Article by: Perry Romanowski

The claim “chemical free” really bugs me and I really wish marketers, the media, and everyone else would stop using it. Almost nothing is “chemical free”!!

My latest irritation with the claim was from an article published on the Times Free Press website entitled Chemical free ways to clean your home. Further reading of the article has the author recommending “chemical free” products like Vinegar, Salt, Baking Soda, Lemon Juice and Castile Soap.

What!?

Has this reporter ever taken a chemistry class?

Vinegar is Acetic Acid…a chemical
Kosher salt is Sodium Chloride…a chemical
Baking soda is Sodium Bicarbonate…a chemical
Lemon Juice is mostly Citric Acid…another chemical

Ugh!

Why, why, why would someone publish such nonsense? What do they even mean when they say “chemical free”? It certainly can’t literally mean chemical free.

Incidious Chemical Free

My complaints about chemical free are more than just semantics. This incidious claim has a number of negatives associated with it. And these will be problems for cosmetic chemists and formulators who want to produce safe, functional, and excellent products. Here are the primary problems with chemical free.

1. Chemical free is inaccurate. Almost nothing is chemical free. All matter is made up of chemicals (elements). And all products are made up of matter. Water is a chemical (2 parts Hydrogen, 1 part Oxygen). Vinegar is a chemical. The only things that are not chemical are things like light, electricity, magnetism, or subatomic particles. These are unlikely to be the composition of your “chemical free” cosmetic or cleaning product.

2. Chemical free is deceptive and misleading. This is the most significant problem with the chemical free claim. It is used when the marketer wants to say “this product is safer than other products”. The implication is that “chemical free” products are more safe than “chemical containing” products. Of course, since every product contains chemicals the claim is a lie. The implication that a “chemical free” product is safer is also a lie. “Chemical free” cosmetics are not demonstrably safer than ones that don’t claim “chemical free”. It’s a lie! Consumers are being duped. I don’t know why these claims are allowed, especially when they are false advertising.

Consumers deserve accuracy in advertising and they should not be lied to. There is no such thing as a chemical free cosmetic and these claims of “chemical free” sunscreens are complete fabrications!

If you have any ability to stamp out this chemical free nonsense at your company, I encourage you to do it. These claims are spreading scientific ignorance and leading to the errosion of critical thinking among the general population.

There really should be a law or at the very least, people who make innacurate “chemical free” claims should be publicly flogged. Metaphorically of course.

17 comments

  1. Treza

    Just wondering why some products are advertised as chemical free

    1. Perry Romanowski

      Because people buy them.

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    1. Perry

      Excellent link!

  6. Leigh

    How are the synthetic chemical free products just as safe as the natural products? For example, I’ve heard of a facial scrub made of sugar, green tea, and apple cider vinegar, to get rid of scars and black heads. When comparing the homemade facial scrub to one on the shelves like a nuetrogena one, with synthetic chemicals, is one of them safer than the other?

    1. Perry

      This is a good question.

      There are lots of products for sale but this doesn’t mean they really work. A facial scrub with those natural ingredients may feel good and imply that it will get rid of scars and black heads, but that doesn’t mean it will. Most likely, it won’t. You will have a much better chance of finding a product that works if it was produced by a big cosmetic company (they have scientists that conduct extensive research) than if it is produced by a small, all-natural company.

      And as far as safety goes, if you are buying the product from a reputable company, they will have done safety testing and either product will be safe. There is nothing inherently safer about natural products than synthetic ones. In fact, a good argument can be made that synthetic containing products are more safe than natural ones. Here’s how…

      Natural products are produced from plants that are grown outside. These plants are exposed to environmental pollutants (like lead), bacteria, mold, and other microbes that can contaminate them with toxins. During the harvesting process the equipment may be contaminated. Add to that the fact that the complete chemical composition of natural ingredients is unknown. There could be carcinogenic compounds in trace amounts naturally in the ingredient. For example, every apple contains a small amount of arsenic (a poison). Producers of natural raw materials are not required to analyze and remove any potential carcinogens from their natural ingredients.

      Synthetic ingredients on the other hand are required to be more “pure”. They are not made up of hundreds or thousands of unknown chemicals. They are made up of a small number of known compounds. There is no chance of microbial contamination, residual levels of contaminants is removed and overall, raw material suppliers know exactly what is in the product. The synthetic ingredients have been tested and scientists know their safety profile. This hasn’t been done with most natural extracts.

      So, in this way synthetic containing products are quite likely more safe than natural ones. Although, they are both safe.

  7. Ria

    Well said! I hate this chemical-free nonsense. The other day, my mum was going on about the benefits of her skincare because it was chemical free… I tried explaining why, but it didn’t work… *sigh* It’s a bit hard explaining science stuff to her, especially since she’s much older and from a generation that didn’t learn much science.

    And I’ve heard so many sales pitches going: “chemical-free” this, “paraben-free” this, “mineral oil-free” this, etc. It frustrates me to no end. I just want to walk away when I hear this, but common courtesy prevents me from doing this, so… I just tune out, ha.

    Just wondering though, from a formulary point-of-view, what’s the difference between deionised water and distilled water in a product? I’ve seen many skincare products with the later or former, but have no idea why. Would you be able to enlighten me?

    1. Perry

      Products that list deionised water or distilled water are mislabeling their products. The only proper label is Water (or Aqua depending on the country you are in). There is no application difference between the two types of water. You would not be able to tell a difference in performance. It is more of a practical difference. Some production plants have filters in which they can run the water to deionize it. Others just buy distilled water.

  8. Tara

    I obviously agree with your points, I am just thinking that the marketing term “chemical free” is a way to convey to the layperson consumer that the product is “synthetic chemical free”. Mostly that is the way cosmetic/toiletry industry is being driven, as I am sure we all know by now. The goal is to sell products, and if the “natural-sounding” products sell better, that is what companies are going to strive to create and market their products as, as annoying as it may be to the chemists behind the formulations 😉

    1. Perry

      You’re right that it probably helps some companies sell product. It’s just that it is a lie and selling products by lying seems unethical to me.

      And the problem is that it is both a literal lie (there is no such thing as a chemical free product) but it is also an implicit lie (synthetic chemical free products are not safer).

  9. Eliza

    It’s one of my pet peeves as well, Perry!
    I still wonder why big boys like L’Oreal or P&G haven’t sued such false claim-making companies yet (with the help of FDA).

    1. Perry

      Probably because they don’t see companies who do this as real competition (and they aren’t). It’s almost always smaller brands that make claims like these.

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