be trying to protect their special blend of smells, but it bugs me that I can’t know for sure. Some companies will tell you what’s not in their fragrance (my deoderette is phthalate free), but they don’t have to.

One way to combat this would be to purchase unscented products and add your own essential oils. I thought about doing this, but I REALLY LIKE the way some products smell, so I guess I’ll just have to live with not knowing exactly what makes Lush’s Olive Branch body wash smell like magic.

Do your own research. Since these are products you will be using on your face, your children, your body, your kitchen counters, you are the final decision maker in this process. Don’t just trust a company’s image. In this Internet age, you can find out almost anything, so Google.

I hope you guys found this helpful, educational, and not too irate/condescending. If you did not, please look at this picture of Angie in a seersucker dress: